Vision of life unfrozen: ice skaters by the Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634). Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty
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Christmas cards were my window to another world

The child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world.

Growing up, I lived in a house without art: no picture books on the shelves, no visits to museums, no posters on the bedroom wall. That this was as much a blessing as a lack did not become clear until later: the child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world. There was no art gallery in Cowdenbeath, however, and our occasional visits to Edinburgh were spent walking round the shops, staring at things we couldn’t afford, before unpacking a picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens, sometimes in sunshine, though more often in a fine, rather greasy drizzle.

The one exception to this monotony was Christmas. Everyone sent out cards in those days and, although the majority were of badly photographed robins and religious scenes, every now and then something came through the mail that startled me with its vibrancy and beauty. Though I didn’t think of it then as art (or, worse, as “culture”), that fortnight’s span leading up to Christmas introduced me to Brueghel and Hendrick Avercamp, to Joseph Farquharson and the Limbourg brothers – and every Twelfth Night, when the decorations came down and the cards on mantelpiece were about to be consigned to the fire, I would rescue a handful of the best pictures and hide them away in my room. Later, I added Japanese bridges in deep snow and, during a half-hearted correspondence with an American “pen pal”, a precious snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer.

Hardly anyone sends Christmas cards these days. Though I accept the environmental and financial logic of this, it doesn’t stop me feeling slightly cheated when the mail comes around. Clearly my childhood self was drawn to colour and to the delicacy of light reflected on snow but I think he also recognised that something else was going on, something that wasn’t obvious on the surface. That something is not easy to name or describe. Yes, it has to do with an acceptance of what, when many of the paintings were made, was a hard, even fatal season, a time of abstinence and bone-deep cold and, when the snow set in hard, dangerous isolation. But it also reveals a recognition of the magical process that happens invisibly at the turn of the year, a miraculous closing down of almost everything under the cover of ice and snow so that the earth can be renewed.

Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible. When the thaw comes, we are surprised again (if we are lucky) by forms and colours that we had almost forgotten. The first seedlings to uncurl from chill spring loam remind us that this rare planet’s abundant life, against which all the odds were heaped, is (to paraphrase the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén) a matter of law, rather than mere accident.

This year, I am collecting new images, mostly by the German expressionists whose work I first found at the Brücke Museum in Dahlem: artists such as Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who were active in the early years of the 20th century. Influenced partly by the Japanese woodcut tradition, they made winter scenes that are highly economical and, at the same time, immensely powerful. It is work that seems almost to pause time, while the year turns and that stillest of days, the winter solstice, renews our ties to the earth – ties that are both as binding as gravity and as mysteriously liberating as the intuition that Wallace Stevens had, gazing into the white origin of the snowy world, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 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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