Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

The Gatekeepers. Selected cinemas, nationwide. Released 12 April.

The Gatekeepers is an intimate, interview-style documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency. Directed by Dror Moreh, it focuses on the personal experiences of men at the forefront of the Six Day War. The remarkable openness of the participating interviewees has received a great deal of interest. Discussing the successes and mistakes of their time during the Occupation, they shed light on the wider controversy surrounding the war.

Opera

The English National Opera: The Sunken Garden. Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. 12 – 20 April.

Tonight, The Barbican will host the world premiere of The Sunken Garden. Directed by composer and director Michel van der Aa, with a libretto written by author David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Sunken Garden includes both 2D and 3D film. Focusing on the disappearance of a software engineer and the people who try to find him, it describes itself as an all new “occult mystery” film-opera.

Exhibition

Tell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade. Blain Southern Gallery, Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP1. April – 18 May.

Tell Me Whom You Haunt places ten leading contemporary artists in dialogue with existing pieces by Marcel Duchamp, to explore the idea that found or ‘readymade’ objects lose their previous signification when re-contextualised. The exhibition includes responses from contemporary artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Robert Kusmirowski and Nasan Tur, all of whom play with the idea of ‘hauntings’ and the ways in which memory manifests itself.

Concert

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, BS1 5AR. Thurs 18 April.

On Thursday, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will perform a wordless ‘night at the opera’, conducted by Andrew Litton, with Vadim Gluzman as lead violinist. It will include pieces from Korngold, Bruch, Wagner and R Strauss. To supplement this exciting concert, Bristol ensemble conductor Jonathan James will be giving a talk on Saturday 13th April. Discussing the inferences and themes behind each piece, he will historically and socially contextualise the music to instil a new resonance to the performance. His talk will also be at Colston Hall.

Theatre

Fences. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge CB2 3PJ. 15 – 20 April.

August Wilson's 1987 drama Fences is arguably one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century.  Set in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, it follows the life of Troy Maxson – played by Lenny Henry, a once gifted athlete whose job as a garbage collector now leaves him resentful and embittered. This new version, directed by Paulette Randall, has received high praise from critics including Lyn Gardner. Writing in the Guardian, she describes the portrayal of Maxson as “so vivid that you can't help being gripped by this story of a man who may have thrived, but who is fenced in by the era into which he was born.”    

Director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca/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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