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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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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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