New Statesman writers appear at Stoke Newington Literary Festival

From Laurie Penny on protest to Helen Lewis on videogames, via Daniel Trilling on the far right, join NS staff and contributors at the North London festival.

The North London neighbourhood of Stoke Newington boasts a rich literary history: Daniel Defoe once lived at 95 Church Street; Edgar Allen Poe went to school just down the road.  The annual Stoke Newington Literary Festival, now in its fourth year, pays homage to the area’s tradition of radical thinking and literary values with a five-day programme of events, tours and talks.

The New Statesman is pleased to partner with the festival, in which several of our editors and writers will be participating. Highlights include:

Reads Like a Seven

Friday, 8pm. £4. Venue – Babble Jar

New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis joins Steven Poole, award-winning broadcaster/game developer Ste Curran and others in a revival of ‘Reads Like a Seven', where they read out one of their pieces of games journalism. It's curated and presented by New Yorker games contributor Simon Parkin (read Simon's pieces for the NS here). Following a sell-out debut at last year’s GameCity 7 - where blogger Kieron Gillen described it as “a reminder of the breadth of what gaming is, what it means and, indirectly, how writers on games have wrestled down the immaterial” – this second iteration promises to “dispels any doubts that video games deserve to be considered alongside other art forms, either for their breadth of invention or the passions they provoke”.

Multiculturalism and the Rise of the Far Right

Sunday, 5pm. £5. Venue – Abney Public Hall

David Goodhart, director of think tank Demos, will be in conversation with New Statesman assistant editor Daniel Trilling. Goodhart has recently authored a controversial book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, advocating for reduced immigration to the UK and posing the argument that immigration can undermine national solidarity. Trilling’s book, Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right, charts how the likes of the BNP and the EDL have exploited anti-immigration sentiment to pin the nation's ills on to the shoulders of the vulnerable.

Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere

Saturday, 3pm. £5. Venue – Abney Public Hall

BBC Newsnight’s economic editor Paul Mason contextualises worldwide dissent — the Arab Spring, Athens, and Quebec, as well as social unrest in the UK — in his updated best-seller Why It’s (Still) Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. He’s joined by New Statesman contributing editor Laurie Penny in offering insights and anecdotes on dissent and its role in the global future. How will social networking, the economic crisis and a new political consciousness ignite the next generation of radicals?

Tariq Ali in Conversation with Owen Jones                                                             

Sunday, 2pm.   Venue – Stoke Newington Town Hall                                                 

Tariq Ali, filmmaker and author of over a dozen books on world history and politics including The Clash of Fundamentalisms and The Obama Syndrome, engages leading new Left voice and New Statesman contributor Owen Jones in a wide-ranging geopolitical discussion - in light of the reissue of Ali’s The Stalinist Legacy. Jones is the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.

For the full events programme visit the festival website: www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com/the-programme

The power of books, by Tododesign. (via. Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Facebook)
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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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