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The forward march of culture

Over the past century, we have increasingly come to define ourselves by our leisure habits rather th

If pressed, when asked which class we are in, most of us would reach for a placing that fitted on one rung or the other of the old hierarchy in this country. We would be more comfortable talking about the class of our parents and even more confident cataloguing our grandparents. Yet while class has been a most useful social marker in these islands for centuries, it is now, I suspect, well on the way to losing its authority to culture.

People today are more comfortable identifying themselves by their cultural choices than by their class. They are likely to say "I'm a Radio 4 person" or that they like grime, or jazz, or film, or opera. The class barricades have been stormed by the forces of a broad culture, which is made up of clusters of individuals who have decided for themselves what they will be in society. They can't be bothered with the labels and designations of the ancien régime.

As the 20th century unspooled, a cultural warming melted down many frozen class characteristics. A hundred years ago, the upper classes literally owned much of what was understood as culture – architectural masterpieces, great paintings, a superior style, the opera, the ballet. Today, even though some of that remains, most of it has slipped out of the hands of the aristocracy.

In 1911, it could seem that the three established classes were at their most triumphant. The ruling classes were clad in splendour, in charge of big red chunks of the map, developing the arts of leisure and still cultivating high magnificence in architecture, the amassing of art and their gardens. The infusion of new money to replenish the bloodlines and the coffers stopped the arteries furring up. The upper classes made very little art, although they could effect change: it was an aristocrat, Lady de Grey, who brought over the Ballets Russes that year. Curating was the thing and it was pursued with energy and often with fine taste. There were more than one and a quarter million domestic servants to see that the elite were released into the leisure that this demanded.

The middle classes took their fair share of the servants and aped the aristocracy in dress, manners, accent if they could, and many of the leisure furnishings of life. The seaside became their domain. (It would only later be passed on to the working classes.) The gentleman was at large. Being a gentleman, as the aspiring protagonist discovers in H G Wells's novel Kipps: the Story of a Simple Soul, is a full-time occupation.

Where the middle classes differed from the aristocracy was that they made things or supervised the making of things. In much of culture, they were the doers, the drivers. They made the conquering novel their own and until fairly recently it remained that way. Although working-class exceptions such as D H Lawrence tested the rule, the middle class provided most of the painters, the poets, the composers, the movements, the -isms. It became an ever-broader and confident caste, though furrowed by minor but deadly distinctions.

Cockles and muscles

One thing that united the middle class, broadly speaking, was its fear and loathing of the working class. Those who had risen from it were fearful they might fall back through the cracks. Those who thought they were above it could be vicious. You see it most plainly, as often happens, in converts such as Wells, whose Morlocks in The Time Machine portrayed a future class of workers who were violent, without morality and vicious – a strain of spite that persists today. John Carey develops this authoritatively in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. The working classes were characterised as feral, dirty, uncouth and ill-spoken, with no culture worth the word.

As a view from above, it was a comfort to the established. Yet it was ignorant, perhaps wilfully so, and wrong. At that time, still about 1911, the stronger part of the working class had forced its way into an impressive garrison culture. There was fine music, with choirs singing works from the masters of choral music, and brass bands, the orchestras of the working class, were commissioning Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and others. There was the spunk and comedy and creative vitality of the music hall, which would wind through to the full, commanding force of popular culture half a century later. There were chapels with a hard-headed, Nonconformist culture in language, religion and education, with Sunday schools and reading classes. Reading rooms were common, as were mechanics' institutes, and the libraries became the universities of the poor. Their trades unions, like their sports, football and cricket, were well organised; their ambitions were high.

But this was not the whole story. There were many of the poor just too poor to have the energy or the means to participate in most of this. And the unions were making their muscle count in strikes and threats that troubled, as they were meant to, the status quo.

It is often argued that the Great War was the first and biggest detonator of the old class system and by association of the culture, but I am not so sure. Middle-class painters depicted most vividly the courage of the lower ranks. Middle-class poets turned on the ruling class and their middle-class peers. Among them, too, were men of classless heroism and Rudyard Kipling's vision of one sceptred nation united in a noble cause and embracing a common death was, for some, a bringer of equality. But after the war, it soon subsided. All the classes had been depleted but they remained intact. The worlds of P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh were unchallenged in their celebration and loving satire of the upper classes. There was nothing approaching a revolution from the lower depths. The middle class held on and ground on. The air did not yet go out of the balloon, even though the grand imperial flight of Britain was beginning its plunge to earth.

Two innovations would begin a papering-over of the class gaps; developments that would, in their wider effect on the culture, go a long way to sidelining the old distinctions. One was public dancing, which may well have kicked off when ragtime came from the United States to the Savoy in the 1920s. This spread with epidemic intensity across the country and soon hundreds of thousands of people were ballroom dancing. The upper classes were mad for it. The middle classes built suburbs of culture around it. The working classes were swallowed up in it. And they all danced to the same tunes, in the same ways, with the same regimen of decorum and politeness and transparent though restrained public sexuality. Pleasure was a unifier.

When "The Lambeth Walk" turned up in the 1930s, it became an alternative national anthem. Even the king and queen did it. You could say the lower orders had taken the dancing gift of the uppers, claimed it and given it back with a satirical "Hoy!".

There was the ever-accelerating interest in the cinema, too. Here, again, all the classes enjoyed a rough equality. Seat-price differences were of negligible importance compared to the equal experience in the vast, dark room, watching the same images. American films appealed most, I think, because of their instinctive democracy. Like the dance halls, the big cinemas were built like palaces. We could all be posh now, if only for an evening. For ordinary people – not just the working class – to go from a slum or a modest little house to one of these immense, Viennese-imitation ballrooms or operatically decorated cinemas was to enter into a brave new world open to all.

The BBC was the odd one out. It ought to have been like dancing and the pictures, a potential unifier and a radical current in the rise of mass culture. But it adopted the three-tier system. Provincial accents were relegated to comedy, the rude mechanicals were not to be allowed at the top microphone and, wonderfully, the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme became the very replica of lower, middle and upper.

For the BBC, it seemed that the three tiers of class were in the genes – which is also how Lord (Jeremy) Hutchinson, QC described the retention of the public schools by the Attlee government in the 1940s. Many thought that their abolition was assured under the Labour prime minister Clement Attlee and his colleagues in their great, postwar reconstruction. This educational apartheid (Hutchinson's word) was expected to end. But Attlee was a loyal public-school man and he let the opportunity pass by. A chance to give his country an educational equality that could have changed it for ever was not taken.

It was a Tory politician, Rab Butler, who pushed through an act that opened up the grammar schools to thousands of children such as myself, who would otherwise have missed their often elitist but effective intellectual education. Grammar-school products began to shape a different Britain, as did those who later came from comprehensive schools. Look Back in Anger by John Osborne at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 was a cultural shock. In what it was, what it represented and what it seemed to license, it has every claim to the useful cliché "watershed". It was a new voice on the London stage but it also represented a new tranche of art-makers: Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Alan Sillitoe, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, David Bailey, David Puttnam and his gang, David Hockney and so on, into The Wednesday Play and the rise of television drama and comedy that would hold its own with anything in the West End.

The cultural axis in this country had shifted. Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home (1966) was an important example. What was happening in society, still class-ridden, was immediately taken into the culture – via television – which then influenced the society. In different ways, That Was the Week That Was and Private Eye began to pull down the old pinnacles. And then came the music, the class leveller: the Who, with Pete Townshend aware of the effect of the havoc he caused and the importance to the new generation of the lyrics with which he egged them on, and the Stones, who promised promiscuity for all.

From the ruins

It was the Beatles who nailed it. No longer could anyone condescend to working-class culture; no longer could anyone dispute its potential. Quality was staring us in the ears and class had to take a step back. It would not be a simple victory. The middle classes had their own Beatlemania in Covent Garden with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and later in the West End there was the global takeover of musical theatre by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh that drew on cultures both old and new.

The novel, long declared dead, would rise again. But the grit was still in the gingerbread. Tony Harrison's poem "Them and [uz]" and the other northern intransigent Viz marked both a resistance and a seed for progress inside the old working class. The 1970s ended with our dearest indicators of class – accents. There was the fake, raucous sound of the Sex Pistols and the faux posh of Margaret Thatcher. It was as if we were mimicking and were not quite sure where to go.

In the 1980s, the miners' strike and the Conservatives' response gutted the heavy industries of what had recently been the greatest industrialised nation in the world. They were laid waste – as the north so often had been – and with them went an immense culture of highly skilled craftsmen and unskilled workers who valued their place in a community of industry.

Out of the ruins was to come the partly engineered collapse of a working-class culture, its strongholds and structures undermined. At the time, it was a working class that had just settled into a revival with the Liverpool-led renaissance in music, drama, comedy, poetry and performance. Yet now it was lampooned, caricatured to the point of vilification, despised, a source of easy, nasty mockery, often by the young, liberal middle classes.

But all was not lost. Culture carried on defying class strictures to define the zeitgeist. In music, the Specials brought a city, Coventry, bombed out for a second time and riven with racism, to a celebration between black and white musicians and their music. The cultural rise of the lower classes would not be stopped despite the assaults on their position.

In the 1990s, from the estates of Scotland came the phenomenon of Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting demanded its place not only in the high ranks of contemporary fiction but as a describer of a Britain that literally and metaphorically was in a deep mess. Welsh told me he was "upper class. I'm an idle, rich person." Hockney (Bradford Grammar School) said of himself and his family: "We always thought we were first class." The ambition of the lead character in Billy Elliot typified the growing determination of those who had been outsiders to seize any opportunity and get on the cultural map. It also indicated the growing dedication of theatre, ballet, opera companies and museums to providing the opportunities.

In the past decade, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder showed how young, black artists, from the most neglected housing estates in London, could find a way through the culture to change it. They gave significance to people whose lives were thought to have none, people who were regarded as an underclass. Culture was doing what class never did – healing wounds.

What has happened with especial force over the past 50 years is that culture, especially popular culture, has forced itself on to the centre stage of the arts. The middle classes rise and rise. They draw in recruits from the old working class, the lower middle class and even the upper class who have had to downsize a bit. They exercise a central influence. It is often their gate money and donations that underpin the amazing bouquet of festivals throughout the land. They support what they see as the best in radio and television, newspapers and magazines.

So are we all middle class, or aspiring to be, now? A nation of culture seekers and keepers? More than ever before, I think, but that is not the nub of it. We want to design our place in society for ourselves. We are bored and fed up with the old props of class and prefer to take culture as our guide. Class will never go away but as more people find satisfaction in the increasing variety of culture, the less importance it has. It has been, over the century, a quiet but decisive revolution.

The three-part series "Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture" begins on 24 February at 9pm on BBC

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.