I like knowing things.
For as long as I can remember I have enjoy learning stuff, memorising lists: Prime Ministers; Acts of Parliaments; Dates of Construction of historical monuments; Bass players in The Fall. Facts.
I love lists of stuff so much that Wikipedia is actually named after me. It’s full name is JonChadwikipedia, although most people just go with Wikipedia for short. It’s a long list of all of the stuff that I know but arranged in alphabetical order for easy reference. It’s available on the internet, or you can just ring me and ask*
This week is Durham Book Festival, and one of my favourite nights of the year: The Gordon Burn Prize. I love it, even though I feel like a bit of a fraud. Every year because it becomes a bigger and bigger literary event and I’m more and more out of my literary depth.
For those who have’t read any Gordon Burn, he was a brilliant writer about the modern world who used techniques from fiction and non-fiction to tell stories that were too hard to tell using reportage alone.
It is the 10th anniversary of Gordon’s death, and all these books are re-printed in new editions with a foreword from Durham’s own Ben Myers. Ben is brilliant, but personally I would try and find a first edition of Happy Like Murderers with the Damien Hirst smiley cover.
One of the saddest things about Burn dying young was that he didn’t get a chance to write about the current era of fake news. Fake everything.
In all of the swirl of fake news and disinformation I like to think that I have strong critical faculties. Partly that is to do with the friends I have – the broader your circle of friends, and the more interesting their backgrounds the easier it is to hear different perspectives, even if you do end up with Popper’s paradox.
But mainly I think it is because I come from an era when knowing things wasn’t easy. You had to find stuff out for yourself. Read, make calculations. Go to the library. Read books. Sometimes what you discover shocks you, like the time I spent years researching the Greek Psych Rock band Aphrodites Child only to discover they were led by Demis Roussos.
Part of the reason why I keep a blog is to keep those faculties sharp. If finding out facts is laborious, and involves hard work then it makes sense to care about whether those facts are true or not. You develop an instinct for blind alleys of research, and a perverse pleasure in a fact that is unusual or exciting, even if it contradicts long standing beliefs, like reassessing the career of Norman Fowler, or digging some Demis.
When facts were hard to come by knowing lots of stuff was pretty powerful, particularly if you spoke with the confidence of being a tall man; white, and articulate. This privilege is in sharp decline.
The internet has made finding out facts to support your own beliefs easy, but with ease comes disposability. With competing media outlets we can choose not only opinions, but which facts we want to go with them. With access to so many comforting facts at hand, optimised for sharing on social media, why would you need experts with their complex or boring opinions, or bother with a fact that didn’t confirm our world view..
Social media algorithms are designed to keep us looking at the screen, and will try and feed us whatever will keep us clicking. Our own personalised stream mixing the real, unreal, and surreal. It isn’t in their interests to help you find anything that challenges your prejudices, or break the spell.
The swirl of information is so bewildering that even I am starting to doubt my own faculties.
I read C19th British history and I am familiar with contemporary accounts of the life of Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool. Jenkinson was mixed race, part Indian on this mothers side. He was Prime Minister in the years after the abolition of slavery, at a time when attitudes to race were more liberal, and Britain more diverse. As the Empire grew larger, and our conquest of other countries more egregious, attitudes to race hardened, and minority faces in public life became rarer. Some families chose to omit non-white members of the family tree. Over the course of the C19th portraits of Lord Liverpool got whiter, until by the late Victorian era he was white and blond
In the same way Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s family deleted black Jamaican family members, until a mixed race anti-slavery campaigner became a white romantic poet.
If you check Lord Liverpool’s wikipedia entry today he is white, and any attempts to reclaim him as mixed race are edited out. Right wingers don’t like to admit that Britain is a more diverse nation than they like to claim, while the left prefer a history of Ethnic Minority politicians to start in the 1980s omitting over 150 years of Asian Britain Tory, Liberal and Communist politicians and activists:
Despite reading with my own eyes the lives of Robert Jenkinson, Shapurji Saklatvala, and Sophia Duleep Singh I wonder when they shift in and out of the records on the internet. Right now Lord Liverpool is white, and so is Elizabeth Barratt Browning. Saklatvala and Sophia Duleep Singh fade in and out of our awareness, depending on whether someone in the public eye champions their existence.
The blurring of reality and narrattive mimics the tactics of modern authoritarian movements. I was lucky enough through the book festival to hear Peter Pomerantsev speak on a couple of occasions. Both his books are great reads.
As well as an author he is Director of the Arena Programme at the LSE, which looks at disinformation, hate speech and how to develop counter measures:
The swirl of fact news, alternative facts on social media creates a world in which there is no objective truth, just opinions. Everything is too complex, too fast moving to understand, just trust gut instinct, go with what you know.
Politicians and political movements who can cut through the noise and complexity with simple messages thrive, with vague slogans at the top of the message, linked to targeted campaigns aimed at smaller groups of voters making often contradictory promises. Take back control. Make America Great Again. For the Many Not the Few.
I found Peter Pomerentisev’s work fascinating and scary. As well as hunting facts I spend a lot of my time persuading people to do what I want. Negotiating. I’m not a con man, but I do know a bit about how con men work. How to grift.
People who make snap decisions, trust their own gut instincts, are the easiest to con. They make up minds quickly, based on partial evidence, and once they have made up their minds no amount of counter evidence can shift them. To persuade them all you need to do is know what buttons to press, and press those buttons plenty of times. Mostly they will tell you which buttons to press the moment they meet you. If you tell them they have been conned they will hate you and defend the con.
People who are neurotic are almost impossible to con. People who check that they have turned the gas off twice before they leave the house. Then have to turn the car round to check they locked the door properly. Don’t bother trying to con them, their brains are wired differently. Luckily there are plenty of gut instinct/knee jerk reactionaries to work on.
When we use social media to express our political identities we are telling people which buttons we want them to press. When we react instinctively to emotive content, making snap decisions we are the marks in the con-mans game.
It’s like a machine based on using the most basic techniques of con men and applying it at industrial scale.
Gordon Burn’s use of fiction techniques to tell true stories as a superficial resemblance to the blurring of truth and lies currently being used by political campaigns with authoritarian aspirations.
But there is a fundamental difference. Burn used the techniques of fiction to tell us about reality. Trump, Farage, et al use the techniques of factual reporting to tell us lies. They are the opposite
So far people who want to preserve truth and reality have struggled to gain traction against the forces of bullshit. But I think that Burn’s ability to create a compelling narrative using these techniques is the best we have right now.
That and shit loads of facts.
*this bit might not be actually true