Monday, June 27, 2011

About Postmen

Another little book from D. Richardson's 'Introductions to Citizenship' series published in the 1930s by Ginn and Company of Queen Square, London. Another book about work.

I sought this from a British bookseller. It arrived at my house in New Zealand in a little protective envelope of thick cardboard. Postage can't have been more than a couple of pounds – moving things is marginally more expensive than moving information these days. Yet I am old enough to remember the special thin note-paper and the light envelopes one used to send letters by air without incurring a surcharge. Back when you still had to weigh your words carefully.

(But in fact the most expensive words of all were the ones you sent electronically. In the countries where they even still exist, nobody sends telegrams anymore – except when somebody is born, or dies. It's not hard to find ritual and symbolism in our use of communications technologies.)

About Postmen takes us back to those times, when 'the Postman [was] everywhere' (8), and 'every home in Great Britain [had] an address' (9), but still relatively few of them had a phone number, and so the postal service was the nervous system of the nation, and ensuring its smooth operation was one of the key functions of the state. The postman really had to be everywhere, go everywhere. His reach was the reach of society itself.
Across the suspension bridge and up and down 403 stone steps goes the Holyhead postman, when he delivers the post to the South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey.

Richardson lets us briefly savour some of the implications of this ubiquitous presence when he observes in passing that '[t]he postman’s work sometimes takes him into strange and lonely places' (9). But mostly his focus is in the Taylorist efficiency of the postal service, as measured by time: in the minute that it takes a novice postman to sort 25 letters, or an expert one, as many as 50; or the nine days it takes to be trained on the job; or the rigorous demands of next day delivery, prompting the occasional reminder to please post your letters early.

Timeliness is next to godliness, and the first rule of the postman's rule book – informs us the author – is that he must be punctual.
To help him to be punctual, he is not allowed to call anywhere when he is on duty, except to collect and deliver letters and parcels.
Letters bringing important news might be seriously delayed if the postman were to stop to talk to his friends.
The postman never stops long at your house, does he? (25)

Nowhere is this need for speedy, synchronous and silent operation exemplified more sharply than in the exchange of mail bags at train stations when the train in transit is travelling at full speed.
The apparatus on both the carriage and the line side consists of a rope net for picking up the pouches, and iron arms for dropping them.
The man in the Travelling Post Office and the postman on the line side have to be ready for the exact moment to work the apparatus so that the pouches can be exchanged.
A moment too late and the train will have rushed past; a moment too soon, and the pouches may be lying on the wayside. (73)
The TPO apparatus

But the life of a postman is not measured only in instants and minutes, but in longer timeframes as well. A postman is expected to put in forty-one years of service between employment at nineteen – with exceptions made for former soldiers, sailors, or airmen, so long as they are at least 5 feet and 4 inches in height – and retirement at sixty. During this time he will be required to work for 48 hours a week, including night shifts reserved for sorting the mail and excluding the occasional Sunday shifts, that are accounted and paid for separately. The salary for this work varies from region to region according to the local cost of living and starts for a nineteen year old in London at 34 shillings per week, going up to 54 shillings by the time the postman has reached the age of twenty-five. On the subject of retirement and the virtue of the old age pension, Richardson offers his young readers the following suggestion:
When you are deciding what kind of work to do when you grow up, it is a good idea to enquire if that work will give you a pension when you grow old and have to stop working. (34)
We may read into this advice outdated ideas about job security for life – with the attendant social immobility – and a sense that the present can be seamlessly projected into the future, without disruption, for the five of six decades that separated the book's readers from retirement age, and this at no less than the eve of World War II. As if to emphasise this point, Richardson includes the facsimile of a National Savings Certificate issued in 1935 that, for an investment of 15 shillings, would accrue a further 5 shillings in value by the end of its ten-year term. One pound in ten years, and nothing but a war in between.

It's hard to fault the book in one principal respect, namely that the British postal service was a well-oiled machine that operated very efficiently and one could say – the pride it took in its royal livery notwithstanding – almost invisibly. Richardson makes this point by implication when he asks the reader to spot the postman in this picture.

Or tells us about the Royal Mail's own dedicated tube that shifted the mail underneath the Londoners' feet.

And what's a mail sorting office if not the city's double, a three-dimensional map in which each address has its own pigeon hole, and blocks of pigeonholes together track the movements of a postman in the course of his shift? This highly complex human-made system was perhaps the apex of the centralised state, operating not only as an efficient and cost-effective public service but also as a blueprint of a particular idea of the orderly society. And so the postman – like the dustman, the fireman and the policemen who complete the Introduction to Citizenship series – becomes an agent of this order, a function that is reflected in the decorum expected of him
A man who wants to be a postman must be clean, neat, and well mannered. (15)
as well in the uniform, which in the copy in my possession was just as neatly coloured-in by the original owner.

By contrast with all this I am fascinated by, and an assiduous collector of, instances of postal services failing to deliver, either by sending the mail to the wrong destination or, more pointedly, to the right destination but with immense delay. These stories never fail to make the papers, like the one about the postcard sent by a World War I Bosnian soldier that reached his family 95 years later; or the one about an almost identical case in Norwich: or the one about the Christmas card that took 93 years to cover the distance between Oberlin, Nebraska and Alma, in neighbouring Kansas. It is not so much that all of these messages trapped in time and space undercut the myth of postal efficiency – by and large, they don’t. It’s rather that they are like little tears in the fabric of modernity itself, and on the ideal of rational, timely and transparent communication on which it is founded.

When an Italian inmate at the German labour camp of Stablack writes home to reassure his family that he is okay, and the postcard reaches his widow 66 years later, it creates its own little painful hauntology. ‘I want to tell you about my health, which is excellent’, lies the man, but there is nobody to be comforted at the other end.

Richardson’s postmen are also something of an anachronistic relic, and not just because the profession has evolved, or because the Royal Mail is about to be privatised after holding out for so very long, but chiefly in terms of what they stood for, of the idea of society for which they acted as silent and efficient messengers for as little as 34 shillings a week. Postmen everywhere is the title of the first chapter of this little book, and it contained a promise of which the state itself was guarantor: that every message would reach its destination. But the book’s own message was about work itself: work for deserving men only – clean, neat and well mannered, no less than five-foot-four in height – but work with a dignity nonetheless, and a specificity of rhythms and gestures worthy of description and to form part of an education. That idea too is stuck in its time, like a lost message that can no longer be delivered.

D. Richardson. About Postmen. Ginn and Company: London, 193?

See also About Dustmen.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On the Art of Making People Disappear

As of last Friday, over three and a half million people had answered the following question on Facebook.

However almost none of them were in fact answering the original asker, literally meaning that they wanted to remain friends with her. They were just expressing – by overwhelming majority – a general wish not the be unfriended and thus, by extension, not to drop out of the social network.

It's an interesting business, the culling of Facebook friends, especially when it is accompanied by such public announcements. I have never been through the exercise myself, but I assume that those who have might have come to the realisation that their feed had become cluttered, and likely with people who stretched even the famously impoverished notion of friend that characterises this particular platform and its vocabulary.

Another assumption I am willing to make with some confidence is that Facebook is aware of this, and that some of its features were developed in direct response to the problem. After all, it is in the interest of the company's bottom line that we all stay friends. And so over time a series of tools have been introduced to limit the clutter, hence the need to actually shorten your list of contacts. You can for instance hide some of your friends, meaning that the contents of their wall will no longer appear in yours – which is like stealth unfriending, essentially, and just the sort of thing that makes me glad I graduated from high school well before Web 2.0. You can also assign your friends to different groups and choose which of your own status updates and wall postings will be visible to whom, with a potentially baffling level of micro-managed control. (Cue more gladness that I'm no longer a teenager.) But since all of these stratagems require a certain amount of savvy – not to mention actual work – Facebook recently introduced a new default setting whereby the only feeds linked to your wall are those of friends you recently interacted with. You can disable this, but again, the likelihood is that relatively few people will.

The feature may seem benign at first glance, and simply designed to increase your exposure to the most relevant content, but I would argue that it is in fact quite insidious. Firstly, the very objective of uncluttering the feed is tied to the pervasive idea that what we should strive for primarily in our social relations is efficiency, turned here into no less than a default setting. Secondly, and more importantly, the feature defines the relevance of the content of the social exchange – therefore what we could call the intensity of friendship – in terms of its frequency. And this is just wrong.

I am willing to wager in fact that if you ran though the list of your Facebook friends (let us suppose that you are even on Facebook, for the sake of argument) and roughly rated them in terms of how much you actually care about them, and then compared the results to the graph of your actual interactions, you might find that the two pictures don't overlap at all. No, the virtue that the feature selects is simply proficiency in and attachment to Facebook itself: meaning the art of crafting the update or posting the link that will reliably attract the most likes and being a frequent user. The last point cannot be overstated, for Facebook (but the same could be said of Twitter, Google and so forth) cares very much that you use it often, and make it as much a part of your life as possible. It is by sharing information with these services that we increase their value to the advertisers, who are their actual customers.

This is all very obvious, the argument well-worn. But less attention is generally paid to the users of social media who are pushed to the margins of their networks by these algorithms. What Facebook's latest feature says is that unless you visit and contribute to Facebook often enough, you will become invisible to your friends. I’ll come back to this.


[Digital divide] tends to be used to refer to a binary black-white racial divide, but it fails to spur dialogue. It’s a phrase that Starbucks liberals like to use when overhyping equitable Internet access, while continuing to ignore fundamental issues such as equitable access to education and health care. Johnny can't read, Jane can't run, George has lost his curiosity, and they seem to think it will all be solved by the wonders of the Internet.

Art McGee said this in 2000. The phrase digital divide is not one you hear very often anymore in what we insist to call the developed world, where access to the Internet is estimated to have reached something close to saturation point.

The World Bank includes in fact the number of Internet users in each country amongst its development indicators. According to the bank’s latest data, which date back to 2009, Internet users account in New Zealand for 83.4% of the population, versus 78.1% in the United States, 5.3% in India and 27.1% worldwide. Read against the United Nations' recent pronouncement that Internet access is a fundamental human right, the data puts the number of the disenfranchised and underdeveloped at roughly four billion people. But how are we to interpret this proposition? Is it another case of Internet access being overhyped to avoid facing other, far more politically intractable obstacles on the road to social equity?

Wallace Chigona, Fidel Mbhele and Salah Kabanda of the Department of Information Systems, University of Cape Town, conducted a study in 2008, at a time when Internet access amongst South Africans stood at 8.6%. Their aim was to ‘evaluate the impact of ICTs, notably the Internet, in helping address social exclusion’ (2094). They tackled this task by visiting communities in which government agencies had initiated programmes for broadening access, and asking them to describe and evaluate their own experiences. The responses were at variance with the official reports concerning those communities, especially when the subjects were asked to state whether they were in fact socially excluded, that is to say, disadvantaged from a social, political and economic viewpoint.
Most were of the view that they were not socially excluded even though they did not enjoy nor participate in electronic activities. For example, none of the Bitterfontein participants in this study considered themselves socially excluded. Participants believed they were a part of a normal society even when they did not enjoy the same activities enjoyed in other societies that might not be socially excluded. When BIT 2 was asked if she felt isolated or excluded, her response was:
“I do not feel isolated. If someone tells me that I am isolated I will stand up and tell them that I am not” (2098)

The researchers’ conclusion was that the Internet in fact ‘[played] a very minimal role in eliminating social exclusion, with very few beneficiaries’, and that governments in the developing world should consider reprioritising their economic investment towards other spends such as ‘healthcare, education and economic resuscitation’ (2094). Whether or not one is willing to accept these findings – and in this respect one must at least note the small number of respondents as a possible limitation – the study is notable for its qualitative approach and for the willingness to distinguish between degrees of social exclusion and degrees of Internet access, as well as being open to the possibility that ‘provision of access may create new divisions’, privileging a limited core of users at the expense of peripheral and excluded users. I’ll come back to this too.


From a recent comment by Scar over at Ideologically Impure:
I’d also be careful with prefacing GLBTI with ‘MF’, as it’s going to offend some T and I people.

I’m taking this statement out of a context that may be familiar to some of you, but it’s not to pass judgment on the heated discussion that surrounded it, nor to engage in the always popular sport of mocking the taking of offence. I am simply struck by how much meaning is packed in those nineteen words, how much of the pain and labour of our identity wars one can read in it. That five letter acronym – GLBTI – contains a claim not just to equal rights and dignity under the law, but to visibility, to the right to speak and be heard. Facebook by contrast allows you to either be Male or Female, and to express your interest in either Men, Women or both – which in spite of the possible iterations is in fact almost solely of use to MF people, which rather underscores Scar’s point.

But this is not to say that gender identity-based discourse could not fit within a drop-down model of self-identification such as the one offered by Facebook – as a matter of fact I would argue that it could, quite seamlessly, at least from a design standpoint. It would also likely provide information of interest to Facebook’s advertisers. And so it is intriguing to speculate why the service offers such scant options in this area, whilst at the same time including Jedi amongst the available religions. In fact, under Religion and Political Views you can either choose from a list or create your own unique entry – a model that would seem eminently applicable to one’s sexuality and gender-identity. But perhaps that degree of openness would disrupt the social graph, and if people were free to choose who they are at their most intimate, then the whole information gathering exercise would simply cease to be profitable.

Facebook’s basic information pages are also notable for what they leave out altogether, chiefest among which anything to do with race and class. Of course nobody prevents you from making statements about yourself to that effect, in your own words – they will just lack their own slot in the company’s database. And ultimately that might be a good thing. But I contend that templates are a very powerful thing, and that the unavailability of the labels that define you amongst a series of equal options is a form of exclusion. In aggregate it will skew the numbers, and implicitly sharpen an image of what is normal centred around the narrow range of options available. Default settings are insidious like that.

At the same time, we must recognise that the utility of social networks is creating new divisions in the countries where they have achieved critical mass. Here – by force of the sheer number of users and the networks’ increasing uptake of meaningful forms of socialisation – the Internet is proving itself a truly indispensable social tool without having had to demonstrate an actual capacity to mitigate exclusion.

It is the core users who are driving this change, demanding that everybody else acquire a presence and be always available for interaction, or else become invisible; and it is the core users who are reaping the benefits beyond the social sphere alone, turning their online reputations into job offers or other forms of competitive advantage in the knowledge economy. Contrary to hype, Web 2.0 hasn’t invented socialisation, and it’s healthy sometimes to be reminded that this existed before and continues to exist in other forms and places; but even as its capacity to connect people across time and distance can be exhilarating and inspire change, so too its demands over leisure and attention can warp the social space, and conspire against forming ideas of collectivity based on the equal opportunity to participate.

And so whenever a social media platform tells you that it’s hiding people from you but it’s a facility, a feature, be suspicious. We have nothing to gain by being invisible to one another.

Wallace Chigona, Fidel Mbhele, Salah Kabanda. 'Investigating the Impact of Internet in Eliminating Social Exclusion: The Case of South Africa.' PICMET 2008 Proceedings, 27-31 July, Cape Town, South Africa, pp. 2094-2101.

With thanks to Jake and Pip - they know why.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Deep

Although we were in the very deepest of known depths, there was something not unpleasant about it. And, besides, we were beginning to get accustomed to this troglodyte life.

(Jules Verne, A Journey to the Interior of the Earth)

I saw this painting once in a friend’s studio, a tall and narrow wall-length canvas with a small, minutely painted pastoral landscape at the bottom underneath a narrow band of blue sky which soon turned to blackness the rest of way to the top. It was a vivid representation of just how much sky there is above our heads, how much space – a vast ecosystem that for the most part we do not inhabit, and that yet sustains us. When we were kids we used to do just the opposite: draw big houses and big trees and big people, and then scribble with our pencils a tiny strip of blue at the very top of the page to signify the sky. It was the world as seen from the surface, a world without depth.

But of course there are vast expanses below, as there are above. It’s just that we are less prone to conceptualise or visualise our lived environment along its vertical axis. Geological eras are often represented on a straight up-and-down line, but human history goes from left to right, in the direction of progress, that is to say forward. This also happens to be how a book works: it has a beginning and an end, and you read it from one to the other, for the most part and with the due exceptions. If Maryanne Wolf is correct then it is primarily in this form – within the horizontal linear paradigm of print literacy – that we exercise our deep reading, that is to say immerse ourselves in narratives and arguments with the necessary concentration and thus effectively ‘engage in [the] active construction of meaning’.

If there is a clash between these two geometries – the linear book, the deep reading – nobody seems to pay much attention to it. Certainly not Nicholas Carr, who has stretched Wolf’s argument in order to draw the conclusion that on the web, in this other space, lie the shallows, a region that we are condemned to wander in a permanent state of fretful inattention. One of the book’s cover designs provides a visual representation of the metaphor:

It’s an image that is consonant with a broader set of analogies concerning the internet, such as surfing and skimming, two of the most common descriptors of the way we approach textuality on the networks (that is to say, by staying as close as possible to the surface). And of course the association between information and the sea has long had a popular, bankable appeal. Remember Netscape?

I still find this splash screen nostalgically appealing – faster computers have made splash screens themselves obsolete – as I do the idea of navigating information. Charting a course and using the stars for guidance is a far richer and more romantic image than browsing, or the utterly prosaic act of opening a window. But to use seafaring as a guiding metaphor for our experience of the internet also allows to reconnect with the idea of depth.

Harry Clarke's 1919 illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's 'A Descent into the Maelström'

That old incarnation of Netscape was as web 1.0 as it gets. It was the early years of the mainstreaming of the internet, when most of us still spent most of our time online trying to get our heads around all that life-changing novelty, and adjusting to being suddenly able to access a baffling range of different kinds of knowledge. Also: it was still okay in those days to use a starry night sky as the background for your homepage. There were few conventions and fewer templates, and so clicking on a link still caused a certain frisson, for you could reasonably expect to be taken – very, very slowly – somewhere truly strange.

The thing about colossal squid is that they live at depths beyond our capacity for exploration. For all we know, the ones that drift up so far as to be caught in our nets may be the dwarfs of the species. And who can say what else lives down there, and how, in the near complete darkness and at freezing cold temperatures? They must be odd creatures indeed to even just match the colossal squid, whose metabolism is so slow that 30 grams of prey per day are said to be enough to support its 10-metre frame.

Now on the other hand the thing about web pages – and this was true even in those early days when loading 30 kilobytes of text took actual time – is that their dimensions are virtually limitless, but convention has settled into the vast majority of them having a portrait aspect, like book pages. This may strike as the obvious, natural choice, except computer screens are actually in landscape, and there is no compelling reason why texts couldn’t be displayed on a single continuous line. Indeed occasionally they were in the days of Netscape 2.0, although this was generally because the author of the page had stuffed up the coding. At any rate, fixing the margins at the sides and allowing the page to scroll downwards is how electronic texts worked well before the internet, and it has practical advantages – if you wished to print long single-line texts you’d need one of those old fashioned ticker-tape printers, which would be good for little else.

I digress: my point is that whilst a single page in a printed book is taller than it is wide, successive pages are bound side by side, and so the book is an object that proceeds on a horizontal line, whereas a web page – in which one might find the content of whole books, if not whole libraries – proceeds on a vertical line. For how long? Well, like I said, there is no theoretical limit, although there may well be practical ones. I have just tried composing a 20,000 line post that Blogger accepted without a hitch (warning: it’s a dreadful pun, I should be ashamed of myself). And again I’m sure there would be practical issues – such as, where would you store it? – but one could conceivably design a crawler that instead of indexing the content of web pages simply copied them all onto a master page that would thus reproduce in real time the Whole of the Internet, including past versions of every page as soon as it is updated and as many copies and translations of Borges’ 'The Library of Babel' as people see fit to upload.

And still people wouldn’t read it.

That’s the complaint, isn’t it? That people don’t read on the screen, that they skim, that they jump from link to link, that they stop to check their email. Cory Doctorow has called the internet an ‘ecosystem of interrupting technologies’. There is truth in that, as in the anecdotal and increasingly empirical evidence that young people who learned to read around the time that Netscape 2.0 was released have trouble dealing with dense written texts in print form.

The page reproduced above comes from the 4th-Century Codex Sinaiticus and is an example of scriptio continua, meaning that there is no separation between words, as was the common practice in ancient codices. Until at least the time of Saint Ambrose even the most highly educated people read aloud anyway, so the separations between the words would have been apprehended when one listened to oneself, as we do when we are in conversation, for words actually blend with one another in speech. Going back to the codex, I dare say that we would struggle to penetrate those walls of words, highly literate creatures that we are, and that in that density lay the roots of a culture that placed an inordinate importance in the value of each word, of each square inch of illuminated text (and of the precious paper on which it was written).

Nowadays the space between words, between concepts, is no longer a commodity. I would try your patience but waste nothing but electrons if I started leaving

big, abitrary gaps in the middle of sentences, or if I wrote
hastening the descent. And so the geometry of our texts is changing, and as the idea of bottomless pages and of the changed interplay between full and empty spaces becomes more ingrained we shall start to see some new possibilities, and begin to innovate our architectures of meaning. Perhaps even capture some of the strangeness that lurks in the darkest recesses of the abyss.

I suspected that web artists and illustrators might be at the forefront of this, and that if anybody had begun to exploit page depth as a native form of digital expression, it would be them. And so I asked Dylan Horrocks, and he asked his friends, and together they came up with some fine examples that I am going to leave you with. Beginning close to home with the always excellent Drawing Silence and his infinite canvases, continuing with raphaelB’s very funny and marvellously scrollable Il revient et il bave (good also for my collection of falls) and Jellyvampire’s artist’s plea, but most of all Scott McLeod, whose sublimely fluent use of the portrait aspect in Zot would be the kind of thing that would make me call off the search, were it not for the work that he has done in The Right Number.

In this three-part graphic novella (part three is as yet unpublished), McLeod has dispensed with scrolling altogether: depth is achieved instead by zooming into each panel to reveal the one that follows it, and so forth until completion. The idea, straight out of Giordano Bruno, is that each pixel can potentially expand into a whole world of narrative and meaning, and the effect – a little dizzying – is that of peering into cyberspace, the space behind, beneath the screen. It is also a text that forgets itself in the act of reading, as each panel recedes somewhere behind your retinas as the new one comes into view.

There is nothing in the anaemic 3D currently peddled in our cinemas that matches the sense in McLeod’s work that a conceptual, virtual space is being concretely represented before your eyes, and that you could physically reach inside the screen and manipulate it. And this too is a deep reading of sorts, one that engages with the spatial dimensions of our containers of text and is worthy of reflection. For if sustained attention, understanding and the ‘active engagement in the construction of meaning’ are to be found at all in the new medium, it will be through its native forms and in its natural language.

With many thanks to Dylan Horrocks and Greg Bennett, Dick Whyte, David Larsen, Paul Graveson, Morgan Davie and Shaun Craill for the expert advice.

Monday, June 6, 2011

All Spoons Are Level

Go to the gallery for this post

I was born in the age of abundance, an age when a historically unprecedented number of people had access to more food and more material goods than ever before. It wasn’t an age of equality, far from it, and standards of living, especially when they are averaged out amongst whole populations, can be a deceptive indicator of a nation’s welfare. But I think that it is sometimes easy to overlook or underestimate what a new phenomenon in history that abundance really was. The one that I was born into was perhaps the second generation of widespread affluence, in the West as well as in some regions of the developing world. And for the masses of people who hadn’t yet attained those levels of comfort, social democracy, socialism and free-market capitalism offered the promise of security within reach, in their lifetimes, so long as you believed. By which I mean that alongside the material abundance there was an abundance of prospects, and the radical idea that the future would have more to offer than the present was shared by people who espoused profoundly conflicting ideologies.

Which is not to say that tensions didn’t exist back then, nor scepticism towards those master narratives or the idea that the economy could be made to grow forever and never cease to ensure prosperity for more and more people. Globalisation already had its discontents: I was three years old when Susan George wrote How the Other Half Dies. But the societies that crawled out from under the wreckage of World War II still carried the memory of the poverty and the chronic insecurity that preceded the conflict. They worried about their past, it seems to me, more than about the future.

A carta annonaria individuale (individual rationing card) valid for the first trimester of 1942. Via.

Wartime rationing, which in some countries didn’t cease until well after 1945, was the symbolic endpoint of that age of scarcity. It codified what had been the norm for the lower socio-economic classes, at least in Europe and especially outside of cities, since anybody could remember. It told them that they weren’t allowed to consume anything in excess of what they had never been able to consistently afford anyway.

I have described before some of the forms that this poverty took in my own family and the ingenuity and toil that it required, especially of the women, in order to be overcome. I will add one anecdote: the family of my nonna’s eldest sister was so poor that they sprinkled bran in the water in which they washed the dishes in order to capture what little nutrients might still be attached to those already thoroughly licked-clean plates, and added the resulting soup to the feed for their pig. I imagine that the prospect of coming close to using up all of the stamps on one of those ration cards would have struck them as ludicrously optimistic.

But for others, especially in urban areas, the rationing of food and other goods was a source of less customary hardship, and demanded hitherto unknown levels of resourcefulness. Not everyone was equally practiced at making do and going without. And so people had to be taught, a task undertaken with particular skill and vigour in Great Britain by the Ministry of Food, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and that is documented in a number of surviving leaflets and publications. These are without exception immensely fascinating.

The state told Britons that they weren’t allowed to eat more than 100 grams of bacon or drink more than 2-3 pints of milk per week; that they couldn’t have fold ups in their trousers or more than three pockets on their jackets, nor wear stockings; but it also taught them how to draw on foods from different groups to construct a balanced and varied diet; how to make the most of leftovers and extend the fat ration; how to mend clothes and look after their woollens and linens; how to make fuel go further and carry out small household repairs.

In a wartime economy united by a common cause, the state did all of these things without the moralistic overtones that accompany today’s health and environmental messages – which promote weight loss or carbon footprint reduction primarily as ethical ends in themselves, that is to say as virtues abstracted from the social good – but by appealing to the principle of fairness to others. The opening paragraph of the Clothing Coupon Quiz issued by the Board of Trade in September of 1941 exemplifies the rhetorical framing that was also used to justify the rationing of food and fuel:
There is enough for all if we share and share alike. Rationing is the way to get fair shares. Fair shares–when workers are producing guns, aeroplanes and bombs instead of frocks, suits and shoes. Fair shares–when ships must run the gauntlet with munitions and food rather than with wool and cotton. Fair shares–when movements of population outrun local supplies. It is your scheme—to defend you as a consumer and as a citizen. All honest people realise that trying to cheat the ration is the same as trying to cheat the nation.

One can admire the cadence of this passage without subscribing entirely to its philosophy. For one thing that jumps at the contemporary reader when examining this material is the sheer quality of the writing, and not just when it comes to the generalities of the schemes, but most especially the practical advice. Each leaflet in these series covered a different topic – from the basics of nutrition to how to use large coke or anthracite in your boiler – and did so in an admirably succinct and effective manner. I doubt I have come across a better, shorter treatment of the role of different food types than the six pages of Foods for Fitness, or the four pages of Your Vitamin ABC. And yes, the advice was frequently paternalistic, and made some predictably gendered assumptions about just who would be in charge of the cooking and the mending in the household, but I think the first question that the leaflets ask of us is the following: are we equally well informed, equally well served nowadays by our public information sources? Do schools and public agencies equip us with the basic knowledge and the critical tools for navigating the torrent of advice on nutrition and everyday living that comes from the private sector? And what kind of literacy is required of those of us who do in fact get the best advice on offer?

I don’t have a firm answer myself, but I will note that what Marion Nestle wrote about the vested interest of the United States food industry to lobby for the public advice on nutrition to become progressively less straightforward and more complex, more contradictory, could be extended into a general principle and used to load the question. Which would therefore become: whose interests are being served when the state fails to communicate clearly to its citizens on things that matter to the common good such as food, energy, housing or education?

An understanding of the need to improve on our media ecology in order to achieve that clarity might lead us to reflect on the tight, compact nature of those texts. Besides the leaflets, the information campaigns around rationing included books, a series of posters and a five minute daily radio show entitled The Kitchen Front, placing the overall emphasis on brief interventions across different media that could be effectively processed by their intended audience. In this respect one the leit motifs of the Ministry of Food leaflets – the gloss, transformed into recurring graphical element, that in the recipes all spoons are level – becomes a metaphoric reminder that information too must be carefully measured out in order to become useful knowledge.

The age of abundance is drawing to a close – it already has, in terms of most people’s expectations of the future – which makes the work of the Ministry of Food et al. newly and exquisitely topical. However the other great resource that has become the index of our epoch, information, is in ever greater supply. Now those who believe that there can be no such thing as a glut of information, and that being more informed always equals being better informed, would do well to reflect on this: that eating disorders have never been more endemic to our societies than they are now, at a time when we know more than we ever have about the psychology and physiology of eating and are able to choose from a broader range of healthy foods. Were those wartime Britons faring well simply because they had less to eat? Perhaps, but the leaflets suggest very strongly that people could eat poorly even when food was scarce, and that in fact poverty and rationing made the advice even more essential. A passing clue, from Foods for Fitness:
Cakes, buns, pastry, sugar, jam and bread are cheaper than most other foods – so be careful that in order to cut down on expense, you do not neglect to eat your builders and protectors.
No: it’s that the necessity to pursue a war created the conditions – not least of the ideological kind – for an effective education. And I think that what we need to study about these leaflets, more so than the content, is the design: by which I don’t mean the typesetting and the layout, although they are themselves remarkable; but rather the conceptual design, with its underlying ideas about what is to be valued in a society that needs to limit consumption in order to survive. After all it might well have been the very notion of solidarity, of being in it together, that made it permissible for the state to instruct people on how they should eat or stock their log burner or renew their knickers, without the advice being rejected as the most outrageous and unseemly kind of meddling.

In other words, we don’t need Eating or Making Do and Mending for Dummies: but to ask the kind of questions – about growth, about work, about the design of our institutions – that might allow us to reverse-engineer the genius of those leaflets and recapture their clarity, so that it may fuel a political conversation about what is to be done, also in the not insignificant area of how best to stock our larders.

The leaflets of the Ministry of Food, The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Fuel and Power of Great Britain can be found scattered in various online archives (here for instance is Dried Eggs), and have been collected in two books by the publisher Michael O’Mara entitled Eating for Victory and Make Do and Mend. By way of a little, temporary gallery attached to this post I have put up Foods for Fitness, Extras for the Expectant Mother, The Battle for Fuel and Cakes, Biscuits and Scones without Eggs, that due to the fact that butter is also substituted results in a rather interesting early collection of de-facto vegan recipes.

My adventures in publishing elsewhere continue with an essay on the comic in the works of Umberto Eco for the Journal of Italian Studies in South Africa (what else?).