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Mud, mud, glorious Glastonbury mud: why Laurie Penny's not working pro-Bono

Bono should find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill he owes.

By the time you read this, I will be up to my navel in slurry. When I was first offered a pass to the Glastonbury Festival, I hesitated. I am not one of nature's happy campers. My idea of fun does not involve standing around in freezing sludge for four days with nowhere to plug in my laptop. It's going to be worth it, though, just for the chance to see Bono cry behind his wraparound shades.

The Guardian-reading left has a guilty conscience about Glastonbury, which is understandable, given that party-goers now pay £195 to do the song and dance of social awareness. Over the years, as the Pyramid stage has been taken over by bland, big-name acts, "Glastonbury isn't what it used to be" has become a rallying cry for certain sections of the British bourgeoisie, rather like "we're all doomed" or "you really shouldn't buy avocados from Israel". This year, however, there's a real protest going on.

Anti-cuts activists from the direct action group Art Uncut plan to disrupt U2's headline set, demanding that Bono find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill they claim the band owes the Irish exchequer, which could certainly use the money.

Lurid blue hellboxes

This tiny protest has fascinated the press. It gives the lie to the Live Aid school of global justice, whereby wealth inequality is acceptable as long as the fortunate pay for the occasional fair-trade coffee or charity concert ticket; and the very wealthy can opt in or out of society as they choose. Art Uncut points out that tax avoidance (and evasion) perpetuate the very injustices that the saintly rich dabble in denouncing. It's about decency and fair play and sticking together. Which are as much part of the soul of the British left as flasks of tea, folk music and endless mud.

The endless mud is essential to the fun, for a very British understanding of the word "fun". When I last went to Glastonbury in 2007, sober and in charge of two young teenagers, it rained all weekend, turning the small Avon farm into a nightmarish collision between a messy Shoreditch warehouse rave and the Battle of the Somme.

Then, there were the portable loos. We are not going to discuss the loos, save to say that by the time I got to the end of the sodden, freezing, hour-long queue for one of those lurid blue hellboxes, there was not a hole, so much as a heap. I stumbled out after seven unforgettable seconds like one of those revivified corpses lurching out of upright coffins in that scene from The Mummy Returns, and retched emptily into the hedges for a further 20 minutes, at the end of which the prepubescent sister I was meant to be minding had wandered off to chat up a man in the falafel queue with Ian Brady eyes. This is the sort of thing the British call character-building.

The sister dragged me off for even more fun, which involved standing in a giant lake of groin-deep, ice-cold water with thousands of spaced-out teenagers listening to the Kaiser Chiefs whine about how terrified they are of the working class. Dante-esque red spotlights spun in tempo over the shrieking crowd. I had to escape.

Squeezing my way through hordes of revellers, I finally found the Left Field, the small political camp edged away from the main stages that the festival organiser, Michael Eavis, has described as the "heart" of Glastonbury. I sat down on a tree-trunk next to a filth-caked estate agent who shakily informed me that she had just had to cut her way out of her tent with a pair of nail scissors and swim to safety, after a mudbank collapsed.

Here, the ground was drier. A nice young man with dreadlocks gave us both some hot chai tea and a hug, before engaging us in a gentle debate about the nature of surplus labour. We shuffled into the acoustic tent to listen to a girl with flowers in her hair sing some offensively beautiful pop ballads.

The assembled hippies held each other quietly, refugees from the horror outside. And suddenly, I understood. Glastonbury isn't just about smoothie stands and mood music. It's a place where we remember what Britain has done best, over centuries of imperialism and bad weather.

We scrub around together in the horrible mud and try to create something fantastic enough to distract ourselves from the sanitation. Which we are not going to discuss any more.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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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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