Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

Murder in the Library, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, 18 Jan – 12 May 

The British Library’s new exhibition about crime writing, which accounts for approximately a third of all British fiction books, will take you on a captivating journey through the evolution of this popular genre. It will explore the genre's origins in the early 19th century through to contemporary "Nordic Noir", without forgetting the most prominent crime writers including Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

This fascinating exhibition will showcase manuscripts, books, rare audio recordings, artworks, as well as intriguing artefacts from the library's British and North American collections.

Classical Music

The Opus Ones, Peter Donohoe, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, 16 January

Warwick Arts Centre at the University of Warwick invites world renowned British pianist Peter Donohoe to take to its stage with a performance of music from the early part of the careers of some of the best known composers. Donohoe has devised an evening devoted to the works of Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, Schumann and Berg.

The audience is promised “power, tenderness, and the perennially fresh touch of one of the supreme virtuosos of our time”. Donohoe begins the evening with a pre-concert talk.

Comedy

Work In Progress, Sean Lock, Leicester square Theatre, 6 Leicester Place, Leicester Square, London WC2, 11 Jan – 16 Jan (except 14 Jan)

Sean Lock is taking a break from his  television appearances to begin a stand-up comedy tour. The shows at the Leicester Square Theatre are in preparation for a national tour which will commence later this year. The comedian, whose TV credits include team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats as well as QI and Argumental, will perform a string of shows at this venue in January and February.

Music

The Johnny Cash Story, The Lowry Theatre, 8 The Quays, Salford, 13 January

For fans of the film Walk The Line, this one-night-only show is unmissable. Roger Dean, who has been playing Johnny Cash for most of his life after first performing The Tennessee Flat Top Box on BBC television aged 14, will be entertaining with a collection of the star’s best known songs. From Big River to Ring of Fire and I Walk The Line, the show charts Cash’s rise to fame from humble Arkansas beginnings.

Theatre

The Silence of the Sea, Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1, 14 Jan – 2 Feb (previews start from 10 January)

A novella originally written by Vercors, The Silence of the Sea has been reimagined by Anthony Weigh for the stage. A soldier is sent to the home of an old man and his niece. The pair, with no option but to allow him in, resist him with a silence that will become their most forceful strength.

This “exquisitely constructed human drama”, whose cast features Finbar Lynch among others, sheds new light on the original play and observes “an excruciating dilemma faced by both the occupier and the occupied”.

Sean Lock, whose pre-tour warm-up gigs will begin this week in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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