In the Critics this week

Ed Smith on Shane Warne, Orhan Pamuk interviewed and Helen Lewis on video games.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.” Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs. “In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in ‘civilian’ life becomes ever more elusive… All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, about his latest novel to be translated into English, Silent House. The book was originally published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. “There was some nostalgia in revisiting it,” Pamuk says. “I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.” The novel is written in the first person. “I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular,” Pamuk tells Derbyshire. “The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.”

Also in Books: leading American critic Adam Kirsch writes about a new edition of Paul Goodman’s Sixties countercultural classic Growing Up Absurd (“This long essay or tract,” Kirsch writes, “was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake”); Stephen Smith, culture correspondent of the BBC's Newsnight, reviews Danny Baker’s biography, Going to Sea in a Sieve (“In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse …”); Olivia Laing reviews Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Simon Heffer reviews Jonathan Dimbleby’s book about the North African campaign in the Second World War (“Was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was.”); the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson examines Dear Life, the latest collection from the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro; and Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, reviews Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, Anthony Clavane’s history of Jewish involvement in English football.

This week’s Critic at large is NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, who surveys the state of video games journalism. “There’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre,” Lewis writes. “Perhaps [the] revolution in games criticism will never happen.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Thomas Calvocoressi visits three photography exhibitions in London – Seduced by Art at the National Gallery, and Tate Modern’s parallel retrospectives of William Klein and Daido Moriyama; Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour; Yo Zushi writes about Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse; Rachel Cooke watches the BBC interrogate itself over the Newsnight imbroglio; and Antonia Quirke finds consolation in the ghost stories of E Nesbit on Radio 4 Extra.

PLUS: “Pavlopetri”, a poem by Olivia Byard and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in September 2009 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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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