Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. That’s how it should be

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. Your own emotional weather. 

I’m writing this column on a sunbed by the pool. Don’t hate me. We’ve taken our holiday a little early this year. A week in a rented villa in the Med. It’s not like this is my life or anything. Although, as usual, life will keep intruding, even here.

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. I was in denial about this for most of my adult life, insisting that holidays were nothing but joy, berating anyone who wasn’t having enough fun. But I’m getting better now, and coming to terms with the fact that, however idyllic the setting, you cannot help but bring with you everything that’s happening in your life, or in your head. Your own emotional weather.

I could also add that, because I’m an anxious person (I’ve told you this already), everywhere I go I take the contents of the bathroom cupboard with me. My suitcase resembles Mary Poppins’s holdall and can, on request, produce remedies, balms and unguents for any ailment you may choose to develop while travelling with me. This makes me a great person to go on holiday with if you’re prone to insect bites, allergic reactions to insect bites, infections of insect bites, or alarming complications arising from insect bites. Not such a great person to be around in the run-up to a holiday, when my anxiety levels rise at the same rate as the piles of lists.

This time, however, the weather proves ominous even before we leave home when we get the news that a friend who will be joining us on the holiday has just lost one of her closest friends to breast cancer. She’s going to come anyway, but warns us that she is sad, very sad. And then another friend due to meet us there has to cancel as he is in the grip of a debilitating depression and can’t get out of bed, let alone get on a plane. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even take it with you. Sometimes rain stops play.

Holidays are supposed to be time out of time, perfect and dreamlike, but still they insist on coming at awkward moments, while we’re waiting for exam or biopsy results, or on the day a period starts. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, W H Auden talks about how moments of suffering take place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Or indeed, on holiday. We can’t separate holidays from the rest of life, however hard we try.

Still, here I am in my bikini on my towel, and there is light, a lot of light, along with the shade. Other friends have arrived with their new baby, and nothing lifts the mood like the sight of that tiny creature, wriggling and gurgling, opening her eyes wide at the play of light through the leaves, all of us adults competing for her smile. Nobody’s weather changes faster than a baby’s, and the speed with which she can move from contentment to misery, nothing but a sneeze or a hiccup in between, is like a dramatisation of how close to each other those two states are.

The actual weather is interesting, too, bringing us a night-time Gothic thunderstorm, followed by a day of strong winds that leave shutters banging and send bottles of sun lotion skidding across the lawn. In between the hours in the pool and the sun, the youngsters have discovered Fawlty Towers and are practising their Manuel impressions. From somewhere inside the house, “I speak English VERY well, I learn it from a BOOK” comes ringing out. Hoots of laughter.

So, all in all, the week is working, but as I started out by saying, its tone isn’t entirely benign or neutral, any more than any other week.

There are teenage mood swings and menopausal mood swings; an earache, a splinter, an argument. A close friend texts to say that her mother has died. The boy bursts his football on a cactus. Through it all we bask in the constant warmth, the long evenings drawn out with wine and lazy chat, the things that enhance and soften everything.

And so, if anyone asks, I’ll say we had a lovely time. And we did, we really did. Look, here are the photographs to prove it. That view. Those smiles.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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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