In the Critics this week | 30 August 2013

Laura Miller on <em>Downton Abbey</em>, Felix Martin on economics, Ed Smith on the role of genetics in sport and much more.

To kick us off in the critics this week, Laura Miller explores the allure of Downton Abbey across the pond, after ITV’s quintessentially British hit became the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US earlier this year. She explains that while for us it’s the “equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty”, for the Americans it is the perfect blend of familiarity and peculiarity. The period is alien: “For Americans, the interlocking, class-defined relationships in a British country house in the early twentieth century are intriguingly particular” and so “the geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downtown Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality”. But yet, according to Miller, many characters map very neatly onto American high school stock characters. Miller concludes that Downton enrages many in the UK for its depiction of painfully true class divisions that last a lifetime, but for the Americans it is the more frivolous and short-lived high school era that comes to mind and this is the key to its success.

Economics is the order of the week for Felix Martin in his review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change, by Edmund Phelps. In his review of Scarcity, Martin puts forwards the pros and cons of behavioural economics and is ultimately impressed by the book, concluding that the authors don’t claim to have all the answers but that “they style their book as an ‘invitation to read about a science in the making’ and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics."

Mass Flourishing presents a very different economic thesis, rejecting the psychologists in favour or historians. Although Martin notes that the book “might not be to everyone’s taste” and that on first reading the thesis sounds somewhat “simplistic and historically naive”, he concludes that, although uncertain at first, “the more [he] read, the more [his] expectations were confounded and the more [he] found [himself] thinking that its basic thesis had a great deal of truth to it.” He only hopes that the economics curriculum catches up with these valuable works.

Ed Smith reviews David Epstein’s book The Sport Gene: What makes the Perfect Athlete in a very interesting discussion whether it’s talent or hard work that makes an athlete successful. He notes that modern athletes eschew the word “talent” and instead are determined to make it seem that they have achieved everything “purely through exertion and suffering”. But Smith is persuaded by Epstein’s premise that top athletes have a genetic disposition that marks them out from the rest of us; but each sportsperson is different and so homogenisation of training routines is ultimately fruitless. Instead, as everyone has a different optimal training routine, “coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believe that they know best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error”.

In music, Kate Mossman unpicks Arctic Monkey’s latest album, AM. Although she hails lead singer Alex Turner as “one of the great lyricists of the twenty-first century”, it is musically that she deems this album to pack its punches as “any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production” in a record that on occasion pleases Mossman so much she “wants to turn [her] iPod up enough to damage [her] ears”.

Helen Lewis discusses the impact and broader significance the of the word “vagina” in her review of The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History by Emma Rees. She agrees wholeheartedly with Rees’ condemnation of “all the cutesy little-girlisms beloved of advertisers” and concludes that “the word ‘vagina’ is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not to be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation, but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.”

Also in the critics this week:

  • Philip Maughan gives his view on Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, a photography exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery
  • Rachel Cooke passes judgement on What Remains, the new BBC Sunday night detective series
  • Antonia Quirke reviews BBC Radio 3’s The Albertopolis of the South
  • Ryan Gibley is impressed by Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty, despite his “very-very-noisily-with-whooping-and-crashing” approach
  • Claire Lowdon reviews Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English
  • Michael Brooks discusses organ transplants and compatibility in his view on Daniel M Davis’ The Compatibility Gene
  • Olivia Lanig analyses Tim Dee’s Four Fields
  • Leo Robson gives his view on both Alfred Hayes’ My Face for the World to See and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

To get hold of a copy of the magazine, visit your local W H Smiths or go to newstatesman.com/subscribe.

 

Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496