Edinburgh diary: No sleep 'til September

Nicky Woolf navigates day four of the Fringe.

August 11. Day four. 

The Edinburgh festival, for both performers and punters – and reviewers; anyone, in fact, who is planning on going up for a serious length of time – is a marathon, not a sprint. If Glastonbury is the Usain Bolt of festivals, Edinburgh is Mo Farah.

I'm sorry. That was a tragically tenuous metaphor, I know. Farah isn't even a marathon runner. But as I write the closing ceremony is just starting, Twitter is full of Olympic pride and I feel I ought to get into the spirit a little. Twenty-nine golds! The most successful British showing in more than a century! Wonderful.

OK, it's out of my system now.

Anyway. It is seductively easy up here at the Fringe to end up, ahem, sprinting nonetheless. There is an embarrassment of riches on offer here – live music, comedy revues, dance, theatre, and endless bars and clubs – and they go on all through the day and the night. Most people get strung out at some point along the way, and usually it happens about now, half-way through the month; performers have been rehearsing, performing and promoting their shows non-stop for more than a fortnight now, and it begins to take its toll. This phenomenon is called Fringe Fatigue.

Conrad Sharp, 32, is a cast member of Enfants Terribles' The Trench. “I'm exhausted,” he tells me. “We're doing a show in the day, with warm-up and notes before that, then we're handing out flyers all afternoon, then after that we fix all the props – and then you go out all night to blow off a little steam, you know.”

Edinburgh during the festival is a truly 24-hour party city. The Penny Black, the first pub to open, does so exactly five minutes after the last one closes, at seven in the morning. There is always a queue of people outside; several times, I have been among them.

“...Then you get up the next morning and do it all again,” says Sharp. “It's pretty full-on.” I ask how much sleep he thinks he gets, on average. “Ooh. Four hours, maybe? Five? And I'm sharing a room with another cast member, so of course we come in at all different hours.”

That punishing schedule is not limited to August for performers. “We arrived on the 1st, but we were rehearsing eight hours a day for four weeks before then. Because it's a brand new play, there was lots of devising, trying to figure out how it was going to work.”

It's not just performers who burn the candle at both ends. Lauren Archer, 18, is a reviewer for Twitter-based review site Fringebiscuit. She is asleep on a table in a café in the Pleasance when I see her. I ask if she's tired, and she laughs, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Ha! Oh yes. I don't think I've got more than four hours sleep since I got here on the first. Everyone is properly tired, dead out by now.”

“I haven't slept since July,” says comedian David Mills. “Sleep? No sleep.” He pauses. “Seriously, though, I see this as work. I'm trying not to let the fatigue get to me. It's like boot camp. This is training for comics. You smash one, then you fail the next one, then you fail, then you smash one, then you fail, then you smash another night. It's a gauntlet. I'm trying to stay focussed and committed.”

“There's a lot to distract you up here,” he goes on. “The problem with playing hard is that it makes it difficult to work hard.”

Boundless energy: the inSTEP group. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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