Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jaron Lanier, Michael Axworthy and Jane Dunn.

Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s latest book has received critical acclaim for its unique inquiry into the information economy. He writes about economic imbalances on account of online corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook dubbed “Siren Servers” which have hoarded valuable data from its customers in exchange for the use of their services, denying them remuneration for this information.

James Harkin of the Financial Times observes Lanier’s scepticism over the power of the internet to spur widespread economic growth. He states Lanier “complains that the latest waves of high-tech innovation have not created jobs like the old ones did” adding that the conventional “'levees' that protected us from economic devastation are being swept away by this digital free-for-all.”

The Observer’s John Kampfner states Lanier’s book has pointed out the presence of an internet “ruling class” as a factor of serious consideration by “policymakers and technologists.”Kampfner adds that "our insatiable demand for information and entertainment and for access to instant communication has come at a heavy price. Most people don't know they're paying it.” 

Lanier’s book proposes a method to balance what the Guardian’s Laurence Scott describes as “capitalism…gone digital.” Lanier suggests that a small royalty sum should be paid to each customer when they part with information used by the company in a similar method to focus groups used by market research firms.  Scott commends the book for producing an "inspiring portrait of the kind of people [in a] democratic information economy.” He adds Lanier’s hypothesis implies that “if we are allowed to lead absorbing, properly remunerated lives, we will likewise outgrow our addiction to consumerism and technology.”

The Telegraph’s Matt Warman highlights Lanier’s doubts that this system of remuneration could result in us “reclining in the lap of luxury” but commends Lanier’s hypothesis for the future as “persuasive” and one which cannot be disputed “until we get there.”

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

 

The Independent’s Helen Taylor praises Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier for its inclusive study of the three du Maurier sisters - Angela, Daphne and Jeanne during “a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters' response to social change.” She notes how biographies of artists “often ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds” and adds the strength of the book lies in accounting for tense relations between the three sisters of on account of their mother Muriel’s favouritism towards Jeanne.

Nicholas Shakespeare relishes Jane Dunn’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters in the Telegraph and gushes how “Dunn, one of six sisters herself, has written before of sisterhoods”. He states she understands that “it is sisters who weave the most complex web of love and loyalty, resentment and hurt.” Shakespeare concedes that her portrayal does “sag in places” but it is a feat of organisation – flamboyantly explaining that Dunn succeeds in keeping, “each du Maurier sister separate and yet still bubbling at the same intensity, like three temperature charts.” Thus the overall effect of “her triptych is sensitive and sympathetic.” It is described as a compelling biography, with Shakespeare highlighting psychoanalytical themes including the du Maurier girls’ relationship with their father, their "forbidden" sexual experiences and dreams of child rebellion.

In contrast, Rachel Cooke in the Guardian  provides a damning and sparky review of this latest installment that tries to establish the lives of the du Maurier sisters. She writes matter of factly that, “Dunn has nothing much that is new to say about Daphne. This version of the writer is just as introverted and as selfish as the last.” Cooke points out that Dunn's most surprising discovery is the fact that the sisters were not rivals in adulthood, especially considering the fact that they grew up in a household where "histrionics were a way of life". The longueurs in the biography, as Cooke puts it, are mostly down to the problematic organisation of the book. Cooke criticises the way all three women are dealt with at once, and chronologically, rather than in separate sections, which gives Dunn’s narrative “a fatal blow”. She concludes how, “Bing, that great mistress of narrative pace, would have rolled her eyes at this book, and set about its more laboured passages with a sharp, red pencil.”

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

James Buchan praises Michael Axworthy in the Guardian  for his “calm and literate portrait of the Islamic Republic,”and explains how the central thesis in Revolutionary Iran is that, “certain long-lived chickens are coming home to roost.” The Persian nezam or system is under threat, and for Axworthy the turning point in Iran was the 2009 Presidential election – in which Khomeini's policy of balance between the factions in favour of "naked force" alienated the ruling clique, which served to weaken the republic. Buchan describes Axworthy as, “an academic historian, and sometime British diplomat” who “avoids the grand schemes and theories that have so clouded the study of Iran.” Buchan notes that Axworthy’s theory of the 1979 revolution has parallels with Tancredi in Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopold: "If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change."

The Economist writes that Axworthy mined newly opened archives effectively, balancing “scholarly precision with narrative flair”, exposing the failure of Western governments to keep abreast of fast-changing events, including the episode whereby the Iranian hostage-takers were astounded to find that none of the four CIA officers in the American embassy in Tehran could speak Persian. Axworthy is lauded for his description of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he draws on first-hand accounts of key military personnel, and challenges the contention that the Iranian air force was inept. The Economist’s analysis is that Axworthy breaks from James Buchan’s thesis that Khomeini was bent on exporting Islamic government to Iraq, “arguing instead that he saw the conflict as a just war to fend off a real threat.” Overall, the verdict is that Axworthy’s “analytical approach helps demystify a revolutionary regime that has needed to feed off myths.”

According to David Shariatmadari in this week’s issue of New Statesman, Axworthy has confirmed “his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment” and is good at putting Iran into context. A narrative with “plenty of historical echoes” is formed and Axworthy makes modern parallels, which is “important as [Iran] is too often seen as exceptional.” Sameer Rahim reiterates this sentiment for the Daily Telegraph, endorsing it as a book packed with gobbets of information and policy advice on how to deal with Iran, and that it “feels like a book designed for William Hague’s bedside table.”

Photo: Karen Bleier, Getty Images
Show Hide image

With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad