In this week’s New Statesman: Steven Poole on the rise of Big Data

PLUS: Rafael Behr on the angry white guys tearing the Tories apart.

Cover Story: The Digital Panopticon

In this week’s cover story Steven Poole looks at the promise of “Big Data” – that we will be saved from our manifold dilemmas so long as we measure the world. Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic, Google Translate’s corpus of phrases and likely translations far surpasses all others, and aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. But how useful is big data in the first place? And should we be wary of the consequences?

. . . as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier point out in their useful recent book, Big Data: “Big data itself is founded on theory.” And once you’ve manufactured data with instruments that operate according to certain theories, you then need to analyse it theoretically. At the Large Hadron Collider, subatomic smashing generates a million gigabytes of data every second. Automated systems keep just a millionth of this for analysis (discarding the rest based on theories), but the bit-heap is still Brobdingnagian. And it needs to be analysed according to still other theories before scientists will understand what is going on. Until then, the data itself is just inscrutable numbers. Raw data is not knowledge. According to IBM, 90 per cent of the world’s extant data has been created in the past two years. Unless I missed something important, that is not because the human race has very rapidly become much wiser.

Rafael Behr: He was the future once – David Cameron and the struggle to be modern

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as the leader of the Conservatives than any of his three most recent predecessors put together, writes Rafael Behr. Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in charge of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is doing none of these things:

The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition . . .

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges supporters to “take our country back”.

What’s more, the Tories have miscalculated the Ukip vote. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?” Not very many, actually, according to the polls.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task.

David Blanchflower: This was King and Osborne’s lost decade

In the Economics Column this week our economics editor, David Blanchflower, berates the joint record of George Osborne and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, saying he “nearly fell over laughing” when King announced at the press conference for his valedictory inflation report that “a recovery is in sight”.

“I would be surprised to see growth of more than 1 per cent this year and next,” Blanchflower predicts. “This looks like King and George Osborne’s lost decade.”

So just what does King mean by “recovery”, and is there any merit to the Chancellor’s assertion that the economy is “healing”?

There is rather mixed evidence from business surveys: the purchasing managers’ surveys showed some pick-up, but the Bank of England agents’ surveys suggest little improvement. The EU’s Economic Sentiment Index, which combines consumer and business surveys, fell again in April. The labour market continues to weaken. Underemployment is rising again; there has been a further surge in the number of people who are part-time but want full-time jobs . . . It is unlikely that, with such uncertainty in the air and shrinking wages, consumers are heading for a spending spree. The patient is still in intensive care.

PLUS

The Diary: Jonathan Smith on the darker side of Cornwall, tailgaiting in Virginia and Elvis’s top half

David Herman: Why is television still so white?

Letter from Serbia: Fiona Sampson takes a journey to the heart of the Balkans

Hugh Purcell on the New Statesman’s past: Fellow-Travellers at the NS, shadowy MI6 placements and the senior staffer Gaitskell’s wife said was “Stalin dressed as a nun”

Laurie Penny applauds the bravery of the suffragettes

Ed Smith: In cricket, as in Britian, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

David Puttnam: What makes us human?

In the Critics

This week, Hedley Twidle, the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize, considers the latest travelogue by Paul TherouxThe Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola. Theroux, Twidle writes, “is unwilling to let go of his African fantasies” and the result is disastrous. “He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist.” Twidle concludes: “Bankrupt in more ways than one, this is a book I would recommend as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre.”

PLUS

  • Colin MacCabe reviews Stephen Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter. “Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.”
  • George Eaton praises the modesty and wisdom of Andrew Adonis, which shine through in 5 Days In May, his book about the coalition negotiations. “As a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’, Adonis felt this failure [of the Lib-Lab negotations] more keenly than most.”
  • Alice O’Keeffe on the limitations of nature writing, as revealed in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Holloway. And Leo Robson praises All That Is, the latest novel by the87-year-old American writer, James Salter. “Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to helpeless.”

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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