Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Bela Kolarova exhibition, 31 Jan – 7 April, Raven Row, London

A retrospective of the work of Czech artists Bela Kolarova (1923-2010). This is the first major survey of her work outside of her home country. Kolarova’s “light drawings” and “derealised portraits” pioneered an art based on objects associated with domesticity and the feminine, rooted in the context of Cold War and exile. The works on display will cover Kolarova’s career, including documentary photographs from the late fifties, camera-less experiments, “arranged” photographs of objects and assemblages from the sixties, as well as make-up drawings and assemblages from the seventies and eighties.

Opera

La Traviata, 2 Feb – 3 March 2013, London Coliseum

Verdi’s masterpiece will be staged at the Coliseum. One of the Verdi’s most moving and popular operas, La Traviata tells the story of a courtesan sacrificing her hopes for her lover’s reputation.

In a new production, acclaimed director Peter Konwitschny uses modern uncluttered staging to present the tragic and moving opera. Compelling characters and famed melodies make this an engaging and emotional performance. Starring American soprano Corinne Winters in her European debut, British lyric tenor Ben Johnson and internationally acclaimed baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore.

Classical Music

One Night in Vienna, 27 January, Royal Festival Hall, London

Johann Strauss Dancers present a combination of Viennese music, song and dance in glorious period costumes. Conductor Rainer Hersch guides performers through Radetzky March, The Blue Danube Waltz, The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, Thunder and Lightning Polka, and Voices Of Spring, as well as Tchaikovsky, Lehar and many more. The Johann Strauss Orchestra performs with guest soprano Charlotte Ellett.

Festival

Burns Night Celebrations, 25 January, Edinburgh

“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!” Wrote the eminent Scot Rabbie Burns in “Address to a Haggis.” If you are in Edinburgh this weekend there myriad opportunities to raise a glass to the poet. According to robertburns.org “Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts,” so take your pick. The Whiski bar and restaurant in Edinburgh will be hosting an evening of traditional Scottish fiddle music, accompanied by haggis neeps and tatties.

Theatre

Count Magnus: Two Ghost Stories by M R James 05-09 Febuary, The Brewery, Bristol

As if South-West England wasn’t chilling enough, the Nunkie Theatre Company will be bringing ghost stories to Bristol in February. Two short stories by antiquarian ghost story master, Monague Rhodes James will be performed at the Brewery Theatre.

150 years since the birth of M R James, Robert Lloyd Parry will be retelling his stories as a one man show. The first of these tales, Count Magnus, is a thriller set in Sweden about the consequences of travel-writer’s over-inquisitiveness. Denmark is then the setting for Number 13, a tale of a haunted hotel room.

Celebrate the poetry of Robert Burns this Saturday (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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