The new-old London Routemaster buses are beautifully complemented by he-who-introduced-them. Image: Getty
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Soon our personalities will be purely ornamental

Everything around us nowadays seems to hearken to the past. Soon, all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes.

What a lot of skeuomorphs there are around nowadays – once you begin noticing them, they crop up everywhere. A skeuomorph, for those of you not design-savvy, is any derivative object that treats as ornamental elements that were functional in the original. One of my favourite examples is Anaglypta wallpaper, which I didn’t know – until I was told by the director of the National Gallery, no less – owes its raised ridging and epidermal feel to its origin in the tooled hides that adorned the walls of the wealthy in the 16th century. More modern skeuomorphs would include electric-light fitments designed to resemble candles (complete with artificial blobs of wax), and the half-timbered aspect of the Morris Traveller, that Anglo-Saxon hovel of mid- 20th-century automobiles.

It is with the advent of computerised technology that the contemporary obsession with the skeuomorph really gets going, though. I remember the first edition of Adobe Page- Maker, which I used in the late 1980s on my Mac Classic computer (remember them? So little and chunky, with the integrated CPU and VDU unit just like an early . . . television); when you booted it up you were treated to a graphic showing a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. Other stand-out computer skeuomorphs include the envelope pictogram employed in numerous email programs, the stylised buff cardboard folders used on desktops (and those “desktops” themselves) – and even aural skeuomorphs, such as the shutter click my iPhone’s camera makes as it captures yet another blindingly evanescent image, or the odd whooshing noise it emits when it sends an email.

The best way of understanding the skeuomorph is to locate its generation in the transfer from the handmade artefact to the massproduced product. The term was coined in the 1890s and it was at this discontinuous breakpoint that the new industrial designers attempted to confer on their wallpaper and their ceramics surfaces that were redolent of earlier, more craftsman-like eras. In Britain we had an entire aesthetic movement – Arts and Crafts – that carried the skeuomorph into areas as diverse as architecture, typography, urban planning and hairstyles. But the breakpoint between manufacturing and information technologies strikes me as still more profound: it has opened the skeuomorphic Pandora’s box.

With the transfer of most human manipulations to the realm of the virtual, the skeuomorph has acted in the first instance as an important visual cue for people who can only incoherently conceive of what is, perforce, inchoate. Steve Jobs was the master of this, and the Apple brand – which once seemed the acme of modernity – is now in danger of slip-sliding into mere recency, for, as the online generation grows up, the requirement for computer functionality to be anchored to what was once physically manipulated will surely disappear. As for the madness in all this, it’s an individual derangement that I, dear reader, bequeath to you. While we’re perfectly aware that we live in a society replete with forms of discontinuous technology, and that progress is in nowise written on the body politic, nonetheless we cannot forbear from surveying the contemporary scene as a gestalt of nowness: we look upon roads, cars, people, houses and they cannot – we assume quite unconsciously – be other than the sum of the processes that have evolved into them. However, once we begin to pick out skeuomorphs, the smooth fabric of the present rips and tears. This isn’t simply a matter of anachronism, or the old and the new coexisting, but of time turning back on itself in ways that are altogether non-Euclidean.

The new-old London Routemaster buses that have reintroduced the half-spiralling rear stairway and the back platform, only to seal them behind Perspex because of 21st century safety anxieties, are beautifully complemented by he-who-reintroduced-them: the Mayor of London, with his Dundeefruitcake chuckles and his Edwardian clubland japes and his rumpy-pumpy antics, is a sort of human skeuomorph, a fact that explains, at least in part, his success. I believe his may well be the avant-garde of personalities and that in the future – courtesy of the web and social media – all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes. Pip-pip!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.