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  1. Politics
2 April 2014

In this week’s New Statesman

The reality of the tech utopia, Laurie Penny on Silicon Valley and Jemima Khan meets Jimmy Wales.

By New Statesman




Cover story: Bryan Appleyard on the tech utopia: were we sold a lie?

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Mr Knowledge: Jemima Khan meets Jimmy Wales.


The nerds and the needy: Laurie Penny reports from Silicon Valley.




Michael Heseltine: “The UK will join the Euro.”


Steve Richards on paranoia and suspicion in Ed Miliband’s office.


Iain Dale: Farage vs. Clegg and an open invitation to phone Ed.


Alex Clark on how social media is changing the novel.


Giles Foden: Rwanda 20 years on.


Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn joins the NS as a columnist.


The NS critic at large, Mark Lawson, on the Pritzker Prize for architecture.


Broadband in the bush: Mary Hamilton reports from Australia.


Sophie McBain on hacking Syria’s dark web.


Jessica Hatcher on the app that’s winning the war in Congo.


**Read the Tech issue in full for £2.99 on the all-new redesigned New Statesman app for iPad, iPhone and iPod – available now from Apple**





In an essay for the NS Tech issue – “Hot gospellers in hoodies” – Bryan Appleyard argues that futurologists are always wrong and warns that we should be sceptical of the techno-utopians:


Take the curious phenomenon of the Ted talk. Ted – Technology, Entertainment, Design – is a global lecture circuit propagating “ideas worth spreading”. It is huge. Half a billion people have watched the 1,600 Ted talks that are now online. Yet the talks are almost parochially American. Some are good but too many are blatant hard sells and quite a few are just daft. All of them lay claim to the future; this is another futurology land-grab, this time globalised and internet-enabled.


Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has an astrophysicist friend who made a pitch to a potential donor of research funds. The pitch was excellent but he failed to get the money because, as the donor put it, “You know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired . . . you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”


[. . .]


Bratton is not anti-futurology like me; rather, he is against simple-minded futurology. He thinks the Ted style evades awkward complexities and evokes a future in which, somehow, everything will be changed by technology and yet the same. The geeks will still be living their laid-back California lifestyle because that will not be affected by the radical social and political implications of the very technology they plan to impose on societies and states. This is a naive, very local vision of heaven in which everybody drinks beer and plays baseball and the sun always shines.


The reality, as the revelations of the National Security Agency’s near-universal surveillance show, is that technology is just as likely to unleash hell as any other human enterprise. But the primary Ted faith is that the future is good simply because it is the future; not being the present or the past is seen as an intrinsic virtue.





This week George Eaton, the editor of the NS politics blog The Staggers, meets Michael Heseltine and finds that the Conservative peer’s enthusiasm for politics is undiminished at the age of 81. Heseltine tells Eaton he is convinced Britain will join the euro and warns that David Cameron’s EU referendum will have a “chilling effect” on business. He also stands by his condemnation of Ukip as a “racist” party, and advises Boris Johnson to finish his second term as Mayor of London before standing for parliament.


Heseltine on Britain and the euro:


Does he think Britain will join the euro? “Oh yes, one day, one day. We have resisted all these European ventures in my life. We tried to keep out in Messina in 1955 [the conference that led to the creation of the European Economic Community]. That was a very bad decision. Then we joined on terms which were not to our liking but were the best we could get.”


On the “chilling effect” of an EU referendum:


“I believe in Britain’s self-interest being pursued through a European agenda; I’m not in favour of referenda on this or any other subject


“Europe is not an issue of burning public interest. On the salience of public opinion this is way down the Richter scale. It is perfectly true that we have some newspapers and a small coterie of politicians for whom this is the be-all and end-all of life, but that is not reflected in the Bull and Bush in Blackburn where these things are determined.”

Heseltine vowed at the 1992 Conservative conference to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British industry (and to “get up next morning to start again”); he also believes that a referendum now on continued EU membership would have a “chilling effect” on business. “It will. This will be one of the arguments, an important argument. And industry is beginning to say it . . . serious industrialists and our allies – America, Germany – are beginning to express their concerns. This will become a much more articulate debate as time goes on.”


Heseltine on “racist” Ukip:


“The racial overtones that are within the Ukip movement have got the same motivation [and] psychological impact as Mosley in the Twenties and Thirties, as Powell in the Sixties, Le Pen in France, the hard right in Holland and in Germany. It’s all the same stuff.” He stands by his description of the party last year as “racist”. “There is a racist undertone, there’s no question about it.”


Heseltine on Boris:


“Ah, Boris! I’m a great fan of his . . . He’s obviously going to fight to help Cameron to win, and so he should. I’m totally convinced that he will do everything he can. I think, if I was him, I would be inclined to say: ‘I was elected to be mayor of London until 2016; I gave my word to London; I will stick with my word.’ I think that Boris, in his own interests, and he’s fully entitled to see it in his own interests, wants to leave a mark of reliability and dependability and trust and keeping faith with London. After all, it’s 20 per cent of the electorate.”





In a guest politics column for the NS, Steve Richards argues that the mood of paranoia and suspicion around Ed Miliband has festered for too long and should be replaced with openness and “critical candour”:


Nearly all those who work for Miliband are dependent on his patronage. He chose them and they are pleased to be close to him. They do not want to say things that he does not want to hear. The contrast with Tony Blair’s office is marked. Blair had to plead with Alastair Campbell to join him, going out to see him while Campbell was on holiday in France as part of the energetic wooing process. Campbell could be brutally candid because he knew Blair wanted him so much. Other advisers, such as Peter Mandelson, had been senior to Blair in the 1980s. They, too, could be ruthlessly or constructively critical, sometimes both. This does not happen very much in Miliband’s office; indeed, the opposite can happen. I am told that sometimes his staff applaud him when he returns from making a mediocre speech.





The NS associate editor, Jemima Khan, meets Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, for the Tech Special Issue interview. They discuss “clicktivism”, democracy, Twitter bans and piracy.


JK: Can online activism be effective?

JW: Yes, and I think the best evidence of this has unfolded recently in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan acted against Twitter and YouTube not because they are ineffective – but because they are effective. Having said that, it is important that we are not naive about the possibilities . . . There is something to the charge that people sometimes engage in “clicktivism” – the lazy approach of hitting “Like” on a petition and feeling that we’ve done something useful. But that doesn’t change the fact that online communities can have very deep and meaningful impacts on people’s lives.


JK: Would you choose a benign dictatorship, or dysfunctional democracy?

JW: Like the true geek I am, I can only answer a question like this by referencing Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru. In Star Trek lore, the Kobayashi Maru is a test at the Starfleet Academy with a “no-win” outcome. Kirk took the test twice and had his ship destroyed, so before trying a third time he hacked into the system to change the outcome. If our only choices are benign dictatorship or dysfunctional democracy, it’s time to hack the system and change the rules.


JK: Where do you stand on piracy?

JW: . . . I think here the key is that we are finally seeing the argument move on from a rather useless debate about how to stop it by using the law (you can’t) into a recognition that, more than anything else, a business-model shift is the most successful way forward for creators of creative entertainment. We know that piracy falls dramatically when studios actually make things available for sale. Spotify, Netflix, iTunes, etc are the solution and are working very well.





The LBC presenter and politico Iain Dale gets tearful at Tony Benn’s funeral in this week’s diary, but recovers in time for the Clegg v Farage big EU debate, hosted by his radio station:

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It was a privilege to attend Tony Benn’s funeral . . . I feel uncomfortable when people applaud in a church, even though I’m an agnostic, but on this occasion it was appropriate. I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral two years ago and thought I had done her justice, but it was nothing compared to the tributes given by Stephen, Hilary and Melissa. They ensured that we all emulated their father’s famous tendency to become lachrymose.


At that moment I thought of Ruth Winstone, his dear friend and editor of all eight volumes of the Benn diaries. When I interviewed her on the day of Tony’s death, she ended the interview by telling me: “Tony really liked you, Iain. He thought you were a brilliant entrepreneur.” Like Tony, I’m a bit of a blubber, but I just about managed to compose myself and bid her farewell.



Tony would have enjoyed the Clegg v Farage EU debate hosted by LBC last week. Why? Because it really seemed to engage people in politics. I hosted the pre-match build-up and post-match commentary and we were deluged with people tweeting and texting . . .


Dale also urges Ed Miliband “to show his human side” and join an LBC phone-in:


. . . the phone-ins we do with politicians on LBC – Call Clegg, Phone Farage, Ask Boris, Balls Calls, Call Chuka, Tickle Pickles, Harangue Harriet (OK, we haven’t quite got the right names for the last two) – are so successful. They allow people to interact with politicians and to engage with them.


Perhaps it is time for Ed Miliband to take up the open invitation he’s had for the past year to do the same with me. He needs to show his human side to an electorate which, according to focus groups, views him as a bit “weird”. Those who know him know something rather different. Come on, Ed. You know you want to.





In a special report, our contributing editor Laurie Penny explains that although San Francisco is awash with tech money, the city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.


The question of whether rampant social inequality is changing San Francisco is a straightforward one, and the answer to it is yes. Yes, tech money is driving the freaks, the queers, the broke artists and ordinary working-class families out of the city, helped along by 30 years of backward housing policies, greedy landlords and inefficient social care. That much is obvious.


What is just as interesting to those with an eye on the digital future is how the local politics of San Francisco is changing technology. The industry that is having the most profound effects on the way all of us live, that is changing what it means to be social, has its geographic hub in a place where social tensions have never been higher.


[. . .]


For better or worse, the class and cultural anxieties of this city are sending ripples around the globe. Tech is not what’s tearing San Francisco apart. America is what’s tearing San Francisco apart – America, and the vanishing chance it offers its citizens to build pleasant lives without brutalising others by proxy. The paradox at the heart of the hi-tech industry, the struggle between idealism and the inhumanities of capital, will leave its mark on the technologies future generations inherit.





Twenty years on from the genocide in Rwanda, Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland, who partly grew up in neighbouring Uganda, considers a newly published account of the mass trauma:


In When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal Story of Rwanda and Genocide, David Belton, a Newsnight journalist who covered the Rwandan Genocide (and also co-wrote and produced the acclaimed film Shooting Dogs), has written a complex, compassionate and scathing account of the genocide and its aftermath.


[. . .]


The distinction between specifics and universals is one of the rifts between the non-fictional and fictional modes of trauma study. In non-fictional treatments, any observation of mass trauma must always return to the historical specifics of the particular crisis, eventually scaling down to the authentic individual testimonies that constitute the mass. A shadow of this requirement still hangs over fictional treatments but it seems to lessen over time, as the success of recent novels and films about the Holocaust demonstrates – though feelings still run high about such books as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful.




Will Self: If you want to go “off-grid”, leave your hi-tech phone shackles at home.


Ed Smith on the vintage nostalgia bounce from new technology.


Ian Steadman on the artistic potential of computer coding.


Claire Rigby finds start-up culture in the favelas of Brazil.


Caroline Crampton on cold-beating tech solutions at the South Pole.


Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire has all the gossip from Westminster.


Mehdi Hasan to Eurosceptics: “You don’t win a fight by leaving the ring”.