The old is new

One reason I love reading history is how often you find reflections of current worries. This isn’t necessarily good, obviously. Some things should have been left in the dust (notably gig-economy feudalism).

But one thing it does offer is perspective

I’ve just cracked open The Invention of News, for instance, and have immediately been slapped with a couple of things that should be familiar.

The first is that information networks in the pre-information age could only be sustainably maintained by the already rich and powerful. These were run either to ensure a supply of valuable information for private consumption, or the lower quality and somewhat biased stuff to influence others.

Sound familiar?

The next is that early newspapers existed in such an information rich environment, fighting against other practices and needs, that journalism and journalists themselves were not sustainable.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens…

…this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century–the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions–that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumour for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

As a journalist I feel both of these but am especially interested in how they relate. As the sheer volume of information has increased, and the value captured by new forms of distribution, the value has declined.

Some information, obviously, is still valuable, but it is increasingly chased behind paywalls or funded for other reasons.

And journalists, especially, are finding it tough. Jobs have disappeared and pay slowed. “Exclusivity” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and so neither does paying.

Will be interesting to see the trends that led away from this, as the industry matured. Can they be recaptured or substituted?

As always my emphasis

Climate coverage isn’t just about prevention

Building my daily news emails, it’s staggering the dearth of good climate coverage. It’s few and far between, and much of what exists is caught up in prevention.

Absolutely we need to reduce emissions and avoid 2 degrees. But we have also already locked in a certain amount of pain that will need to be managed.

This is especially true in countries like Sri Lanka that have (relatively) negligible per person emissions and little scope for further reduction. Many of these areas will also bear the brunt, thanks to geography and economics etc.

One example of it being done well is The Guardian reporting on a heatwave that shut down some Scottish distilleries for up to a month last year. The quotes towards the end suggest this is just the beginning of a shift.

Experts fear that last year’s conditions may not be unusual in future. This week the environment agency is hosting a “drought summit” in London with water company bosses, as fears grow over similar temperatures this summer. Research has shown that last summer’s heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by the human-caused climate emergency. Some estimate that such heatwaves could be happening every other year by 2050 if emissions continue to increase…

…Helen Gavin, who researches climate breakdown and drought at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said such extreme events place stress on the environment and the economy. “There’s an impact already,” she said. “It’s not just hot and dry summers, but strange weather like we’ve just had – 18C in February, that’s just weird. And that messes up biological and agricultural cycles.”

This isn’t isolated. And, interestingly, some distilleries appear to have foreseen and planned for this. That can be replicated as long as the problem is made salient.

Around the world we’re already seeing the impact of increased climate variability in droughts, floods, heatwaves etc. We have to start dealing with it, and that means drawing attention to the increased probability of weather events.

It means highlighting what policy makers should do about city planning and building codes, helping people and businesses that are disproportionately affected, sorting out food and other supplies etc. etc.

We have to stop treating the 2 degree limit as if it’s the finish line of a race that hasn’t started.

As usually my emphasis

Tab dump

Research, articles, podcasts and videos in no particular order.

Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.


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