Sea swims in England are all rocks, cliffs and shingle

In our Nature column, Sophie Elmhirst tips her toe along Dorset's Jurassic Coast to discover the reality of sea-swimming on home turf.

There is sea-swimming and sea-swimming. There’s the fantasy: clear Mediterranean water, bluegreen and warm, lapping at white sand. And then there’s the English Channel, that thin, cold arm of the Atlantic ocean.
 
I swam recently, while the heatwave was still thick in the air, at Burton Bradstock in Dorset where the shingle is rough under your feet and the water’s dark and choppy. The breeze was up and so the waves were curling and crashing on to the shore but it didn’t stop anyone, even children small enough to be enveloped from head to foot by the water, turned upside down and then spat out again with a look of thrilled surprise on their faces. The trick, I learned slowly, was to manage your entrance: plunging through the surges quick enough so one didn’t take you out.
 
I’d take the rough reality of Dorset sea-swimming over sandy beach life any day. You can’t be elegant or selfconscious swimming here; it requires a certain sturdiness, a willingness to pick shingle out of your swimming costume and an ability to negotiate a sudden shelf in the sea floor as you walk into the water. On the flip side, dolphins and seals have been spotted in recent weeks.
 
The water’s cold too, though the day we went, after weeks of that strange, hot sun, it was as warm as I’d ever felt it. On the beach, there were tentative attempts at sophistication: gazebos, cool bags, picnics and so on. But mostly it was the usual windbreakers and towels thrown down on the stones, flushed babies stowed under battered parasols, bare and burning flesh.
 
At one end of the beach was a large yellow sign warning of danger and death if you pitched too close to the cliffs. These aren’t just any cliffs. This part of the Dorset coastline is on the dramatically named Jurassic Coast: a natural World Heritage Site (England’s first) because of its geological history that spans three periods – Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous – with rocks up to 250 million years old.
 
You can find ancient fossils here and admire the stone at West Bay – the next beach down –which glows deep orange in the sun.
 
The cliffs are monumental walls of rock, layered and compacted, worn by centuries of weather so that useful steps have emerged for the birds. But they come with their hazards.
 
Last year, the wettest on record, the cliffs disintegrated. They’ve done this often over the years, and the risk of rock-fall is constant, but in 2012 the rain was so heavy that a great chunk of the cliff simply collapsed: 400 tonnes fell on the beach at Burton Bradstock, killing a young woman out walking with her family. It took nine hours for rescue workers to dig her body out of the rubble.
 
Those endless drenched days seem remote this year but the sign on the beach is a reminder: while the scene around you might look like something out of a children’s book – buckets and spades, ice creams, kids yelling as they career out of the surf on body boards, sweating old ladies on low chairs wedged in the sand, helplessly, hopelessly fanning themselves – behind you, these great natural beasts rise up out of the earth. For millions of years the cliffs have worked at their own invisible pace, liable to splinter and crash to the beach at any time. There’s nothing we – passing travellers – can do about it.
 
You don’t get cliffs like this on those fancy Euro beaches with their golden sand. There’s no resort here: those marshalled enclaves that attempt to enclose the unenclosable, the sea. This isn’t a beach, but a coast, which runs for miles along the bottom of England and spends much of its life ignored, being battered by wind and rain. I almost prefer it here in winter, when it’s monochrome and empty apart from a couple of miserable dog-walkers and you can’t imagine ever being able to swim in the black water. But on the rare days when you do, at a safe distance from the cliffs, you can’t believe your luck.
Jurassic Beach: West Bay in Bridport, Dorset. Photo: Jorge Luis Dieguez, South End Sea Project (2012).

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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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