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Julia Hobsbawm’s Diary: How algorithms, like sugar, are making us fat

The author of Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload explains why she practises “Techno Shabbat”.

January always makes me optimistic. The orgiastic fire of Christmas has been consumed, New Year’s Eve has been quietly endured, the shortest day has passed. Everything is only going to get lighter, longer, more filled with natural vitamin D. I am just back from mid-Wales where we go to tune out from the burnout, in a tiny hamlet in Powys with just 13 full-time residents and next to zero phone reception. There is no quiet like the countryside quiet, and who doesn’t come out of the city just to breathe fine air these days?

For reading, I combined crime schlock with lit crit. First Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (I have annoyingly run out of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels). Then a quirky essay on hyphens in Stig Abell’s increasingly hip TLS. But my heart was won by Sybille Bedford’s 1963 marvel, A Favourite of the Gods. I’m not sure in the 21st century they make novelists quite like they did in the mid-20th century. Give me a desert island filled with Iris Murdoch, Margaret Forster and Muriel Spark to read and I would be content. (It is 20 years this year since Bedford appeared on Desert Island Discs, and her luxury was as classy as her writing: a French restaurant in full working order.)

Hen pecked

I only really stepped outside for short walks to see our neighbour Marjorie, who runs a country kitchen outside her front door next to the churchyard. Each day she places fresh eggs and homemade jams, welsh cakes and fresh pies in a cupboard with an honesty box, all covered by chicken wire to keep out the foxes. Marjorie gets plenty of sales from the surrounding villages. Word has spread locally on the fastest network known to man – word of mouth. I note that she is a more successful entrepreneur than I am: her profit margin is close to 50 per cent.

Intelligent life

I definitely needed a break. Last year I extended the reach of our network, Editorial Intelligence, into Europe, with pop-up symposiums in Berlin and Amsterdam.  But I also went to nine cities in as many months on the road with Bloomsbury for my book. I’ve notched up 100 events and interviews: authors today, much like politicians, are on a permanent campaign. Audiences and readers seem very keen to talk about what I call “social health” and why we need to manage modern connectedness as much as we do our physical and mental health.

My book is partly a practical how-to, and partly a memoir of a career spanning Telex to Twitter, but it also covers the politics of the workplace. I’ve been a secret management geek since my twenties, inspired by an early encounter with the late Peter Parker, who once ran the British Railways Board. Management is to “leadership” what vinyl is to the CD: it will outlast the fads.

Roughly translated

I closed the year in Brussels, where the British-run Full Circle club arranged three talks and three interviews in 24 hours. The interviewer from L’Echo asked what my late father, Eric Hobsbawm, would have thought of Jeremy Corbyn. I replied that I was happy to tell them my view instead: that despite my being somewhat politically polygamous, I thought he was the right Labour leader
for these times.

The interviews with L’Echo and other European newspapers are being published now. I get the gist of French, but to read coverage from the Netherlands I needed Google Translate (and an emoji thumbs-up text from a Dutch friend) to realise it came out OK. The translation rights to my book have just been sold to China, so I am looking forward to seeing my work in Mandarin characters. Next time I am asked what I do, I may just reply: “Hoogleraar, ondernemer, auteur en spreker.

Face to face

I spent the entire holiday fortnight not reading social media and emails, and as a result feel like I have had a fast. I have been practising “Techno Shabbat” for a couple of years now, using the traditional Jewish Friday night supper as a moment to disconnect from most electronic devices and turn to family meals and walks, and only pen, paper and talking until Monday morning (telly doesn’t count, nor does the odd sneaky text). Reader, I urge you to try it. With the news that the average active Facebook user spends 50 minutes online per day, it is clear that we’re getting obese not just on sugar but on the dopamine rush delivered by algorithms. The new obesity is infobesity.

Siri, switch off

The power struggle between mere mortals and the limitlessness of tech is dominating my thoughts. Books by my bedside include Noam Cohen’s clever takedown of all those pale, male Silicoevangelists whom he calls “The Know-It-Alls”; Geoff Mulgan’s Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World; and something a bit less hot off the press: A Barratt Brown’s 1934 The Machine and the Worker, borrowed from the London Library and chock-full of insight into how we tried to make sense of working life post-industrial revolution 1.0.

I’m about to run our second series of “The Human and the Machine” symposiums this year, and start a podcast of the same name. No one can get enough of asking questions about what it all means. My money is not on the driverless car or the Alexa-Siri-Googlebox at home, but something else: you and me. Let’s not outsource ourselves.

Votes for Johnson

Back at work and craving respite already, I shall veg out watching Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a “Big Sister” edition, apparently on account of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Here’s hoping that Rachel Johnson wins. As another “daughter of”, Rachel nevertheless raises her own smart voice above the fray, on her own terms, and gets my vote.

Julia Hobsbawm’s book “Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload” is published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist