Unreconstructed man: a crowd outside a Soho "sauna" in 1972. (Photo: Getty)
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Asked to pop down an alleyway by a working girl, I am relieved to find Soho not entirely sanitised

But it's unsettling to see a woman trying to make ends meet in such a desperate way, especially when dressed as if for the school run.

I went to a fancy restaurant in Soho the other night. Someone else was paying – I can’t remember the last time I went to a fancy restaurant and settled at least my own share of the bill. It was actually a publishing house that was paying and moreover the meal was for about 20 people at Bocca di Lupo, which gets good reviews but is stratospherically out of my financial league. But its co-proprietor sacked his Italian wine merchant when the latter called the Italian integration minister, Cécile Kyenge, “a dirty black monkey”, so it has good karma.

Anyway, it was nice to be invited. “Dinner with a publisher?” asked my old comrade Matthew De Abaitua. “Give my regards to 1997.” And there was something retro about it: the private dining room, the familiar faces, the way the waiters filled up my glass at the merest lift of my eyebrow.

I left earlier than the others, for I was tired – I’d been raising my eyebrow often – but I thought the walk back to the Hovel would do me good. It’s only about a mile and a half and besides it was one of those days when one was acutely conscious of a lightness about the Oyster card. As I walked down Brewer Street, a woman came up to me and asked if I had a cigarette.

It soon became clear that she was not only interested in me as a kind of walking tobacconist. Asking for a cigarette turned out to be near the upper limits of her English but through emphatic gestures and the use of the word “alleyway” – one of those words you don’t often use in everyday life but in certain professions comes with the territory – she began to get her point across.

At the time, because I was full of drink, I was more amused than embarrassed. It is also not easy rolling a cigarette for someone while they are grinding their crotch against yours; I thought it best not to rummage in my pockets for a filter.

My amusement revolved around the thought that at least Soho had not yet been sanitised beyond reproach. In January, Howard Jacobson wrote a very good article about the importance of keeping Soho’s squalid parts. When he was young, Soho had provided the answers to these questions: “what’s it like to do everything you shouldn’t . . . what’s it like to be in the hands of someone who knows more than you do and cares less; what’s it like to let flesh rule you without consideration for your parents, your girlfriend or your homework . . . but why go on? You know what I wanted to find out. What’s it ALL like?”

These are questions that I no longer feel any pressing need to ask and so I tried to steer the subject elsewhere and gently disabuse the woman of the notion that pestering me was worth her while. I asked her where she was from (Poland, she said; I mentioned my Polish ancestry but she didn’t take the conversational bait; also, I think she was from somewhere else); I told her I had a lovely girlfriend waiting for me at home; I started telling her I had only a tenner in my pocket to last me till the end of the week, which I probably now inadvertently owed her, but then decided that she wouldn’t believe me even if she could understand me.

I gave her the cigarette, disentangled myself, lit it for her and parted with an old-world-courtesy nod of the head and my best wishes. (I had been to a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel the night before and was still feeling somewhat under the sway of genteel, Mitteleuropäische politesse.)

In the morning, I wasn’t quite so amused. I didn’t like the idea of someone with only the most basic of street smarts and opportunities trying to get inside the pants of the likes of me in order to keep body and soul together. That she was dressed no more provocatively than if she’d been doing the school run was also vaguely unsettling. I don’t want to clean Soho up – my feelings on the subject of prostitution are roughly those of St Thomas Aquinas (in brief: a blocked sewer poisons the water supply) – but it is sobering to rub up, so to speak, against the truly down and out.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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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