In the Critics this week

David Owen remembers the Iron Lady and Stuart Maconie feels short-changed by Damian Barr.

In this week's magazine, out tomorrow, former foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party David Owen reviews Charles Moore’s new and, in Owen’s view, “exceptionally good” biography of Margaret Thatcher. In personal memories of encounters with Thatcher, Owen describes her as being:

conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

He also cites the Falklands War as the turning point in Thatcher’s career as Prime Minister:

The Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

Elswhere in Books Michael Wood looks through Italo Calvino’s letters, pointing out that Calvino pre-empted Roland Barthes in the idea of the “the death of the author”:

Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. ‘For the critic, the author does not exist,’ he writes, ‘only a certain number of writings exist.

Stuart Maconie has reviewed Maggie & Me - Damian Barr's coming-of-age memoir - which he feels “manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously”. David Herman discusses Michael Burleigh’s Small Wars, Far Away Places: the Genesis of the Modern World, 1945 – 1965, while in fiction Leo Robson reviews two books about ballooning: Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air and Julian Barnes’s multi-genre work, Levels of Life. Barnes’s essay on the loss of his wife, says Robson, “combines the weakest elements of his personality and thought”.

John Lloyd has reviewed Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. “To understand the Grillo phenomenon,” says Lloyd of the emerging Five Star Movement in Italy, “is to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going”.

Elsewhere in the Critics Ryan Gilbey reviews Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited, and Kate Mossman reviews Van Dyke Parks’s new album, Songs Cycled. “’Dreaming of Paris’ is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée,” she writes. Finally, Matt Trueman reviews Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre and Forest Fringe at the Gate Theatre.

The magazine will be on the news stands tomorrow morning.

Leo Robson has reviewed Julian Barnes's "Levels of Life". 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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