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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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