Monday, June 25, 2012


There are at least three countries – Romania, Israel, the UK – that have either passed or are in the process of passing measures that are commonly referred to as ‘Big Brother law’. How do you even begin to write commentary on media and technology in a world that is so comfortable with its dystopias? In which that phrase, Big Brother law, isn’t used emotively, to stir passions and incite revolt, but rather matter-of-factly, as a dispassionate descriptor of what is now possible to do to people, and therefore should. Some of us may be against it, but this opposition is made harder to articulate by the very ease with which those description are thrown around. There used to be a show called Big Brother. It was popular. Perhaps that’s where the phrase comes from.

More and more I get the sense that the true test of public opinion – and of the capacity of existing laws and constitutional arrangements to moderate the most opprobrious attacks on our personal and collective freedoms – lies not in the passing of such laws, not even the grotesquely Orwellian Patriot Act, but rather in the efforts of private companies like Facebook to win concessions from their customers, in exchange not for security – or a perception of security – but rather convenience and features. That is the real moving frontier. That is where people are at their most attentive and where fundamental attitudes and behaviours are shaped, via a slow conditioning and a constant, exhausting negotiation. I give you a new, powerful feature. I take away some of your capacity to hide things from the network. I conceal, or try to conceal, the true nature of the exchange or even that an exchange has taken place. Your move.

Facebook Places

Facebook is not the only company involved in this, but its efforts have been the most concerted and issue-defining. The pronouncement of its founder's that ‘having two identities for yourself’ (by which he means, seeking to discriminate in how you present yourself in different contexts) ‘is an example of a lack of integrity’, has achieved the status of the classic ‘those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear’. Now, following the company’s troublesome IPO, the questions around Facebook – which might just boil down to a single one: can Big Brother earn a living? – have taken on an extra degree of urgency. Arguably the coming Facebook bubble, were it to eventuate, would have as many cultural and political implications as economical ones.

The most alarming report – if you happen to own stock in the company – came from Michael Wolff in the MIT’s Technological Review, according to whom Facebook’s business model, no matter how many privacy concessions its users might be prepared to make, is doomed to fail (has failed already) and to take the ad-supported web with it. After a refreshingly unsentimental look at the parlous state and diminishing returns of online advertising generally, Wolff writes:

Facebook has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn't advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits. But because its stock has been trading at about 40 times its expected earnings for the next year, these innovations will have to be something like alchemy to make the company worth its sticker price.

Relief to Facebook and its share price has come over the last two weeks following its hurried introduction of mobile ads and a series of reports indicating that said ads command far greater attention amongst users than regular web ads on regular computers. Like ten times as much attention: a difference of a whole order of magnitude. This could be due to novelty, opine some, and yes, the companies that produced these reports also collaborate with Facebook in the delivery of mobile ads, but the company needed news like this and had in fact been courting news like this, suggesting – albeit in a somewhat veiled manner – that it might be, yet again, on the verge of something big, something that might renew the promise of future earnings on which the fortunes of listed companies are continually built and rebuilt. ‘Phones can be location-specific so you can start to imagine what the product evolution [of a location-based ad service] might look like over time, particularly for retailers,’ said Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions, in a telephone interview to Bloomberg. And Bloomberg immediately jumped to the conclusion that Facebook had such a product in their pipeline. But no, Everson was just merely stating that you cold imagine the product evolution. Well of course you could. And even if you couldn’t, who hasn’t seen Minority Report?

‘Hello Mr Yakamoto, welcome back to the GAP’.
Advertising as a form of surveillance.
Remember the targeted advertising projecting itself around the character played by Tom Cruise, having sensed his presence? The holographic bot at the GAP welcoming back the store’s customers? And remember also how, when Tom becomes a fugitive, those same location-based services turn into beacons of his whereabouts, threatening to hasten his arrest? But that the future of advertising was a dystopia had been already established by then. A cool dystopia, perhaps, but a dystopia nonetheless. So that is the challenge for Facebook. That’s why they won’t come out and announce that they have all sorts of location-based advertising products at so much as the development stage, and even as they proceed to casually acquire companies like hyper-local mobile advertising targeting startup Rel8tion. For the mobile user, right now, it is imperative that adding one’s present location still feel like a feature, an informative addendum, as opposed to a piece of data to be acquired, digested and spat back in the form of hyper-local advertising. This is a game on which the future of Facebook and quite possibly of the ad-supported web rests. Big Brother must tread carefully.

I have explored the dystopian tangle of location-based services for a piece in the current monthly issue of The New Inquiry magazine, which is still available for the rest of this week for a nominal subscription fee. What I didn’t go into there is an interesting tension that has arisen in the wake of the hyper-local. The web used to present itself as, and aspire to the status of, a global non-place, akin to the space that the cyberpunk novels of Gibson and Stephenson had invented and furnished in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties. Then something changed halfway through web 2.0 with the introduction of Google Earth, smartphones and GPS: suddenly regular earthly geography found expression into the network and started creeping into the experience of reading and writing the web, which had previously been radically deterritorialised in ways both subtle and overt. Take this blog: written in New Zealand, hosted by an American company on servers located God knows where, routed and pieced together onto the screens of people who might not know or care to discover where the pages originate, if it even make sense to say that they are of any place. But now Blogger allows to geotag one’s posts, and even changes the address of its hosted blogs according to the country where the reader’s computer resides. This last innovation just confuses the issue of location, as a matter of fact, but is the sign of a renewed concern – as is the cursed geolocking of content – for trying to remap the web onto the world that ostensibly produces it.

As for content, so for advertising: hence the reimagining of the social graph not only as the means of delivering the right piece of advertising to the right person, but also in the right place, where place no longer means cyberspace or the internet – which in the classical sense was also if not primarily one giant mall (think Stephenson’s Metaverse) – but also a place in this world, preferably near a shop of bricks and mortar where you can be tracked along with your imminent purchase.

We could hardly expect our physical world as mapped and accessed by the internet to be anything but a digital hyper-real. And so to be hyper-local means to be too precisely located, with 16 digit-long coordinates of longitude and latitude that mean nothing to you, but everything, too much, to your computer or to your smartphone, and to the likes of Facebook. You used to be able to claim to be somewhere, but no more: the passive sharing of that piece of data – which is still an option, these days, for now – relieves you of having to constantly update that claim, and becomes a vital statistic; something else to define you by, another social sign. And soon no doubt we’ll learn to integrate that piece of information into the construction and maintenance of our digital self, this other identity that lives on the screen and leaves a myriad daily traces of itself in more databases than you could ever count or know.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Family Day

It starts with a couple. But not just any couple. A couple walking in a meadow. A couple holding hands. But not just any hands. Children’s hands. This is the unit of society: a couple; children; a meadow. Love. Labour. Nature.

The image comes from a video promoting the seventh World Meeting of Families, which is like the Catholic Olympics except it’s held every three years. My hometown hosted it this year and when I visited, a month or so before the event, preparations were at an advanced stage, by which I mean that I saw a lot of posters. Anyway, how do you even prepare for a Pope’s visit? Other than by sealing the manholes and placing marksmen along his planned route, I mean.

Milan hadn’t seen a Pope since John Paul II’s second visit, in 1984. On that occasion, Wojtyla met 80,000 factory workers. This year Ratzinger was met by one million pilgrims who had come together in the name of the family. That is how the Church is branding itself these days, and you really must try to pretend that all of these allegedly celibate men who make it their business to give advice and pass judgment on the sexual, reproductive and affective practices of everybody else, whether or not they believe in the same God as they, made sense somehow, because once you’ve moved past that initial hurdle, once you’ve removed that colossal boulder of irony from your path, you’ll see that the manner in which the Church defines, regulates and enforces the family is a matter of current ideological and political import, and by no means just in Catholic countries or amongst Catholics alone.

For the Catholic Church isn’t wholly retrograde or obsolete or unrepresentative, far from it. It has ancient institutions, this much is true, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger used to be the Prefect before becoming Pope, and that is best known to history with its old name of Tribunal for the Inquisition. The Congregation is charged to this day with promulgating the official position of the Church on a number of theological, moral and doctrinal issues, and has spoken on many occasions on the subject of the family, chiefly by censuring its aberrations: divorce unsanctioned by the Church, sex for purposes other than procreation, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality. On this last item the Congregation has produced over the last four decades some of its most often quoted documents, such as the Letter of 1986 or the Considerations of 1992 in defence of the right to discriminate against homosexuals in the selection of anything from foster parents to teachers, from athletics coaches (this item must have elicited some of the most vivid imaginings amongst the members) to soldiers or even tenants. However these since reiterated views, which are retrograde and seemingly, hopefully destined to be discarded by history, could lull us into thinking that the Church’s overall thinking about the family is also on the way out. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Love. Labour. Nature. The family as a microcosm of society, with its self-perpetuating internal hierarchy – the father/husband, who goes out into the world to earn the family’s keep and interprets that world on behalf of the family; the mother/wife, who regardless of whether she works or not is still charged with the domestic, unpaid labour of raising the family, and is therefore subservient; the children, who must grow secure in the knowledge that a family thus conceived is the sole and necessary state of being and thriving – all of this, which the Church preaches incessantly, is the privileged subject of contemporary Western politics, if not the only political subject left. And again sacrosanct struggles such as that for marriage equality might give us the illusion that this subject is contestable or in a state of flux, but it is not. Contrary to the Church’s protestations, the extension of the traditional instrument of marriage to LGBT couples would do nothing to disrupt the image of the family that it – the Church – crafts and promotes. On the contrary, it would strengthen it, making it more universal. Imagine if there were a range of couples on that meadow instead of just one. He/she. He/he. She/she. A conpiscuosly transgender person thrown into the mix. What you would be left with is a picture in which everyone is represented and nothing is missing. The family as universal totality, as epistemological key to a complex world, like in those dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History that Donna Haraway wrote about so famously and well.

What political subject could be more powerful than one that encompasses everyone, as well as everyone’s personal history and prehistory?

Last month Evan Calder Williams published in The New Inquiry his translation of ‘What the hell is the family’ (originally ‘Ma che cos’è la famiglia’), a text by the Study Group on the Family in collaboration with the workers’ committee of ALFA-FACE-IBM printed in the Communist Italian periodical Rosso in 1974. It’s a long text – a little under 5,000 words – and at the same time a short text, in terms of how it faces up to the problem of the family in its daunting entirety, proposing a vocabulary for its analysis and critique that strikes me today as refreshing in its clarity. The family, according to Rosso, is one of capital’s major agents for making the process of exploitation function, a machine for the production and reproduction of labour power and for the consumption of the products of that labour. Crucially, and in ways that simply haven’t gone away, it is an instrument for routing emotional need and desire within the bounds of what is proper and acceptable, and for conditioning its members to accept these norms as natural givens. Write the authors:

The familial organization furnishes capital, day after day, with workers regularly fed and dressed in a manner modest but decent, sexually satisfied but not too much, so as to not disturb the punctuality and rhythm of labor, organized and resigned in accord with the hierarchy of factory and beyond.

Would you say that this was true then? Is it true now? What has changed since 1974, since 1986? Has feminism succeeded in making women’s work recognised and the burden of domestic labour evenly shared? Have gay unions, gay families significantly altered the family understood as a form of ideology? Have social relations within society ceased to be mapped by the logic of exchange that is taught within the family? Or is it the case rather that all of these things have remained true but have been naturalised all over again?

That’s where the conspicuously out of its time, deeply strange figure of the Pope can assist, by turning the production of these ideological meanings into a visible spectacle. And nowhere is this more true than in the regulation of sexuality, in which this playacting is at its most theatrical. To the extent that the Church is out of step with most other institutions and societies, it is precisely in the degree that it obsesses over the self-replicating, autotelic nature of the family. Since the only proper drive is the drive to procreate (on this the Pope and Richard Dawkins are in complete agreement), the only acceptable union is the one between a he and a she, and whether they are actually straight counts a lot less than whether they are willing. Indeed the Church is just as much against artificial insemination as it is against what it calls the practice of homosexuality. This is because the family cannot be allowed to outsource its core function. It must simply manage by itself and within itself.

The Christian cult of the family is also, ultimately, the cult of individuality, of self-reliance. This too makes the family as the Pope understands it so perfectly compatible with our stage of capitalism and with its political language. That one word, Family, is as powerful as the family as a concrete subject is powerless. You can build an entire politics on that word, but when you do, when you set out to defend the Family, we know that you don’t mean actual families, much less actual people. What you are swearing to uphold is a form of organization. You might as well call it the corporation.

Not in a meadow, but on the runway of the airport in Bresso, in the northern outskirts of Milan, a crowd of over one million gathered to hear the Pope speak on Family Day 2012. Except they weren’t people: they were there as part of families or as representative of families. And families can never form a society, not even in their hundreds of thousands, because the ideology of the family demands that the needs of each individual in the crowd can be satisfied solely within the bounds of his or her own unit. (On this point too the writers at Rosso speak well.) Picture yourself in this crowd and look around you, at the others, all striving to be great fathers, perfect mothers, bright children, all united not by a cause but by a belief: that generations from now another million people will walk the same ground, identical to you, still practicing, still believing the hell of a thing that is the family.

Monday, June 11, 2012


John Roughan says you’d need a certificate in education to know why school league tables are a bad thing. And because he doesn’t have a certificate in education, he can but wonder what could be possibly be wrong with creating ‘winners and losers’ and introducing open, transparent competition between state schools.

An entire worldview is compressed in that single statement. Not just a political position, but an ideological one as well, a whole approach to understanding society and its institutions. That is often the case with statements about education, seeing as schools are a model of society, and the student a model of the citizen. But in the area of education there is a peculiar view that still prevails, according to which these models should be better than the societies that we have, better than the idea of citizenship that we have settled for. Those who hold this view maintain that the task of schools – and most especially of public schools – is not just to produce employable workers, but also well-rounded and socially responsible persons; and not just to help the smartest or most advantaged children to reach their full potential, but to strive to teach everyone to a comparable standard according to their need and capacity. This is not the only view of public education, as Mr Roughan’s column sharply reminds us, and we may wish to test it against the history of this great liberal and later socialist institution. However it is in this domain that ideas about social equity that have largely disappeared from the public discourse remain the strongest. Therefore the public school as an idea and in practice is one of the few grounds in which it is still possible to not only defend but also strengthen and extend those oppositional models.

The Kauri Timber Company Ltd: School seats, school desk and gates [1906]

Which is why retooling public education is one of the priorities of neoliberalism. The setback that the conservative New Zealand government suffered last week – prompting the vehement reaction of our principal newspaper’s assistant editor – is a minor one, insofar as reducing teacher numbers to invest in teacher training is a small stop if not a detour in the journey towards league tables, performance pay and the latest incarnation of school vouchers that goes under the name of charter schools. The episode however is instructive, for what prompted the backlash was the comprehensive nature of the proposal. The prospect of lower teacher numbers across the board recomposed for a brief but intense political moment the image of the national school, and united teacher unions, education sector organizations, school trustees, families and the broader public in their opposition. The result was a dramatic illustration of how loudly the people can speak when it speaks with one voice. The government abandoned its proposal in the space of less than two weeks. Some say they took too long.

We aren’t always going to be so lucky. Attacks against public education, here and elsewhere, are going to continue, and they will be launched – against the backdrop of a permanent state of economic crisis – by driving a wedge between the aspirations of the middle class and the realities faced by the working class. Of course league tables and performance pay are damaging to public education understood as a universal good – and I’m going to explain why to John Roughan in a minute – but so long as you feel confident that you will be able to move to the area with the best school, and you have been correctly conditioned to view the education of your children as a form of competition, you might not mind this, or even learn to actively support the idea. And just in case you might harbour some nostalgia for old-fashioned egalitarian myths, we shall disguise the reforms as pious concern for the one in five whom the education system currently fails (never mind it’s more like one in twenty), and who hail in the main from the lower socio-economic classes. This will sway some of the liberals who most need to be made to feel altruistic in exchange for their class interests being served.

Teachers' Training College, Wellesley Street, Auckland [between 1907-1925]

In reality the political objective behind the introduction of national standards, league tables and performance pay is to increase the flow of public funds towards the education of the elites by creating further incentives for the teachers and schools who cater to the most privileged students. I say further because in most countries these incentives already exist, either implicitly or explicitly. In New Zealand under the Clark government there was a significant improvement in the funding mechanisms for low-decile schools, but not in the important and growing area of special needs (and special needs, as we know, tend to concentrate in low-decile communities). I wrote before about the enormous difficulties we had in accessing services and funding for our daughter and the appalling and discriminatory competition model that regulates these provisions. I could write five more posts about the way that schools that take on students like her are punished for it, but will link to this ongoing case instead. This is Labour’s legacy. One term of the current Tory government later, schools are required to report against national standards the results of students classed as having high needs – in spite of the fact that they are taught under an individualised educational programme – and are not allowed to disaggregate the data or report on how many of children with high needs there are on their roll. Now imagine this data being published in league tables, and the grossly unfair perceptions that it would generate. As for performance pay, imagine if not only schools – as is already the case – but also teachers were penalised financially for teaching students like our daughter. Would this lead to a more or less equitable system, would you say? I think even John Roughan could do the math on this one, if he cared to.

Yet that is exactly how the wedge will work: by rewarding the schools towards whom the system is biased and marginally increasing educational choice and teaching standards for the middle class and above, all at the cost of the most disadvantaged students and the most dedicated educators.

Pupils and staff at Te Uku Public School, 1910

In case you think that opposing these moves will simply be a matter of voting out a right-wing government, I invite you to consider that in Australia it was Labor that introduced national standards and league tables, and is now pledging to move on performance pay; while in the United States the No Child Left Behind legislation was introduced by the Republicans but Obama – who opposed it as a candidate – did nothing more than tinker with it in office and no longer intends to repeal it. As for New Zealand, while I sought and obtained reassurances last week that Labour still opposes national standards, the policies of the party most likely to form the next government are a long way from being announced and the worrying lines in David Shearer’s first speech as leader about getting rid of bad teachers still ring in the ears. This is only part of the reason why defending public education cannot be left to politicians, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mechanisms of consensus that we are dealing with.

As one of the nation’s leading editorialists, John Roughan is part of these mechanisms. His boisterously misinformed column is the measure of the kind of rhetoric we can expect to continue to have to face – a rhetoric that clouds the facts to the point of befuddlement, and to very precise ends: so that voters will continue to feel these issues at a gut level, and add them to the sum of their economic, social and existential insecurities, so that they may finally beg that their children be looked after, and bugger the rest.

We can, and should, expect more. We can, and must, demand more. So get informed, join the marches and the public meetings, support teacher unions and sector organizations. Let’s not let the artful mediocrity of the likes of John Roughan write the next chapter of this story.

I happen to be a school trustee so the usually implicit disclaimer that the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone should be made explicit this week.

For a point by point response to John Roughan’s column and useful considerations on the state of education debate I heartily recommend this post by Russell Brown.

The lively discussion following last week’s post included a separate (and excellent) response by IlllllllllllllI, who wrote an actual an essay on criticism.

Last week I had an essay on the internet as a technology of control published in the new issues of The New Inquiry magazine, which you really ought to subscribe to. It’s only $2 a month in its electronic form (PDF or iPad).

Lastly, I wrote my Euro 2012 preview for my hungry fortnightly slot at Overland but the football blog Minus the Shooting is back and I’ll strive to contribute to that as well. Should be great anyway. Bookmark it or do whatever it is that you do.

Full Image credits are as follows:
1. The Kauri Timber Company Ltd (Auckland Office): School seats, school desk [and] gates. [Catalogue page. ca 1906]. The Kauri Timber Company Ltd (Auckland Office): [Catalogue. ca 1906]. Ref: Eph-B-BUILDING-SUPPLIES-ca-1906-01-42. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
2. Teachers' Training College, Wellesley Street, Auckland. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948: Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000538-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
3. Gilmour Brothers (Firm). Pupils and staff at Te Uku Public School, 1910 - Photograph taken by Gilmour Brothers. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948: Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001089-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, June 4, 2012

An Essay on Criticism

It’s okay to not like things.
It’s okay, but don’t be a dick about it.
It’s okay to not like things.
Don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.
These lyrics were set to an upbeat tune and uploaded to YouTube by user 808X in April of 2011. The 16-second video has been viewed over a million times. It is the national anthem of the well-adjusted, the beautifully condensed etiquette manual of Web 2.0. Those four lines tell you everything you need to know in order to navigate these confusing, trying modern times of ours.

In 1709, at the age of twenty-one, Alexander Pope wrote a 744-line poem in heroic couplets entitled An Essay on Criticism. It included the following passage:
But you who seek to give and merit Fame,
And justly bear a Critick’s noble Name,
Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.
Or: it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it. Possibly as a result of having the ditty playing in my head as I reread the poem ahead of this post, it seems to me now that Pope was concerned with decorum to a far greater extent than with the substance or content of criticism. A critic should be tactful – he tells us – mindful of appearances and highly practiced in the art of dissimulation. ‘Speak, tho’ sure, with seeming Diffidence.’ When teaching, appear not to teach, but to remind the reader of something that they already know. In all things be
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe.
And so forth. Even to the extent that Pope’s model critic must possess integrity and be willing to censure friends and ‘gladly praise the Merits of a Foe’, this too is a quality that matters so long as it is conspicuous and you are seen to be doing those things. And in the closing lines of the poem, what is that final precept, to be ‘averse alike to Flatter or Offend’, if not ultimately a social imperative, seeing as both flattery and offence are so intrinsically tied to social codes and perceptions?

In one other respect the video by 808X is the perfect update of Pope’s three-hundred year old poem, for the latter wrote – amongst many quotable lines – that
Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.
Now what could be more succinct – therefore make more sense – than ‘it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it’?

So what does it mean? The clues in the video are limited to some fairly basic drawings. The neutral person, above, who neither likes nor dislikes things, seems fairly contented. Then he or she dislikes something. This is okay.

Being a dick, by contrast, transfigures the person entirely.

Big lettering underscores the cautionary message, without much in the way of clarification.

Dickish behaviour is represented as a kind of rage, but I think this is more figurative than literal, and that the larger point is that being a dick makes you look bad and is unpleasant for those around you. However this still doesn’t quite explain what the behaviour consists of. YouTube user paintballingguy offered the following response:
It’s okay to not like things.
It’s okay, doesn’t mean that I’m a dick about it.
It’s okay to not like things.
It doesn’t make me a dick to have things I don’t like.
Which is all well and good, but takes us no closer to understanding what it is that makes you a dick. It just reiterates that disliking something is not enough to qualify. In logical terms we might say that having things you don’t like is not in itself a sufficient condition for being a dick, and may not be a necessary one either, meaning that it might be possible to like everything and still be a dick by means of some other transgression.

So is disliking anything at all bad in itself? Again it’s hard to say but there may be something of a clue in the first line of the song. ‘It’s okay to not like things.’ It’s not good or fine. Merely okay. We don’t really endorse it, but if you must, then at least try not to be a dick about it. Note how this is written in the way the core Web 2.0 applications operate. YouTube has like and dislike options for its videos, but it’s in the minority: Facebook has a like button, but no dislike button; Twitter lets you broadcast or favourite a tweet, not hiss or boo; Google, which owns YouTube, allows you to register agreement (+1), but not disagreement. These are the default behaviours, whereas not liking things is just okay. We know it can’t be completely designed out of the system, so for now it is tolerated. Just be mindful of how you go about it. Use decorum.

So again we must ask what does it mean to be a dick? What does it look like? I ventured before that it’s an unpleasantness, something that makes you look bad and makes others feel bad about themselves. All Offence and no Flattery, as Pope might have said. Unlike the ogreish stick figure in the video he literally was disfigured, by the way, as a result of Pott’s disease, and in addition to this he was a Catholic, which barred him from living within ten miles of London or Westminster and from attending regular schools. In describing at such a young age the social role and the social etiquette of the critic he might have had his opinions coloured by all of this. For our part, we might want to think about what it is that excludes people from the social networks of today. The overwhelmingly favourable reaction to the video posted by 808X, as documented by the first few pages of Google results, is a chorus of Yes! and THIS! and Like and +1 and subscribe, although in order for it to rack up such a prodigious number of views by far the most common reaction must have been simply people sharing the video amongst their friends and contacts. But why? In answer to what? Do many people really feel that the problem with the internet or society in general is people hating on the things that they like? Who does that anymore? Are there even any genuine snobs left? Are there cultural critics willing to argue that, say, reality television is bad for its public and for society, and that if you watch Police Ten 7 you just might be an arsehole? Or is it true on the contrary that even the most derivative or exploitative manifestations of mass culture have been almost universally subsumed under the rubric of taste, concerning which, as we have known for some time, there can be no dispute? As for the artistic and cultural legitimacy of what is popular, that is another battle that was won decisively some decades ago. Nobody but nobody is relitigating that.

So why all the likes for this video, why all the love? Unless it is precisely because it compresses into sixteen wonderful seconds an entire set of cultural attitudes to which most people subscribe. We only ask that we be left alone with our likes, and not unduly exposed to our dislikes. Isn’t that how Web 2.0, how consumer culture operates? Networks that create endless loops of positive reinforcement. Forums that allow us to devote to most authors and texts, obscure or otherwise, the kind of minute, maniacal attention that Pope prescribed for the study of the great ancient poets, producing a multiplicity of canons which are nonetheless still canons, therefore just as flawed as the staid ones that we inherited; and, most importantly, leaving no means to critique or bypass the mechanisms of that consumption.

Everything must pass through the social networks, therefore everything must be liked (or disliked in the calculated fashion of the shock-value piece, which amounts to the same thing). If all goes according to hype, soon there will be no publishers nor editors and so the logic of this social layer, that is to say of efficient consumption, will be alone in governing access to information and ultimately most forms of culture. It’s the future we bought, the future we agreed to. It plays in chunks of sixteen seconds to the sound of an upbeat tune.