An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons probe approaching Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Photo: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben
Show Hide image

Is Pluto really the “beige planet”?

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard.

Newsday
BBC World Service

So, after days of low-resolution teasers, we finally saw the high-res images sent back by the space probe and the global response was amazement. At first, the reporting and analysis was merely ecstatic, slipping and sliding into something poetic, but within hours had spiralled into something almost Conradian: endless digressions and footnotes abounding in every interview, astronomers royal hurried from their beds to talk of “late heavy bombardments” and the “continual reworking of geological processes”. A small planet showing activity after four and a half billion years! When Pluto was supposed to have been a lump of rock! “Evidence of large craters indicating a very young, repeatedly modified surface . . . lines of sand dunes . . . crisp mountains and landslides . . . ice deposits the size of the Rockies . . . strange hills with grooves that we don’t know what to make of yet . . .”

Over to Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy, down the line from the California Institute of Technology. “Well, y’know,” he immediately challenged, “you don’t have to be a planet to be interesting.” Testy! Or way deep? The Newsday presenter Nuala McGovern – reliably positive, never lost for words – was completely silenced (15 July, 5am). “I’m just gonna let that one sink in for a moment,” she admitted, before doing just that and then trying again.

“I’m reading that the planet is red, right?” “Well, y’know,” her gloriously refusenik guest continued, “I look at these pictures and I think it’s kinda beige. Everybody’s saying how beautiful it is but I’m a little disappointed. It looks washed out and beige. But I’m not supposed to say that.”

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard. “It’s not exactly a brand!” “No, not really,” admitted Brown, who then closed the door to any compromise when asked by a barrel-scraping McGovern if there was any practical application to these discoveries, quite frankly? Any definitive, utilitarian, commonsensical reason to explore the planets and send out probes and rockets and endless wads of cash and tinfoil?

“Absolutely not,” Brown confirmed. “It is not going to help us make better pens.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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