Pope offers ‘paradoxical’ reflection re. mobile-phone usage: https://t.co/ZmxViQ2pkr YouTube beat him to it: https://t.co/9ZMwxJ2XbX #mscedc

In a report from Reuters the Pope chips in some helpful thoughts, especially after last week’s Lifestream postings:

Pope Francis on Sunday called on people to carry and read the bible with as much dedication as they do their mobile phones.

Speaking to pilgrims in a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square, the 80-year-old pope asked: “What would happen if we treated the bible like we do our mobile phones?”

He continued: “If we turned around to retrieve it when we forgot it? If we carried it with us always, even a small pocket version? If we read God’s messages in the bible like we read messages on the mobile phone?”

Francis called the comparison “paradoxical” and said it was meant to be a source of reflection, adding that bible reading would help people resist daily temptations.

The pope poses regularly for “selfies” with pilgrims who flock to his weekly audiences wielding smartphones, while his English- and Spanish-language Twitter handles have more than 23 million followers.

Francis last year called the internet, social media and text messages “a gift of God” if used wisely.

“It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal,” he said.

But in 2015 Francis told a young girl he was embarrassed to admit that he did not know how to use computers and was an overall “disaster” with technology. He has also said smartphones should be banned from the family dinner table and children should not have computers in their rooms.


By way of my comment, I’m not sure if ‘paradoxical’ is the right or optimal word. Parable-like, perhaps? That said, this week my vicar sent me this, from YouTube, which gives a reverse angle:


from http://twitter.com/Digeded

Enjoying roaming with Google, asking ‘What is an algorithm?’ I guess Google ought to know… #mscedc

Here’s an attempt to create a Timeline of my online searching this morning. I’ve never used this before, and the results are mixed. I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far, and would look to tidy it up more for a second attempt. Some media thumbnails would help, but it’s a sufficient first-timer’s attempt, incorporating some notes I took while I watched. (And I do wish I could embed it here, but I can’t work out how to do that yet. To see the Timeline, you’ll need to click on the hyperlink above.)

This was undertaken prior to any of the set reading, to try and flush out my own thinking about algorithms with a from-fresh look at them. To that end, I appreciated starting off with BBC Bitesize, and working through via Khan Academy. I can’t claim that this is the strict and complete order in which Google brought me through (I only thought of plotting it, part-way through), and the search did rapidly become, via YouTube, a closed universe of TED talks. I watched a couple more after the ones in the time line, but felt the world was shrinking into TED, rather than broadening out from it.


Prior to heading to the readings, this search-cum-voyage-cum-led-by-the-arm-journey has led me to three realisations:

1. I’ve come to realise that when I talk about algorithm, I’m typically talking about a certain ethical-political-economic-cultural-psychological-theological configuration of the term. I think that has to be noted, and read back, into my previous use of the term within earlier postings on this Lifestream. I’m realising today that this is far from adequate, and can’t function critically as an all-embracing notion of what is an algorithm. ‘Algorithmic’ is a term I don’t really understand, and I need to get a better grasp of it.
2. I’m realising we’re not looking at the technical stuff here – but it’s cultural-educational manifestations that are interesting us here. Just as ‘cybernetics’ had a vast technical literature behind it (and associated journals, practitioners, schools, conferences, awards and the like), so too algorithms. I’m realising that any understanding I’m going to get on this course is going to be slender and, as said, cultural-educational at best. I think the limitations are worth noting.
3. I’m realising that I’m algorithmic: it’s not the hidden ‘other’ in that regard. My little daily strategies for regular and irregular life are algorithms. I’ve never thought of them like that before. Likewise, through these videoes, I’ve come to see that algorithms are far more embedded in my so-called ‘offline’ life than I’d realised. This greater ontological spread for the term is something I’m looking forward to exploring more as these weeks unfold. For my theological-educational context, it’s then very attractive to also explore what it would be mean for the New Testament claim that Jesus is ‘Lord of all’ (e.g. Acts 10:36) to include algorithms.
This is all very generative, as I head off to the set readings. I’m glad to have done this first step, today, and to have done so in a fairly naive fashion, ahead of the set assignments. Algorithms and algorithmic cultures are looking more interesting than I thought.


from http://twitter.com/Digeded

Lifestream Summary, Week Seven

As suggested to me in the feedback on my Lifestream, here’s something a little different, modality-wise, from my usual form. It’s something I’ve never tried before, but was inspired by looking at the mini-ethnographies, so here it is, on Adobe Spark.

If I can, I’ll look to embed it. Any advice on how to do so, gratefully received.

Have we “followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (Book of Common Prayer, 1552)? Communities, networks, hearts. #mscedc

This Tweet originally came with this graphic attached to it:

The visual was to divert attention, at the close of this ‘Community Cultures’ block, to the rear of the computer, to under the desk, to the distant server. At the close of a week of Lifestreaming, where technologies seem to bestride the stage of life like gods from the Greek pantheon (Snapchat as hero; Uber has tragically flawed), this seemed an appropriate final stance to take.

The quote is one that I’ve heard all my conscious life, being drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. The 1662 edition of it is still legal tender, liturgically speaking, within the Church of England, but the original wording is over a century earlier than that. It has a curious resonance when I hear and say it in light of this course, though. I’m led to think of digital devices (and their associated desires) – another shift in the fascinating etymological journey that the word ‘device’ has taken over the centuries.

In terms of its performative context, here’s a page-spread from the Book of Common Prayer – these days, it’s increasingly a digital text, but here it is laid out in the ‘little black book’ format which is, for me, its most familiar and embodied form:

For me, it positions digital cultures within a different framing. Yes, news and entertainment blur and mix in fast-moving and uncertain ways, but the devices and desires of our hearts are thus located in a bigger framing, a presuppositional hierarchy in which there is God, his son Jesus Christ, believers are his sheep – lost and found – and his word is to be heard and received. And so, tomorrow, I’ll head off to another community to consider my devices and desires afresh, once again.

The real secret of Chinese internet censorship? Distraction | John Naughton

The real secret of Chinese internet censorship? Distraction | John Naughton

For me, this piece by John Naughton links up a number of threads running through the Community Cultures block. First, contextually, it’s a close fit with my MOOC course, looking at socially-aware art in contemporary China. That my MOOC ran through a Hong Kong institution is a contextual setting I didn’t look closely at, but which would be a further dimension to explore, given further time.
Second, Rebecca MacKinnon’s notion of ‘networked authoritarianism’ helps break down too-easy connections between community and democracy – or, for that matter, that issues of fake news are simply a western-liberal phenomenon. As with so much in contemporary China, the ’50c army’ is both surprising but not completely different from issues facing non-Chinese digital cultures.
Third, the seeming resistance to the internet being used for any collective expression, even that favouring the regime, is a fascinating twist towards nurturing individualism, not community – or individualised community, perhaps? – within China.
There are some dizzying perspectives in this article. Beiow I’ve underlined my key points drawn from it.

The real secret of Chinese internet censorship? Distraction

The core purpose of the ‘50c army’ used by China to control social media is to distract people and talk up the regime, not to argue and edit comments

An internet cafe in Guilin, Guangxi province, China.
An internet cafe in Guilin, Guangxi province, China. Photograph: Alamy

Sunday 22 January 2017 07.00 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 21 February 2017

If you ever want to annoy western policymakers or politicians, then here is a surefire way to do it. Tell them that the only government in the world that really understands the internet is the Chinese communist regime. And if you want to add a killer punch, add the assertion that almost everything we think we know about Chinese management of the net is either banal (all that stuff about the great firewall, paranoia about keywords such as “Falun Gong”, “democracy”, etc) or just plain wrong. Having thus lit the fuse, retreat to a safe distance and enjoy the ensuing outburst of righteous indignation.

The underlying strategy is to avoid arguing with critics of the government and to not even discuss controversial issues

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an apologia for the Chinese regime, which is as nasty and illiberal as they come. But it’s best to have a realistic view of one’s adversaries. China’s leaders have invented a new way of running society. It’s been christened “networked authoritarianism” by Rebecca MacKinnon, a noted scholar of these things. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are followers of Boris Johnson in at least one respect: they believe that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too.

They want to modernise and energise China so that it can fulfil its destiny as a world power. For that, they need it to transform their country into a hyper-networked society. But on the other hand, they do not want democracy, with all its attendant nuisances such as human rights, governments bound by the rule of law, transparency, accountability and the like, and they fear that the internet may give citizens ideas above their station. So they are determined to have the net, but also to manage it effectively. And this they are doing with impressive success.

Most of what we know about how this networked authoritarianism works comes from a smallish group of scholars. The brightest star in this specialised firmament is Gary King, who is director of the institute for quantitative social science at Harvard. Two years ago, he and his colleagues published a groundbreaking study, published in the journal Science, which for the first time revealed how Chinese social media is censored by the government.

The study showed that, contrary to western conventional wisdom, Chinese social media is as raucous and chaotic as it is everywhere else, so the Daily Mail’s idea of a country full of timid, faceless people with only banal opinions is baloney.

The study also revealed, though, that these outlets are ruthlessly but astutely censored: what gets taken down, apart from the usual suspects such as Falun Gong, pornography, democracy etc, are any posts that could conceivably stimulate collective action, even when the posts are favourable towards the government. You can say more or less what you like in China, in other words, as long as nothing you say might have the effect of getting people out on to the streets.

An obvious implication of this research was that the Chinese regime, conscious of the difficulty of running a huge country without the feedback loops provided by democracy, is using the internet to provide that feedback. It enables it to keep a finger on the pulse of the society, as it were. If there is major public concern about the corruption of local officials in some godforsaken province, for example, then monitoring social media provides the centre with one kind of early-warning system.

There was, however, one aspect of Chinese internet management that King’s study did not touch, namely the widespread belief that, in addition to passive monitoring and censorship, the regime also employed legions of part-time bloggers and social media users (maybe as many as 2 million) to post stuff on the net that was favourable to the government or refuted its critics. This was the “50c army” (these people are supposedly paid 50 cents – or yuan equivalent – per post). Now, in a new paper (forthcoming in the American Political Science Review), King and his colleagues have turned their searchlight on this phenomenon.

Once again, their research upends conventional wisdom. The 50c army does exist, they find, but it’s not a part-time operation and it’s more ingenious than most people thought. King and co estimate that the Chinese government fabricates and posts about 448m social media comments a year. But they also show that the underlying strategy is to avoid arguing with critics of the party and the government and to not even discuss controversial issues. They further argue that the goal of this massive secretive operation is, instead, “to distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist party or other symbols of the regime”.

Sounds familiar? If you wanted a hashtag for the strategy, then #MCGA would do nicely. It stands for “Make China Great Again”. If Trump eventually falls out with Putin, he might find some kindred spirits in Beijing.

Tags: mscedc
March 04, 2017 at 10:52AM
Open in Evernote

Is tech forever blowing bubbles (given price https://t.co/Id9wP4kYbq + product https://t.co/tnTzGwdD9a) or https://t.co/OAklXQwDrG ? #mscedc

This trio of pieces concerning this week’s IPO for Snapchat which note:

(a) the company’s buoyany post-floatation valuation, especially as a loss-making company;

(b) the corporate governance model adopted, which suggests that the product is the company’s leadership (even the one person at the top); and

(c) the counter-suggestion to my bubble suspicions, namely that this model of governance might well be more effective – with the possibility of more value accruing from it.

If I’d delayed sending the Tweet, it could have been a quartet of pieces, including another one asking whether all schools should invest in tech companies, following one school’s handsome paper return on an earlier investment in Snapchat.

In the same week that Snapchat were the flavour of the day, Uber played a parallel role as pantomime villain for the corporate tech world, as is evident here, here and here.

Corporations as characters, good or ill – it’s struck me this is all part of the news/entertainment nexus. And, also, great marketing for companies.


Note: five days is a longer time in a news cycle, as this graphic shows:

from http://twitter.com/Digeded

Conflicting BBC News re AI: Facebook spots if you’re down https://t.co/gr6uEhMoc8 Google can’t spot trooling https://t.co/rcM4Kms4Pm #mscedc

Perhaps the early stages of any new technology include days like this. Claim, counter-claim, and failed claim. Also, ‘AI’ is a big, broad category – and very newsworthy as such.
But, that all taken into account, this pair of reports function together as a reminder to test all things, and to look under and beyond the rhetoric. Also, in both instances, Algorithmic Cultures are at work even – especially – in the midst of Community Cultures.

The two items in view are here:

and here:


[Adding in, a day later, March 3: the Amazon cloud ‘outage’ is reported as being due to a human error, a typo, by one engineer. Again, humanity and algorithm are close, close partners, for better or for worse.]

Our Common Creed: The Break – @theosthinktank – Theos Think Tank

Our Common Creed: The Break – @theosthinktank – Theos Think Tank

This is a second blog post, flagged up for me this morning by Theos. I’m including it here as a cultural comment by a thoughtful Christian. Digital cultures bring, and happen within, disruptions and disjunctures. Here, from a thoughtful Christian perspective, is a personal account of a cultural context in which some are experiencing digital cultures. It doesn’t equate ‘the break’ with digital cultures – that would be far, far too simplistic. Rather, both are occurring together. Sometimes one might feed the other; in some situations they appear, even are, different one from the other. For those of us seeking to employ digital learning for theological and ministerial training, however, these interlocks and cultural exchanges are both our surroundings and, to varying degrees, affordances and constraints.


Theos – The public theology think tank Clear thinking on religion and society

Our Common Creed: The Break


.15th February 2017.


What, if anything, unites us a nation? And does it even matter?

Following on from the success of our last ‘long-read’ series, The Mighty and the Almighty, we have asked a number of leading theologians, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and writers – some Christians, others not – to think out loud on the topic. Next up is journalist Melanie McDonagh:

Some changes happen over time but accelerate very quickly as they reach their conclusion, a bit like thawing snow building up on a roof, then sliding down all at once in a whoosh to leave bare, dark slates. The transformation of the place of women in the workplace, say, took over a century and a half to come about, but the pace of change in the last couple of decades has been far quicker than at any other time.

Other changes may be an even longer time coming but when they finally happen, it’s with even greater speed. That’s the case with the withdrawal from Christianity by British, Irish and Western societies. It’s been a long time coming – the French Revolution (or, at a stretch, the Enlightenment) would be one of several possible starting points – but it has accelerated during my lifetime, especially in the last 25 years. And precisely because it has happened under the noses of me and my contemporaries – indeed, we’ve been players as much as spectators in this drama – it’s all the more difficult to document and describe.

When I was growing up the question you might be asked about religion was not ‘are you Christian’ so much as ‘what kind of Christian are you’. Catholic or Protestant was the crucial divider, unless you were Jewish, with the further interesting possibility of being any of them and an agnostic as well. Now the identifier is, “Are you ‘religious’?” (a term only applied to other people) though the person answering may instead self-identify as “a spiritual person” (which is almost always something you say about yourself). People in former Communist countries had greater clarity in these things – they would ask, disconcertingly, “Are you a believer?” – but it is only in the last decade and a half that this question could be put to me in London rather than, say, Belgrade.

The consequences of this change are momentous. Any one of umpteen statistics and polls would make the point – and I shall discuss a few later – but let me just mention the Bible Society’s finding in early 2014 that around three in ten children do not know about the Crucifixion, or the story of Adam and Eve; a similar number do not know that the stories about the Nativity come from the Bible. The parents polled were confused about whether Noah’s Ark is in the Bible or popular fiction. This is unprecedented. We’re not talking about formal Christianity – baptism– so much as an acquaintance with the outlines of the stories, precisely the things the simplest souls would have known a couple of generations ago. The next door neighbour of my childhood, who left school at 14, would have been able effortlessly to read pictures on scriptural themes in any art gallery that now baffle university arts graduates; but then, she knew the stories.

We are the generation that has lost touch with the stories. It is, of course, possible to tell children about Noah’s Ark and Adam’s apple merely as stories – as cultural Christians, such as Professor Richard Dawkins recommends – and that would certainly be better than nothing. But although Jonah and the Whale and Puss in Boots are both very good stories, the first has something to say about a creator and his creatures; the second about a cat and his human. And it is the creator in Jonah who is now as disputed as Jonah’s sojourn in the whale’s insides. Christianity is, of course, a religion built on a story, a narrative; it gives it an entirely different quality from a philosophy of life built on propositions.

My own conviction is that doctrine matters and the incarnation matters most of all. I think we have a different take on the world if we think that there is a God who made us and that God became man, and a poor man at that. I think we have a different view of society if we feel that there is community at the heart of the Godhead, namely, the Trinity. I think that our morality has a different character if it is personal, that is to say, if it is rooted in someone, rather than propositions – which isn’t to say that propositions don’t matter. I think that we should be a better society if we were a more Christian one – though to say as much isn’t to have respect for other religious moral traditions, especially Judaism, for the Incarnation is simply to say that God became Jew. We are, as Christians, terrifically self-important…that is to say, we swank through the world on the basis that Christ died for us and cares about us more than anything; the very hairs of our head are numbered. The loss of that sense that we matter, matters.

The change to what we now call a post-Christian culture has been, as I said, a long time coming and it already has a name. David Jones, a member of the artistic circle around Eric Gill and a postmodern poet much admired by Auden and Eliot, wrote a poem in 1951 called ‘The Anathemata’. Like most of his work, it’s rarely read now, but the preface to the poem still is. And one passage in particular is striking:

“In the late nineteen-twenties and the early ‘thirties among my most immediate friends there used to be discussed something that we christened ‘The Break’. We did not discover the phenomenon so described; it had been evident in various ways to various people for perhaps a century; it is now, I suppose, apparent to most. Or at least most now see that in the nineteenth century, western man moved across a Rubicon which, if as unseen as the 38th Parallel, seems to have been as definitive as the Styx….our Break had reference to something which was affecting the entire world of sacrament and sign.”

What he meant by this was that it was increasingly difficult to assume that the people who looked at his pictures or read his poems would be able to understand the layers of meaning in them, which depended on the maker and the reader or viewer having a shared understanding of the world, essentially a Christian understanding. In the Christian view of things, the world is charged with meaning: water might mean just water but it could also mean the water of baptism; a tree could be just a tree or it could, as with one of David Jones’s most haunting pictures, Vexilla Regis, represent the tree of Life, the Cross. In other words, when Christianity underlay the common culture, people had a common language, common points of reference, a common code. And when I talk about Christianity, this comprehends what we often refer to as Judeo-Christianity; the stories of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, were as fundamental to the common culture as those about Christ.

It’s pretty obvious that The Break, as Jones and his friends understood it in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, has become much more obvious and pronounced now. In every part of the former Christendom, Christianity has become one religion among many and it is no longer the default, fall-back position of most ordinary people as it would have been then. The most striking statistic that makes the point is that in early 2016, the number of nones, those-of-no-religion, outnumbered Christians in Britain; not churchgoers – Christians.

Christianity is no longer automatically associated with everyday morality. In one of Michael Caine’s most memorable movies, Get Carter, the protagonist asks his niece about the family she is staying with: “good people, are they; churchgoers and all that?” It’s unlikely Carter’s modern equivalent would say the same. Another of his best-known films, Alfie, was updated a few years ago, and the differences between the two films say a good deal about The Break. In the first, the protagonist sees his former girlfriend at their child’s christening, attended by her new husband, a milkman: getting the baby christened was the normal working class thing to do. The new Alfie dropped the christening.

It’s possible to spell out the extent of the detachment from Christianity of modern Britain – to say nothing of Ireland – in statistics; and the same holds true of other European countries and to a lesser but still marked extent, the US. In other words, as the generation raised as Christian dies, the proportion of the population that identifies as Christian gets smaller and smaller. By the next census, Christians will be a minority in Britain. In Ireland, the fall has been steeper, to a still respectable seventy per cent, but from a much higher base. And my own subjective impression is that the loss of faith has been much more abrupt and complete for the young than the figures suggest.

David Jones is right about the most important aspect of the break, namely, that the symbolism and stories that once gave the culture common references are gone and the things that the simplest soul would have understood in a poem or a picture will now have to be spelled out in laborious footnotes, or, more likely, simply dropped. The scripture references in PG Wodehouse’s novels – Bertie Wooster, you recall, got a prize in Scripture Knowledge – are now the most arcane bits of them: Balaam’s Ass et al. In children’s books, which I review, clergymen were often part of the dramatatis personae; churchgoing was a normative part of life. In revised versions of the books, that gets dropped. You get all kinds of substitutes: mythologies and Manichean battles between good and evil and elaborate cosmologies, of which angels are a favourite part: just no reference to their natural habitat and context. One of the most perfect children’s books, John Masefield’s Box of Delights, ends with midnight mass in the cathedral; it would not happen now.

Then there’s the other large consequence of The Break; the way we mark the year. The Christian year and the seasons overlap in interesting ways – Ronald Hutton’s Seasons of the Sun gives a striking account of it – of which the most obvious is the way Christmas was assigned to the darkest point of the year, the winter equinox, with the birth of St John the Baptist, formerly an important Feast Day, attributed to midsummer, the summer equinox and the bonfires that predate Christianity. The Easter theme of death and resurrection is, by dint of its timing, associated with spring and rebirth; preceded by Lent, and abstinence.

That calendar has changed radically. To take one example, Christmas once started with a bang on Christmas Eve and went on for 12 days until the Three Kings arrive on 6 January. Now, the Christmas season, which begins with office parties at the end of November, finishes right in the middle of the 12 days with a fast and abstinence regime beginning on New Year’s Day: New Year, New You. Its effect is to terminate the festivity; to follow Christmas with fasting rather than to precede it.

It’s possible to locate The Break at several points. David Jones dated it to the nineteenth century, and that’s obviously true. Much of the agnosticism of our time can be read back to Auguste Comte and Ernest Renan in the nineteenth, not to mention more flamboyant but now unfashionable unbelievers like Nietzsche. In Britain, the reign of Queen Elizabeth II began with a nation that was largely unselfconsciously Christian, and has seen inexorable decline ever since. The Queen’s reign, then, could be said to frame the Break, which would probably give the monarch some pain, given her own sincere Christianity. In Ireland, it was more recent; from the high point of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 to the decision – to take just one marker – to allow pubs to open on Good Friday in 2012.

There are any number of results of The Break, in law, in morality, in popular customs, the calendar, in our assumptions about what constitutes the good life, in our philanthropy. For some former Christians, abandoning Christianity will have been emotionally neutral, or very much to the good in that it has also meant abandoning a consciousness of sin and guilt associated with their religious formation. For others, the loss of community has been one of the side-effects of the Break; for everyone, the death of God, at least the God of Christians, has altered our perceptions of man in some way.

These changes are all work in progress; this is a development that is taking place now – we are part of it. Any change in the culture takes at least a good two generations to work itself through, since we grow up among friends and family a generation or two above us; children who never go to church may well have grandmothers for whom churchgoing was part of the normal pattern of life and they will be aware of something called a church in a way their children will not be.
Of course, there’s a problem with the notion of David Jones’ Break, which is that it might be seen to imply that the time before it happened was one of unbroken continuity, that the past was an undifferentiated age of faith. Plainly this would be nonsense.

The Reformation was perhaps the most traumatic break of all between past and present, changing profoundly the nature of Catholicism as well as creating a new kind of Christianity in the Protestant faiths. In 2017, the half-millennium anniversary of Luther’s first break with the tradition, we shall be thinking about those changes at length. And within Protestantism, there have been many divisions. Every branch of Christianity in the West has undergone profound change over the last half millennium. But the departure from Christianity itself that has taken place in the last twenty years is, I would insist, unprecedented and its consequences are still being worked out.

We can, of course, take what comfort we may from the stubborn residue of Christianity; you could quite easily talk about infused Christianity, whereby the culture retains ideas of individual worth, of the value of the widow’s mite, of the undesirability of passing by the man who fell among thieves on the other side, of the inadequacy of wealth as an indicator of personal merit; our non-glorification of health and strength and beauty, the way the ancients did; all of that is in some way attributable to Christianity. Possibly, you could attribute the political rejection of Conservatism in Scotland to the robust egalitarianism of Presbyterianism and the Free churches.

You could take such comfort. I don’t.

Melanie McDonagh writes for the Evening Standard and The Spectator

Image by PROGeorgie Pauwels, Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0




Tags: mscedc
March 02, 2017 at 01:59PM
Open in Evernote

A post-truth too far – @theosthinktank – Theos Think Tank

A post-truth too far – @theosthinktank – Theos Think Tank

I get update emails from Theos. This blog post was mentioned in one this morning. I like the final paragraph’s discussion of elasticity (and, by inference, inelasticity) in post-truth politics. It’s not an absolute isotropic fact, but a contoured landscape. Post-truth has a culture. A digital culture, is part of a digital culture. It’s uneven, uncertain and it’s there for the exploring. This blog helped me see that much, a bit clearer.

A post-truth too far

Post-truth is this year’s Oxford English Dictionary “word of the year”. The truly striking feature of all this talk about “post-truth” politics is that it seems to make absolutely no difference to anything. For over a year liberal critics and stand-up comedians have been relentless in exposing every exaggeration, half-truth and outright lie made by first the Brexit campaign and then Trump.

But, for all that exposure, and all the YouTube hits for the Daily Show, John Oliver and the Last Leg, in the end both Trump and the Leave campaign won. Do people not care that they are being lied to, or do they simply believe Trump and Farage more than their liberal critics?

Perhaps more likely it is not the specific details that resonate with people but the narrative behind the example. For example, the infamous £350 million claim may be nonsense in accounting terms, but it does get at a powerful point – if you pay for something, no matter the fee, you want to know it gets you better value than something else you could spend your money on; like the NHS. The narrative has become all powerful in political life – and the anti-establishment political right have the most potent narrative going.

That does raise the question as to whether there are any limits to what can be claimed publically as long as the narrative holds up. UKIP leader and parliamentary candidate Paul Nuttall, however, may just have proven that there are still limits.

Nuttall has some “post-truth” form. He has previously claimed (falsely) to have a PhD and (falsely) that he was once a professional footballer for Tranmere Rovers. Those claims, while they provoked a fair amount of mockery (not to mention some very unfair jibes at the expense of a proud and once moderately successful football club), did little to hurt Nuttall.

His latest claim, though, that he had lost “personal friends” at Hillsborough really does seem to have provoked revulsion and condemnation, including from within his own party. Two UKIP local party chairmen have resigned and the row has dominated the run up to the Stoke by-election.

In some ways this ought to be surprising – because there is more truth in this particular claim than in many others Nuttall has made. While it is untrue that he had friends who died at Hillsborough, Nuttall was at the stadium on the day as a Liverpool fan, and did at the least witness some of the tragedy that unfolded. So while his ties to the tragedy are exaggerated they are not fictional. He has every reason to feel entitled to claim a very personal connection – even if it is crass in the extreme to exaggerate it.

Nuttall certainly seems to find the whole thing surprising given his response that:

“It is not as if I’ve taken illegally from the public purse. It is not as if I have said something racist. It is not as if I have sent people to war … I failed to check something that went up on my website. It was my fault, I’ve apologised, and that’s all I can do.”

It’s worth noting that Nuttall could still win. Even the reaction this latest scandal has caused may not be enough to check the momentum of UKIP in one of the most Eurosceptic constituencies in the UK, particularly when the Labour candidate has some issues of his own to overcome.

This episode does, however, reveal something of the standards of public debate. In a world in which the limits of truth claims seem ever more elastic it is still considered beyond the pale to lie about death. Death and grief remain a powerful taboo – and one capable of cutting through ideologically blinkers. So to Nuttall’s list of things he deems worthy of a severe response (misuse of public funds, racism, war mongering), we can add at least one more – the appropriation of death and grief – as something still taken as a scandal genuinely capable of damaging a politician’s credibility.

Ben Ryan is Researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan

Image by Thomas Guest, Flickr, available under Creative Commons 2.0

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e-newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

ShowHide Comments


Tags: mscedc
March 02, 2017 at 01:56PM
Open in Evernote

Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity

Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity

This article came to my attention via a regular email from The British Psychological Society Research Digest. To my mind, it raises underlying questions about the psychological healthiness of a selfie-culture – understanding such a culture as more than an isolated photographic practice, and more as a related narcissistic self-prosuming, performative assemblage of actions and reactions, involving digital technologies.
Is there an aching emptiness at the centre of it? The ‘highlights’ (below) would tend to suggest so.

Volume 111, 1 June 2017, Pages 139–145


Cover image

Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity


The effect of experiencing selfies on individuals’ self-concept is examined.

Taking and sharing a selfie increase individuals’ level of social sensitivity.

Taking a selfie generally decreases individuals’ level of self-esteem.

Taking and just saving a selfie leads to more decrease in the level of self-esteem.

New measures to minimize the issue of self-reported measures are introduced.


The phenomenon of taking and sharing selfies has become widespread in everyday life. However, previous studies on the selfie have not dealt with the effect of the experience of a selfie. Therefore, we examined the effect of the selfie on people who took and shared their selfies. Based on the social comparison theory, we focused on two psychological factors: social sensitivity and self-esteem. In the experiment, we manipulated the context of experiencing selfies. The participants were asked to take a picture of a self-portrait or a cup, using their own smartphone. Then, they were instructed to either post it on social media or save it on their smartphone. The participants’ social sensitivity was assessed by measuring their reaction time (RT) to a social probe, and self-esteem was evaluated by measuring the size of their signatures. We found that participants’ RT to a social probe decreased and the size of their signature decreased, after they took and shared their selfie. These results suggest that taking and sharing selfies could result in greater social sensitivity and lower self-esteem of selfie takers.


  • Selfie;
  • Social media;
  • Social comparison;
  • Self-concept;
  • Social sensitivity;
  • Self-esteem

Tags: mscedc
March 02, 2017 at 01:47PM
Open in Evernote