The Hardy Boys of our generation?

Reviewed: Bad Machinery, by John Allison.

Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit
John Allison
Oni Press, 136pp, £14.99

This book has been a long time coming. The first collection of John Allison's Bad Machinery webcomic, it is being released as the web version finishes its fifth story. That's pretty far removed from the print collections of Allison's previous strip, Scary Go Round, of which Bad Machinery is a loose sequel. Those were usually available shortly after the arc they collected was finished, in small self-published paperbacks.

But the delay is for a good reason. Where Scary Go Round was frequently meandering, with story lines and characters fading out of view as he got bored of them and moved on, Bad Machinery is laser-focused. It takes the classic archetype of mystery-solving-teens, throws them in situations that are half-way between Scooby-Do and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (monsters are real, but generally they're more interested in being left alone than taking over the world), and polishes the whole thing off with Allison's unique, and wonderful, authorial voice.

He's been writing webcomics for fifteen years, starting with Bobbins until 2002, then relaunching the series as Scary Go Round, and then Bad Machinery four years ago. Each series has shared characters with the one before, but been a fresh beginning in story terms, and this is no different. But that still means fifteen straight years improving his craft, and it shows. Since an abrupt change in his artistic style in 2005 – moving from a heavily digital style to more traditional-looking cartooning – the focus was on refining the writing and art, until in 2009, Scary Go Round was put to bed and Bad Machinery was launched. As a third-generation webcomic, it skipped the false starts common to so many books with similar provenance, and launched straight into the strong story collected here.

That change – which, given it amounted to killing-off an eight-year-long serial with a devoted fanbase, was hardly minor – has resulted in a book which is perfect for people who don't read comics. And more than that: it's a book perfect for kids who don't read comics. Starring relatable schoolchildren, in a series of stand-alone cases, it stands a chance of being the Hardy Boys or Famous Five of our generation.

And that's precisely why the delay has happened. Because there's no point in writing a book which could be loved by a generation of children and then hiding it on a website and in self-published books. This needs to be in schools, on reading club lists, and in libraries, and for that, it needs a real publisher backing it up.

But finding one which was prepared to take a book which was still available for free online was easier said than done. False starts with some publishers who were unhappy competing against the internet pushed the publication date further and further back, but Allison didn't give up. At one point he was forced to launch subscriptions for the site – ranging from £2 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude", to £100 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude" – to make ends meet, but eventually it paid off. Step up Oni Press, the publishers of the Scott Pilgrim series, who have worked with Allison to make a print version with production values to die for. A massive book – roughly the size of two standard-sized comics next to each other – it includes the first case, as well as a short prologue, a chunk of back-matter, and a fair few reworked pages to take advantage of the differences between print and online.

Getting this book into the hands of real-life kids is obviously Allison's aim, but as with all the best children's authors, he's done that by writing a book which doesn't talk down to them. Like Pixar's films, an adult not reading Bad Machinery because it's for kids is missing out – and missing the point. The jokes are sharp, the plot is twisting, and the mystery is engrossing. If the fact that the main characters are 11-year-olds spoils that for you, I don't know what to say.

A little peek inside Bad Machinery, by John Allison. Credit: Oni Press.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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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