How The Light Gets In 2013

The festival of philosophy and music returns to Hay.

This year, beginning on 23 May, the annual How The Light Gets In festival returns to Hay-on-Wye, once again providing audiences with the chance to engage with life's big questions: Why are we here? What is love? Do we need religion? Do we undervalue the imagination?

All these ideas and many more will be pondered and pursued over the course of the festival, interwoven with music and comedy acts. The New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire will be appearing, chairing debates on topics such as "Is Religion Dangerous?" and "Errors, Lies and Adventure", an exploration of the need to lie in politics.

Here are five highlights from this year's festival.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly

10pm Fri 24 May, International Hall

The born-and-bred Essex boy Sam Duckworth has always been outspoken about his political views. Whether he’s crooning about the everyday rigmarole of British life or humming his anti-BNP ballad Glass Houses, you can guarantee he’ll have you nodding along to his unique acoustic drawl.

More Than Equal

(featuring George Galloway MP, Minette Marrin and Peter Tatchell)

2:30pm Mon 27 May, Globe Hall

With liberal attitudes towards ethnic minorities at an all-time high, are identity politics irrelevant? Or are etnic minorities simply assimilating into society, when they should be demanding more from Britain? Bradford MP George Galloway, Sunday Times Columnist Minette Marrin and activist Peter Tatchell discuss what the future holds for the smaller social groups in our society.

The Sexualisation of Society

(featuring Diane Abbot MP)

3pm Mon 27 May, Ring

As questions loom over the legality of internet pornography and stories about women suffering eating disorders have become a mainstay of the tabloids, Diane Abbot takes aim at the hyper-sexualised world in which we live and its effects on the young.

At World’s Edge

(featuring A S Byatt, Terry Eagleton and Terry Pratchett)

4pm Sunday 2 June, International Tent

Fantasy tales are often seen as amusing pastimes, whimsical adventures to be forgotten when the pages are shut. But is there more significance to these stories? Could they be a key element in the perception of our own world? To discuss these matters, novelists Terry Pratchett and A S Byatt join literary theorist Terry Eagleton.

The End of the University?

(featuring Martin Bean, Leonidas Donskis, Maurice Fraser)

12pm Sunday 2 June, International Tent

The internet has changed everything; from shutting down video rental stores to flipping the music industry on its head, no-one can deny its reach. But with the ever-growing number of learning resources available, free of charge, how can modern universities compete and, eventually, will they be outmoded? Open University Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean, LSE political theorist Maurice Fraser and Lithuanian politician Leonidas Donskis think about what the future holds.

How The Light Gets In runs from Thursday 23 May to Sunday 2 June.

For full details of events and tickets, click here.

Second-hand books for sale in Hay-on-Wye (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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