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Seven things I learnt from the British Library’s Magna Carta show

The British Library has a terrific, totally absorbing show about Magna Carta – which is the cornerstone of world democracy or a sort of baronial shopping list weirdly granted in a field by a King who didn’t mean it – depending on your perspective. It includes two original 1215 manuscripts and dozens of other beautiful documents. It’s not enormous but there is a lot of reading so the audio guide is worth the money. I’m not a historian – or even very bright – so I learnt a lot, like for instance:

1. Magna Carta’s actual connection to the present day is unbelievably tenuous. The whole thing was repealed a couple of months after it was agreed, the Pope (who was technically in charge at the time) rubbished the enterprise completely (which is what reluctant signatory King John wanted him to do all along) and hardly any of the charter’s provisions survive in law. That it has any influence at all should be a surprise. That it’s the central text of representative democracy and the rule of law all over the place is mind-blowing. This is how pieces of paper (parchment) become totems, people.

2. The first one isn’t the important one. Later ‘editions’ of Magna Carta, copied out by monarchs, bishops, lawyers, barons – each introducing their own variations, glosses, limitations, expansions – have been more important in the formation of law and practice. Henry III’s 1225 version is probably the most influential and the nearest to a definitive Magna Carta.

3. Magna Carta didn’t make it into print for nearly 300 years. The first printed edition was published in London in 1508 (Caxton got going in 1473) and the first English translation wasn’t printed until 1534. That’s when its influence exploded. Hardly anyone knew it existed before that – the constitution nerds and rule-of-law geeks of their day. Once it could be passed around, though, in compact printed form, its language began to be used in laws, cited in disputes with overbearing monarchs, quoted in the popular prints. So – you guessed this already – the long-term influence of Magna Carta is actually all about advances in content distribution technology.

Part of the 1689 Bill of Rights
4. The Bill of Rights of 1689 is a much more important document. It’s an actual act of Parliament to begin with, using recognisable legal language, and most of its provisions actually survive in law. It’s the Bill of Rights that we have to thank for the modern idea of ‘civil rights’. Many later documents owe a lot to the 1689 Bill of Rights – not least its American namesake (if you Google ‘Bill of Rights’ the English one doesn’t show up until page two) and the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). I’m happy to learn that the resonant phrase “certain ancient rights and liberties” is from the Bill of Rights. It’s also, incidentally, unbelievably beautiful. Whoever wrote out the original document had the most exquisite roundhand. It makes Magna Carta look shabby.

5. The Cato Street conspiracy is one intense story. And it’s got the lot: a government spy, a honey trap, a ridiculous, hopelessly bodged plan straight out of a Tarantino movie and a brutal response from the state, including the last judicial beheading to take place in England. The conspirators set out not to assassinate a statesman; they set out to assassinate all of them – the whole cabinet anyway. Their beef was, er, vague, but hinged on the oppression triggered by the wave of European revolutions that preceded it. And Magna Carta was cited in the defence when the case came to trial.

Poster for Chartist meeting, Carlisle, 1839, from the National Archives
6. The Chartists knew how to design a poster. As I said, I’m no historian but the orthodoxy is that the Chartists achieved almost nothing. They were after the vote for working men but it was decades before suffrage was extended meaningfully (and did you know that it was 1918 before all men over 21 could vote?). Fear of dissent and revolution meant the Chartists were harried out of existence before they could produce any change. But, while they were active, they were great communicators and the first movement to make really smart use of mass protest, of what we’d now call ‘the street’. This poster, which is in the National Archives, is absolutely beautiful. A vernacular letterpress masterpiece. We should all aspire to such clarity (there are others, like this one, for a meeting at Merthyr Tydvil in 1848 and this one, for a meeting in Birmingham in the same year. All lovely).

7. 1935 was the 720th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta so, unaccountably, a year before that, a great pageant was held at Runnymede, site of the signing.

Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

The pictures and this Pathé newsreel suggest a very English blend of eccentric and noble, camp and dignified. I’d love to have been there. This BL blog post suggests something rather splendid and rousing: ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets a BBC Four history doc.

In praise of friction

Install Privacy Badger. It’s a plug-in from the EFF that blocks the nasty stuff that web site owners silently insert into your browser – tracking code, cookies and code from third-parties. It works in Firefox and Chrome (but only on a computer, not on your mobile). Now enjoy the genuinely freaky experience of wandering the web unrecognised. Not anonymous, just not known. Like a character in a William Gibson novel who’s had the implant ripped out. This is what it’s like not to be tracked (disclaimer: this only works for web sites. Your government is still tracking you).

The immediate effect is more friction. Gone: the convenience of breezing around the web like you’re a VIP. Barriers pop up everywhere. But, you’ll realise, the experience of showing up at one of your regular web sites and seeing that bloody cookies warning again and being asked to log in from scratch again is, seriously, charming. You’re logging in again because the web site you’re visiting, which is your absolute favourite, has no idea who you are. Friction is good.

Likewise, seeing the little Privacy Badger icon light up, telling you that 10, 20, 30 (sometimes 40 or 50) tracking elements on the page have been blocked, is the simplest possible reminder of the sheer density of the thicket of tracking code you’re entangled in now.

And the fact that some pages won’t display at all, or are just broken, because Privacy Badger won’t allow them to load code from another domain, is also – seriously – sort of bracing. As you go through the list of blocked elements looking for the one that’s stopping the page from displaying, you’ll learn more about how third-party code makes the modern web work. Consciousness raised.

Incidentally, it’s going to take you a while to notice, but you’re not seeing the usual chaff of Facebook, Twitter and Google gadgets either. They’re blocked.

Is this a bit paranoid? A bit weird? Yes. But it’s also profoundly sane. Blocking all this stuff, this invasive cruft, this miserable, intrusive web junk is a good thing not because it makes it harder for big media to make a living. It’s a good thing because it switches things around and puts you back in charge. It’s now your decision whether you activate all those trackers again. If you’re feeling big about it – magnanimous – you can switch Privacy Badger off all together for sites you trust. But that’s a decision you made, not a default behaviour (I’m a grown-up and I want great sites to survive. I’ve done this for lots of sites).

Canny web site owners are responding to users who block their tracking code by popping messages saying things like: “we notice you’re running an ad blocker. Would you be a nice person and switch it off?” Some won’t allow you in at all if you’re running an ad blocker. And this is cool. It’s the right way round. It makes your contract with the publisher explicit. Everything’s in the open (and Privacy Badger will still show you a list of tracking code, even for sites you’re not blocking, so you’re in the know). There are also legit ways for publishers to stop Privacy Badger blocking their sites.

Publishers will tell you that friction = death for sites on slim margins and with sharp-elbowed competition. They’ll tell you they couldn’t possibly make the tracking trade-off explicit. And they’ll tell you it’s all already in their terms of use. And my answer to that, of course, is going to be something like: “there’s your problem.”

The electro-mechanical sublime

I visited the quite amazing Museum of Pinball in Paris last weekend. It was a revelation.

The pinball machine (‘Flipper’ in France) represents some kind of high point in pre-digital coffee bar thrills. The genius of cramming so much potential ecstasy/kinetic joy into a case the size of a kitchen table. A crazy-noisy-beautiful thing. A cafe owner could buy or make a calculation and rent by the month and that would bring a joint to life. The pinball business model created a short-lived crucible of electro-mechanical innovation and creativity. Pinball was where it was at for the decades before Space Invaders, and those machines were intense: each one was a kind of unhinged son-et-lumiere right there in the corner of your favourite bar. Listen to this:

The appeal of a pinball table is direct and unarguable. You stand connected at the pelvis to a machine that’s shimmying and rocking with trapped energy. A table-top atom smasher. Multiple mechanisms hidden in there, all making their presence felt – tipping, tightening, tripping, spinning, colliding – in rattling, ringing release. And it is all about tension and release – the physical, finger-tip appeal of the spring and the stressed steel strip and the ready-to-trip (will it trip? Will it?) analogue trip-switch. The whole thing is tightly-wound, like a Loony Toons watch about to explode. The anticipation is unbelievably intense.

And there’s the intoxicating, stammering clanging of all those too-loud-too-loud bells – the racket that couldn’t help but dominate your bar or youth club’s soundworld, like an anti-social, de-tuned one-man band or a broken, over-amplified harpsichord. For a bar owner, signing the rental contract for a Flipper was sure going to change the vibe, whatever kind of establishment you ran. Bring you up to date, stamp your place MODERN, jumping, alive.

Pinball machine artwork is bright, back-lit, screen-printed commercial art from unpretentious upstairs commercial art studios. It’s naive art. Frozen for essentially the whole life of the form (until its decline in the 80s) in a hazy inter-war no-place populated by boxers, gangsters, cowboys, strongmen, secretaries, lounge lizards, hostesses, airmen: figures of quotidian glamour – and not a licensed character among them.

Disney, Warners, the comics, the pulps, the big radio shows of the era – they had no presence here. The imagery is all bargain-basement, generic pop cult figuration. Probably because the attraction of pinball is really all physical. No Donald Duck or Rita Hayworth or The Green Hornet could possibly have made a teenager drool more over the new Gottlieb as it was wheeled in from the kerb.

See if you can get your head around this, though: before 1947 pinball was a pure game of chance, a spectator sport. You fired your steel ball into the arena with all the finesse you could muster and then you just stood there, watching as it bounced down the table to the drain (OK, you might palm the lip of the machine or even lift it up and drop it – if the owner wasn’t looking – but that was the extent of your control). Pinball machines until this time, you see, had no flippers. THEY HAD NO FLIPPERS.

Flippers arrived with the Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty in 1947 and, because they were simple and low-powered you needed eight flippers to provide enough oomph to send a heavy steel ball all the way back to the top of the table. And the arrival of these little mechanical bats must have been a shock to the system, must have changed the game forever. And what, exactly, could the attraction of a flipperless pinball table have been anyway? Like a Norton Commando with no wheels or a Gibson Les Paul with no strings. No idea!

The stinging inevitability of failure is the driving force, of course. You can’t beat a pinball table, you can only defer the end. Your score clangs to a new high but in the end your last ball arcs between the flippers like a guided weapon. It’s a lesson in acceptance. It descends. Nothing can save you now. And that’s when you realise, those flippers are ultimately ridiculous: not weapons, not even bats, just a lot of futile, flapping. Pinball’s like life.

Uber’s bubble

So it turns out that Uber isn’t just a neoliberal bulldozer, dismantling restrictive practices, labour codes, tax regimes and all that – according to this article at ValleyWag, it’s also a subprime bubble waiting to happen. Uber’s problem: hiring new drivers isn’t fast enough, especially drivers with fancy cars – and that $17B valuation won’t justify itself. So the company has to reach out to participants who couldn’t normally play, especially people with poor credit (other groups are targeted: veterans, for instance).

So, last year, they teamed up with big auto lenders to offer subprime loans to all comers. And they say it’s really not a problem because these drivers will be able to afford their special rates (which will be a click or two below normal subprime rates) because of that massive new Uber income. It’s not clear how many loans have been written, nor how many have gone bad, but I don’t need to tell you where this is going.

Uber isn’t the lender (that’s Humongous Auto Credit Co. or whoever), takes on no liability and isn’t even claiming a commission – this is purely about adding drivers fast. And, remember, Uber drivers aren’t staff. They don’t even have contracts. To fire a driver, somebody at Uber just swipes left. Blocked.

So, to recap: Uber, a privately-held business, is driving a boom in subprime loans, in as many markets as it can. That epic valuation won’t allow Uber management to take their foot off the gas any time soon and, incidentally, they’re perfectly insulated from the downside by these arms-length deals with lenders. This is just in ride sharing, of course – as Uber moves into other activities they’re going to need to bring on a lot more eager disrupters. It’s going to be ugly.

BTW, I met Martin Wolf the other day, my absolute favourite media economist – at Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. He doesn’t like ‘neoliberal’. There’s nothing neo about these robber barons, he says. They’re old-fashioned 19th Century liberals, rebuilding an old-fashioned 19th Century liberal economy, complete with increasingly vulnerable, un-tenured employees; opaque, unaccountable, ownership structures and captured legislators.

The Valleywag article linked above links on to an admiring Fortune piece and to a short Bloomberg item from when the scheme was announced a year ago. According to the FT they’re planning to look for another $1B at a higher valuation too.

Hashtags are dead

The use of hashtags by brands and organisations is dead, is what I mean. We now know how trivially easy they are to weaponise. They’re big, slow-moving targets for propagandists and terrorists. Clouds of branded chaff, too easily turned bad.

And brand countermeasures – closing accounts, removing content – are so ineffective, so after-the-fact, as to be pointless. And the more successful your hashtag, the more likely it is to be ‘hashjacked’ (sorry). No brand, no matter how ‘edgy’, can take the chance. The bad guys (the very, very bad guys) have a new social media strategy. It’s too late.

Let’s move on. Chris Messina’s invention will persist. Still be a good way to spontaneously organise a group on Twitter but as a way to label content or to rally the brand-loyal to your big show, they’re history.

And for marketing people they were never really about engagement or any of that Cluetrain stuff anyway. They were about measurement, about making ‘the conversation’ visible so it could be labelled and counted which, if not actually evil, is at least pretty cynical.

People will continue to talk about your brand, conversation will continue to peak around big events, sentiment will continue to ebb and flow. You just won’t know. 

And to be honest, I’m not sad. Twitter will still be a terrific place to share ideas and chat with interesting people (and I’m certain that no data scientist will be put out of work). Hashtags had become a kind of online litter anyway. A kind of consensual spam. Let’s think of something new.

Feminism and me

As a young man, I got my feminism from three sources: first, mum and dad. Not radicals, not even feminists. Working class trade unionists who lived the struggle. Second, the academic stuff I soaked up at college: bracing, mind-altering stuff from Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous; teachers and artists like Marie Yates, Mitra Tabrizian, Simon Watney, Cindy Sherman – people who offered me a new way of talking about life and art. Then there was the big one: music. The fabulous, raucous post-punk voices of the Delta 5, the Raincoats, the Slits and, above all – for this fanboy anyway – the Au Pairs. The mighty Au Pairs (look them up).

I’ve got a new source, though: Twitter. It won’t have escaped your notice that Twitter has become home to a new generation of clever, bolshy, uncompromising, articulate feminists. Feminists who are working out new positions, new language, new responses to oppression and discrimination – in the wide-open public space that Twitter offers. Feminists, incidentally, who are not afraid to take on actual sexist scumbags (and those ‘men’s rights’ cavemen). But who also offer a constant challenge to settled positions and to the complacency of old gits like me – people who can’t understand why we can’t just be nice to each other.

This resurgence of disputatious, public feminism on Twitter has got everyone thinking. These activists sometimes make my skin prickle in a ‘not in my name’, ‘how dare you assume’ kind of way but they’re constantly challenging me and they’re updating my worldview in real-time. They ask me what I think about rape and abuse, gender, FGM, porn and sexuality, women’s work and capital. Twitter, of course, since the beginning, has been a crash-course in contemporary thought and there’s never been any shortage of feminists on there but it seems to have become a kind of high-speed laboratory for radical thought, thinking about liberation and social change. And it’s gripping stuff.

What’s wrong with atheists?

I’m an atheist. Just getting that out of the way. Because this is about a problem that I have with atheists. Not all atheists. Just the strident ones, the humourless ones who form and join clubs, who campaign and complain and object. The ones who picket shopping malls when they provide prayer rooms but not ‘rational contemplation rooms’. Those ones.

The source of my problem is simple enough. Atheists are wrong. To be clear: they’re not especially wrong. They’re just roughly as wrong as everyone else. And, like everyone else, from far enough away they’re almost completely wrong. I can say this with certainty. We’ve got plenty of evidence. Thousands of years of it. Neolithic astronomers could line up the stones for the equinox but were wrong about everything else. Copernicus knew the planets orbited the sun but, we can see, got practically everything else wrong. The Papal inquisition was wrong. But so was Galileo. Newton was wrong. Darwin was wrong. Even the mighty Darwin. The splendid edifice of his scholarship is intact and still uniquely influential but, across the decades, large parts of it have been revised, replaced, dropped – as they should. The flat-earthers and the ether/phlogiston merchants – they were all wrong. But then, later on, so was Einstein. Being wrong is more-or-less universal (everyone’s wrong) and more-or-less eternal (all the time). And the more time passes, the more wrong we all are.

To make it more obvious, go back a bit further. Go back ten thousand years, in fact. To the time of the first big settlements and the beginning of farming and the origin of written language and inquiry into the world. What did we know then that isn’t now known to be wrong? Clue: almost nothing. See what I mean?

Now wind forward ten thousand years from the present day: from out there, from as far into the future as we’ve come since the last ice age, almost everything we take for granted now is going to be wrong. Horribly, fundamentally wrong. Wrong in ways that will ripple through human knowledge and force us to revise even our most basic assumptions about the world. Wrong in ways that will make our future selves laugh as they look back and wonder how any of us – believers or non-believers – managed to dress ourselves in the morning.

But, you’ll protest, it’s not about being right or wrong, its about the method. Rational inquiry – the scientific method – actually depends on being regularly, consistently wrong. And, of course, you’ll be right. The big difference between the scientific method and the invisible fairies crowd is the tolerance for being wrong, the constant readiness to check your thought against reality and revise it. The religious folk have a fixed worldview. In fact, their worldview depends on nothing changing: on invariant laws handed down by Gods. Case closed, surely?

But no. Not at all. Rewind again (go the whole ten thousand if you want). Examine the thought of an earlier era – the myths and laws and creation stories of that time. See where I’m going with this? Are they really invariant? Are they even, in fact, recognisable? Do the beliefs that animated the irrational folk of earlier eras still apply? No, they don’t. They’ve been overturned, thrown out and replaced – dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. Objects of worship, origin stories, social and ritual elements: are any the same now as they were in earlier periods? Hardly any. It turns out that just because religious people say their beliefs are eternal and unvarying, it doesn’t mean they actually are. They shift and change constantly. The Vatican, which persecuted and executed astronomers, now operates an important observatory. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists – they change their minds all the time, constantly (when looked at from the right distance) revising and updating their beliefs, quietly dropping the stuff that’s incompatible with current models.

So, rational folk (like me) are as wrong as everyone else and – more than that – have no monopoly on a readiness to update their thought as they acquire new knowledge. And this is what upsets me about the assertive hard-core of atheists/secularists/rationalists – the ones who put ‘atheist’ in their Twitter bios, do stand-up comedy about the silly believers, sue the council for putting on carol concerts and all the rest. Being slightly less wrong than the God botherers doesn’t make you right. We should have the humility to recognise that – over the long run – we’re all gloriously, irredeemably wrong.

Update 30/04: James O’Malley has posted an interesting response to this post called, naturally, ‘What’s Right with Atheists‘!

Tim Berners-Lee’s most important decision

Of the dozens of design decisions that TBL made during 1989, all of which continue to shape the way we build and use the web twenty-five years later, the most important was not requiring permission to link. Seems obvious now – a non-feature in fact – but it’s the reason you’re not reading this on Xanadu (or Prestel or on an X500 terminal or something). The logic of the times – embedded in those other systems – was that documents and data sources had owners and that you couldn’t just link to them without some kind of formal permission. Permission was defined as a system-to-system, technical handshake kind of thing or a person-to-person interaction, like a phone call, or, God forbid, a contract and some kind of payment. TBL’s judgement was that the community he was building his system for – the academics and engineers – wouldn’t want that and that the spontaneity of the hyperlink would trump the formality of permission. And, of course, he was right. It’s the spontaneously-created hyperlink that triggered the marvellous, unstoppable promiscuity of the World Wide Web. It explains the web’s insane rate of growth and the profusion of web services. It’s the root of all this.

School governors. Representative or professional. Choose one.

Last week I spent a few hours floor-walking at a Fair Field parents’ evening, drumming up interest in our parent governor vacancies (I’m chair of govs and a parent myself). I love this bit of the job. You learn a huge amount and there are always surprises and insights. Thinking about it afterwards, the parents I spoke to fell into four groups:

  1. Instant enthusiasm. Done it before, already doing it somewhere else, definitely think about it.
  2. Curious. Aware of our existence, considered it before but never tried it. Might have a go.
  3. No idea. A handful of parents didn’t know we existed, thought we were some kind of external body or had no idea parents could be represented. Some communication to be done here, evidently (makes note). In this group, also, were parents from foreign education systems or with English as a second language.
  4. Most interesting group: parents who knew the governors existed, knew that parents were represented but had ruled themselves out: “left school too early”, “not good enough for that.”, “you wouldn’t want me” (actual quotes). One parent thought her dyslexia would rule her out. Included here are parents who think they don’t have time: “I’ve already got two jobs” was common, so was “I’m a single parent.” Difficult to argue with that, knowing how much time is needed.

We’ll get enough candidates to fill our two vacancies later this term and I hope this bit of outreach will have helped people understand what we do, who we are, why we exist.

There’s a tension here, though, which can only get worse, as the latest round of reforms takes effect. We want to broaden representation, get a wider range of stakeholders involved, make the governing body look a more like the parent body. But we also want to tighten things up, make things more professional, make our contribution more strategic, more effective. When filling governor vacancies, we instinctively want to recruit the kind of managers, lawyers and marketing people we’re going to need if we decide to go for academy status, for instance. And we want governors who need minimal support to get going, who know about how committees work and so on.

So can we do both? Can we bring in inexperienced governors who may lack confidence and the skills we need and hope they can make a strategic contribution? Or should we try to shamelessly target the people we need and worry a bit less about being representative? Either way, the current way of doing things doesn’t seem ideal: there are hundreds of thousands of governor vacancies in Britain and there’s a shortage of strategic skills almost everywhere. These are serious questions: Mr Gove wants governors to lift their game and Ofsted are paying more attention to governance than ever.

So could we try a different approach? If trying to be both representative and professional is too much, how about separating the two functions, concentrating on beefing up the strategic usefulness of the governors and handling the representation of parents and community differently? What if we set up an elected ‘parent panel’ of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic parents whose job would be to voice parents’ concerns, examine the governors’ decisions (and the school’s data) and bring the school’s leadership new ideas? (Google suggests that some schools already have parent panels…).

We’d still have to provide for the statutory representation of parents, of course, and our ‘panel’ couldn’t take on any of the legal responsibilities of governors but I think this approach might actually expand representation, make us more transparent and quite possibly improve our decisions. This is a half-baked idea, not a finished proposal. And I haven’t tested it with my fellow governors or with anyone else for that matter so I’d welcome your thoughts on this in the comments. Have you tried something like this? What have you learnt?

Ian McMillan’s eight favourite podcasts

Radio 3’s Ian McMillan was on a special edition of the Radio Today podcast all about the station the other day. Turns out he’s a connoisseur of the podcast form. He gave Trevor Dann a list of his favourites:

  1. the various Monocle podcasts, especially Tyler Brûlé’s books and magazines podcast The Stack, The Urbanist and The Menu.
  2. The University of Rochester’s 3% – books in Translation.
  3. The Bad at Sports contemporary art podcast.
  4. The All Things Radio podcast, an American radio industry bulletin.
  5. The Radio Today podcast, natch.
  6. The Radio Stuff podcast.
  7. The Guardian’s venerable industry podcast MediaTalk.
  8. The Freelance Web podcast, which is for people who make their living as… well… freelancers on the web.

BTW, listen to the end of the Radio Today podcast and you’ll hear Radio 3’s head of speech Matthew Dodd and Falling Tree‘s Alan Hall talking about doing speech on a classical station and Between the Ears‘ twentieth anniversary.