Thursday, January 31, 2019

Alternatives to 'News'


The media in Britain don't do complicated.

In the summer of 1999, the then British Home Secretary visited the derelict area of Langworthy in Salford, North West England. He was shocked by the appalling conditions, the boarded up houses, the residents with no hope. Local people, angry and frustrated, shouted at him to 'do something'; six months later, it was announced that thirteen million pounds of government grant was heading their way.

Did it work? Has the area improved? More than a dozen years later, I wanted to know, so. I asked local people, and their answer was clear: 'Yes and No'. Yes, they said, some of the houses had been improved, the area was tidied up, most of the boarded-up houses had gone, a new primary school had been built, and the small local park was greatly improved. No, they said, the shops looked better but had no parking; the biggest bar in the area had been planned to be renovated but instead, was being demolished; the streets that had their houses demolished were now just empty patches of grass, waiting for the economy to improve before anyone could afford to build new properties.

It was a confused picture. Unfortunately, the media can't handle that. The local newspaper is still using pictures from its archives of derelict houses to represent Langworthy, or pictures of the new empty plots as representing the whole area and talk about 'failure' and 'broken promises'. They can't discuss good and bad - at the same time. They can't do both. They can't say, as the local people are telling them, that there have been some good things coming out of all the grants put in and the works done, but there have also been some real disappointments. In particular, the Press simply fails to understand that a hefty proportion of the original, dissatisfied residents of Langworthy have simply moved on, sold their houses, maybe, but relocated anyway, setting up home in a new area, with fresh challenges and new rewards. They aren't there to comment. How do those particular people feel about what was done to their neighbourhood? We'll never know.

The media prefers simple. It wants to see some simplified 'before' and 'after' pictures, and come to a hasty conclusion. It doesn't really want to hear what ordinary people say, unless they can keep it short and keep it simple. If they try to seriously express themselves, the reporters can't cope and the camera people turn off their cameras. They want sound bites: they don't want explanations.

In 1999, we should have seen it coming. That year the BBC sent a film crew to explore the area and discuss the issues for its 'Newsnight' programme on BBC2, (a supposedly 'serious' news show). The first film that went out, in November 2000, showed some shocking footage of boarded up houses and dereliction. They showed deprivation. For instance, poor old Mrs Herring had a coal fire in her lounge, and had to struggle to carry buckets of coal up from her cellar several times a day to feed it. People who saw those images told me they cried. Salford City Council was distraught too, rushed round to her house and organised the funds to pay for a new gas-fired boiler for her, complete with a brand new radiator for each room. (This was at a time when the grants hadn't even started – but they found the money from somewhere.) Poor Mrs Herring had central heating by Christmas.

But in January of 2001, the next episode of the 'Report from Langworthy' used the same footage of a dear old lady struggling up cellar steps. And in April. And in July. It wasn't true, but it was such a good image. The TV continued to use it, even when it was out of date and, to be honest, a complete lie. Obviously, the BBC2 people had their own agenda, and their own point of view, so they simply used something that was instantly recognisable, tragic and moving. It didn't actually say anything about the plans for regeneration that were being put together, or even if they were working or not. But it sure as hell made the viewers feel bad, about the area and about the residents.

Even more telling, the TV people had taken shots of boarded up streets in October 2000 which they were still using in their broadcasts a year later. If they had checked the footage against reality, they would have seen that some of the houses featured had actually been demolished and weren't there any longer, while some of the streets were completely covered in scaffolding, as builders were starting to renovate the properties. That was obviously too complicated for the media people; far easier to keep up the 'image' of boarded-up streets, even when the true picture was starting to change and, in places, become completely different.

They say 'a picture says more than a thousand words', but a picture of a derelict street only makes sense if it's representative, if the rest of the area is desolate too. If Langworthy is anything to go by, it HAS improved – in parts – and if you took the trouble to walk around the area, you'd now see SOME improvement everywhere, and MUCH improvement in some streets. Well, that's too complex for the media; neither the TV, nor the Press, has bothered to come back and update the story. The image of dereliction was powerful and striking; so much so, that it lingers on with most of the British public. It's sad, but their view of Langworthy hasn't changed much since 1999, when the first TV programme aired. But hey, that's 'News'. A decade of rebuilding and regeneration is less dramatic and less engaging. Shouting is more interesting than talking. It's a shame that the more recent pictures won't make it to the front page, but that's because of the media we pay for in Britain today.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Alternatives to 'Hooking Up'

Of all the recent inane philosophies and dumb 'Lifestyle Choices' to come out of the United States of America in recent years, the prize for the absolutely silliest must go to the concept of 'hooking up'. The way it works is this: teenagers who deem themselves 'too busy' for a formal girlfriend or boyfriend relationship, decide that they don't actually have to forfeit the company of the other gender completely, and therefore agree to spend a short and designated amount of time with someone that they pick out of a random sample of passers-by, strangers, classmates and friends of friends.

If the other person is simple enough to agree, then the pair will adjourn to some romantic setting, such as the back seat of a car, and proceed to 'make out'. This latter idea is even more difficult to envisage, since it seems to cover all manner of physical interaction from kissing and cuddling to 'going all the way'. Occasionally, to be fair, the young people have access to accommodation, their parents or others, and 'hooking up' can take all night. If so, the transaction is seen as somehow more mature and responsible, as there may be less need to make a rush on the fumbling and more time to say, 'Thanks and see you around'.

Young people who engage in these transactions report that they think of the idea as 'adult' and 'grown up'. If, that is, they have parents who spend time with hookers, then they probably have a point. Or if their parents busy themselves with affairs outside the marriage, then too, the concept of hurried trysts in secret places must seem like second-nature. However, the adult world is good at one thing, if nothing else: hypocrisy. While it's true to say that many so-called 'grown-ups' are surprisingly immature in their liaisons and actually do a lot more of what they tell their children not to do than they should, (or is good for them), the moral stance of grown-ups is clear: short-term 'romance' without commitment is worthless.

The aim, for most people growing up in the Western world, is to strive for a long-term, monogamous relationship that will form a stable backdrop to the difficult business of raising children. If the kids don't get that, or have moved on into a new sense of re-evaluating the one night stand as some kind of serious, innovative or fashionable way of conducting themselves, then one thing is clear: this generation of adults have seriously failed their children.

The young people, reportedly, don't see that. They see advantages in this way of interacting. The benefits, as expressed by these young people, have to do with creating more time to spend on their studies, apparently. If they cut down on the amount of hours they simply 'hang out' with boyfriends and girlfriends, (all that listening to music and drinking milk shakes and frothy coffees), then they can hit the books. If they're not down the Mall or taking desultory walks alongside the Lake, they will do better in school, (they say). This is curious, because it seems to show that they have picked up yet another message from the adult world, and misinterpreted this too. Just as above, the youngsters seem to think that an affair can be as rewarding and fulfilling as actually living with someone full time, they have taken on board the concept of 'work hard' and 'study', and re-interpreted that to mean that going out with someone is more of a distraction than an important, (or even essential), part of life.

In Britain, thank goodness, it has always been said that University is just as much about meeting people and growing up as it is about research and reading. Parents have even encouraged their children to travel away to a University and not live at home, since it means the kids will learn valuable lessons in independence. When, the older people say, you don the cap and gown and collect your certificates at the end of the course, it's not just what it says on the piece of paper that counts: it's also what you young people have learned from each other and about yourselves, and a lot of that comes from finding someone to go out with. Missing out on the highs and lows of relationships over long time-scales is likely to be something that will stunt the emotional growth of kids and make them unfit to parent the next generation. It's not even a wrong turn on the road of life: the concept of 'hooking up' is a blind alley that leads nowhere but the motel of loneliness and heartache.

Youngsters involved in this practice, ever inventive, may seek to justify their behaviour, of course. They say that their illicit activities still enable them to get to know the people they spend time with, (even if the time is limited, rushed and pressured). This is nonsense, too. Just as adult gorillas have a strict social code which means that not all the young males are actually ever involved in procreation at all, the idea that hooking up is fulfilling the same function as a mixer, prom dance, or cocktail party, is to spot that polite society tends to politely ignore the bit that goes on once the lights are out or the curtains drawn, but to undervalue every other aspect of interactions between individuals that makes up social life . It is this aspect of the fantasy that is so corrosive: it dulls the emotions and clouds the differences between individuals.

It used to be the case that young people were a lot more selective about who they slept with, and with good reason: the well known saying is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a prince. It doesn't say that you gain anything by moving beyond the kissing stage. But also, as with gorillas, if you make a habit of sleeping around, you aren't actually going to meet a lot of people, or very much variety. The number involved in the practice is always going to be less than the total numbers in the class. To hazard a guess, if a young lady chooses to 'hook up' on a regular basis, she is never going to get to speak to a geek, ever. The good-looking guys will get all the women they want, of course, (as with gorillas), while the cerebral types will be left waiting.

This is the last, and most telling, point. 'Hooking up' does not benefit boys and girls equally. In fact, some analysts might see a similarity between what is happening now and the worst aspects of the 1970s, when marriage was more of an acknowledged aim, and casual relationships were common, but concealed. The losers, in those days, were women, which is why some stood to one side and invented a Women's Movement. The cynic, looking at recent developments, might simply conclude that fashion has once again turned a full circle and men have yet again emerged the victors. 'Hooking up' is, at the end of the day, a young man's dream - physical intimacy without commitment. Unfortunately, it may well turn out to be society's nightmare.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Alternatives to 'Gesture' Politics

Why 'Gesture Politics' is important

If I walk out of my house, go to the top of my street and look left down the next road, what do I see? Satellite dishes, a line of them, one attached to the front of each house. Fading off into the distance.
So what does that tell me?
That my neighbours are interested in watching TV, perhaps, and want a huge choice of channels. They like to stay in maybe, drink a few beers, follow the sports and enjoy some films. How do I know all this? I don't, but that's the impression I get, and impressions count for a lot.
It could be different. Here's my vision -
in place of the satellite dishes - the small, round black aerials that I see at the moment - there would be a line of mini-wind turbines instead.
What would that tell us?
Well, something different, obviously.
It might suggest that now, the same people are concerned more about the environment. Perhaps they have started thinking about their children's future, and have decided to play their part in making the world more sustainable. Each has taken the trouble to go out and buy a windmill and have it put up on the front of their house. Each one is generating a small amount of electricity, which helps cut their fuel bills and contributes to the power needs of the nation.
It would show that they care.
Ah, some people say. It's not real. It's just a 'gesture'.
Wind turbines don't make economic sense, they say. The amount of electricity they can generate is tiny, especially in urban areas. The contribution they can make to the power needs of the country is minute - very, very small. They aren't 'value for money'. They cost a lot, to buy and to install, and they would have to be running at peak efficiency for many years before they would ever pay for themselves.
That may be true. But it doesn't depress me.
On the contrary, my 'vision' of every household in the street making a positive decision to 'do something' about alternative power is a dream that cheers me up and makes me very happy.
People do have the power to 'make a difference', even if it is only a small thing. And a 'gesture'. A small thing.
Because, as everyone knows, actually, small things can add up to a lot.
Campaigners have calculated that if every household in Britain re-equipped each and every room in their home with low energy lightbulbs, then the nation could do without a whole power station. In these days of concern over pollution and carbon emissions, well, yes, that is something.
That would make a difference.
More, and even more prosaic, another suggestion is that if every house in the land was fitted with a decent level of loft insulation (and an amount of draught proofing on doors and windows), that would add up to a lot more. Maybe as much as two or three power stations.
That's impressive. A valuable saving on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
The only problem with it, of course, is that it's not quite as exciting as 'alternative energy'. People don't seem to get so enthusiastic about layers of insulation in their attics as they do about windmills on their roofs.
Maybe it's something about the 'impression' a wind turbine can make, fluttering up there on your roof, in plain view, as opposed to insulation under the roof – which you can't see. Or, buying a windmill is somehow more definite, more of a step forward, than buying bulky rolls of insulation.
But that's not more 'real', either.
It's all about impressions. All about 'gestures'. And that can be very important.
Way back in the 1980s, campaigners calculated that if you took the amount of money it would cost to build a brand new nuclear power station – at the time, about three thousand million pounds – and spent that on loft insulation instead, then you wouldn't need the power station!
It was a choice – power station or loft insulation.
Guess which one the government chose?
Why, the choice that led to a brand new, glossy building that the politicians could be photographed opening. There's not much of a 'photo opportunity' in household lofts!
Is this important?
Yes, because, ultimately, it's all about communication.
If people put up windmills on their roofs, then maybe it wouldn't be a great economic investment, but it would be a great 'message'. It would let politicians know that ordinary people thought that 'alternative power' was a good idea, and they were prepared to back their enthusiasm with their own money.
That would give the government permission – and some incentive - to spend some of the people's taxes on windmills too, bigger and better ones, the sort that would generate real power and make a real difference.
At the moment, the opposite is true.
Those in charge, the ones with real power, can say today, 'Look, who cares about 'alternative power'? Nobody is doing anything about it. I can't see any change in my street'. See? If everybody had a windmill as I suggested, it might just change the way people saw things.
Instead, the doom sayers tell you, 'These tiny windmills don't make any difference at all. What's the point?' The point, in my view, is to get your message across. Express your point of view.
If you don’t worry about what impression you will be giving – right now and later, and what it might lead to, - then those in power are quite right to say that they don’t understand your point of view. Why? Because you haven't communicated anything!
A good example of that, for me, happened a few years ago in our area.
Unemployment was a problem, at the time, and I was a member of a group that was helping young people start their own businesses. We provided training and assisted these youngsters to draw up Business Plans, apply for grants, find premises and start their own businesses. It seemed like a great project, with a lot of good results. We were so successful, we had grants from a lot of funders, including the National Lottery.
Then, one day, the axe fell.
The Lottery funders rang up to say they were going to visit us. That seemed fine. It didn't seem like bad news. It was. They'd made a mistake, they said. They never should have given us a grant. We were the wrong type of organisation.
Hold on, we said. We're half way through a three year grant. If you withdraw your money now, we might collapse. We might have to close the service and sack staff. Sorry, they said. Really. Our mistake.
Yes, your mistake, we agreed, but it's we who suffer. And our clients. Without our help, they might not get into business. They might stay jobless, on the dole, being a drain to society.
No good. It wasn't heard. Our pleas fell on deaf ears.
The point is, when we had a Management Committee meeting, several of the members said – Well, that's it. Let's pack up now.
Hold on, I said. Shouldn't we complain? Look at what’s happened; they've changed their minds. First they said we could have the grant. Now they say we can't. Shouldn't we protest?
No point, the pessimists said. They won't change their minds. It's all over.
OK, let's be realistic. No, the Lottery Board never did change their minds. They cancelled the grant, (but luckily didn't ask for any of their earlier grant back, so we didn't have to close). I realise that.
The point, for me, was that we'd been treated badly and we should let them know. We should communicate. It won't make any difference, the other members said. Maybe not, I agreed. But we need to let them know how we feel.
Well, we didn't. We never did.
The Lottery staff went away and must have thought we were pretty happy. We hadn't complained, so why should they worry?
The only problem – not for us – is that the next time the Lottery wanted to screw around with a not-for-profit charity group, they could, couldn't they? They knew nobody would protest. They knew they would get away with it.
Even if it would do no good, I was insisting, we should let them know what it meant to us. We should communicate. We shouldn't just jump ahead to what we thought may happen – that they would ignore us. We should be prepared to go through the motions of protest, both for our sakes (in case we ever applied for another grant) and for the sake of all those other groups that were going to be messed around, now that the funders knew it was so easy.
My vision - today, now - is for bumper stickers.
I appreciate that it's very difficult to communicate with politicians in this country. Particularly the members of the Cabinet, who get taken around in chauffered limousines, and never have to talk to ordinary people.
Imagine if there were bumper stickers on every car, saying things like 'Yes to Alternative Power', 'Windmills are great' etc. Even the guys in the big cars might see them. As they were driven down Whitehall, on their way to important meetings, (if they bothered to glance out of the darkened windows of their plush vehicles), they might notice the stickers on all the cars they passed. They might just pause, and think to themselves, 'There's a lot of support out there. Maybe I should take note of it'.
It's a thought, isn't it?
No guarantees, of course, and maybe it's only a 'gesture'. But, in my book, it's something that everyone could do. We could make our feelings known, get our message across.
And that's the best hope that things will improve.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Alternatives to books

Wow, Mike. What you say?
Is there an Alternatives to books??

Well, probably. The e-book is going to change the world - real soon, now. Way back in the 1980s, when the Personal Computer was in its infancy, we were told that the logic was inescapable: now that ordinary people could read text on a screen, they said, then the days of the printed page were numbered. There was a better way. After all, the Personal Computer – we were assured – would soon be in every office, in every home, and it would give everybody access to the biggest library in the world, in digital form. In the future, so the story went, you would walk into someone's new house and the most striking feature would be that there would be no bookshelves. There would be no need for any! All data would be stored on computers, out of sight.

That first myth is the easiest to deal with. People still have shelves, but they're not necessarily groaning under the weight of books anymore, no. But they probably contain other stuff - knick knacks, souvenirs of Blackpool - and some media, such as CDs, DVDs, videotapes (since people haven't all moved on. Ask them - they’ll tell you about the joys of Betamax), vinyl - (which went, and then came back, having a second go) - and, even, surprise, surprise, that throwback to the 1970s, the cassette tape. Well, cassettes are old-fashioned now, but many new home entertainment centres have been forced to include a means to play them, like they used to - because that’s what people want! They like cassettes. The things are small, convenient, easy to carry around in your pocket, and could be played anywhere – in the home, the office and your car. Yes, but CDs came along and they were better, we are told. Better sound quality, better – Hold on, they aren't better. As many a computer nerd knows, a round plastic disc is not more convenient than a small plastic box. The disc rolls off the desk or table, it gets scratched, it slips down the side of things and can't be retrieved. Also, it doesn't do well what people actually want. In the days of vinyl when cassettes were invented, ordinary residents found a terrific use for the cassette. You could borrow your friend's record, tape it at your house, give it back and have a workable copy. No, that's not happening now: CDs don't do that well. Even without 'borrowing' your pal's music, and using access to the internet and download sites, the problem is that some CD players refuse to play 'home made' disks, for whatever reason. So you can't slip your favourite tracks in your pocket and carry them round and play them anywhere – ah, but that's why someone invented the i-Pod, you say. Yes, that does do the trick of storing music from anywhere you are lucky enough to find it – the web, your ‘friends', something someone gave you for Christmas – but it adds a layer of technology, the computer. If you look at a friendly old cassette recorder now, the most important thing was how simple it was to operate, how few controls. Compare that to the laptop computer. Ouch, there's no comparison. Saving and storing music is now more flexible, people will tell you. Yes, but nothing like as downright simple!

Back to books. Now, in our bright new future - which has already arrived - I can load up text on my laptop, tablet or phone. As long as I have access to the web on my laptop or desktop computer, tablet or whatever, I can download just about every book that wasn't written yesterday, but there is a problem: the computer screen. A screen isn't as easy to carry round in my pocket as a book. Compare the situation on a crowded commuter train, early in the morning. People with paperback books can read them in any corner, whether squeezed against the door or hanging on to a dangling support. The person with the laptop needs a table, or even a seat, but room to move their elbows. Ah, but that's why someone invented the Smart phone, you say. You can download your text onto your little pocket machine and scan the words in any tight corner. But when you start listing the attributes of a phone with novels and ‘How To’ manuals on it, you come to a very strange conclusion. The hand-held device is portable, handy, will fit in your pocket and can be carried around. Can be accessed anywhere and shared with friends. It's small, friendly and human sized. In fact, it's exactly like a book! There are only two differences, one good, one bad. One is that you can store more than one book on it at any one time. Wow, you're saying that a device the size of a paperback book can actually store dozens of paperback books inside itself. It's almost like a fairy tale: imagine a book that had blank pages and every day you could wish for a new story and it would show you it. Then it would blank its pages until tomorrow, when a brand new, undiscovered story would appear. What could be better than that? Well, something that was actually readable. Printers have been working for years to discover fonts that are easy on the eye and readable in all lights. The phone has been forced to try and duplicate the sheer joy of black writing on a white background, a trick that can fail in poor ambient light or when the batteries are low. In fact, the problem for hand-held devices is exactly that. They can't deliver a printed page, it's just a pretty average copy of one. That's their weakness.

Still, the market progresses and every year 'the e-book' we are told is growing on us and will finally deliver all our expected and unexpected specifications. Unfortunately that means – if you go to the web again and look for e-books to read – that they are still being offered in a variety of confusing formats as Kindle, Nook and Kobo machines still vie to become the new, universal standard. Perhaps it will happen. Perhaps, even now, the hand-held device (AND format) is being developed that will become the new, acceptable alternative to the novel in pocket form. But the test is back here in reality, not in the laboratory. Just like 'the paperless office', it's a promise that hasn't delivered, a vision that hasn't become a reality. For some reason – some annoying, illogical, all too human reason – the people who actually enjoy reading are, as yet, addicted to the touch, the feel and maybe even the smell, of the printed page. They stuff books into their pockets in the morning, and read printed novels in their spare moments and lunch hours. Not yet have they become the humans who manage without paper, merely and solely pulling out of their pockets their small electronic friends in order to indulge in stories, tall tales and inventions. Why not? We can only speculate. It's frustrating for the marketing manager, but interesting for the sociologist. The e-book is here to stay, they cry, so why won't people just co-operate and start using them as the go-to first choice, all day, every day, and declare themselves free and able to manage once and for all without the technology of the 15th century?