Tag Archives: society

Blog Action Day 2012: The Power of We

I want to write great, inspiring things about community. Really I do. It’s just that the last few days, my faith in this sort of thing has taken a bit of a beating.

I mean, my commute is roughly an hour each way, which is fine. However, last week the main road on which I travel was closed due to a burst water main, meaning it took me nearly four hours to get home. I could live with that – it’s not fun, but hey, sometimes water mains explode – but the complete lack of consideration displayed by other motorists was shocking, with cars pushing into the queue at the last moment and generally bumping an already nightmarish commute down a couple more levels of hell.

Okay, silly example maybe, but it shows what happens when the Power of We gets pushed out in favour of the Power of Me. It turns out that eccentric British radio and TV personality Jimmy Savile was systematically sexually abusing young girls for forty years without being caught; now it turns out that plenty of people knew or suspected it was going on but turned a blind eye. It was pragmatic. It was the culture. Community broke down.

I won’t even start on trolling.

I know this is a negative way of starting a blog that’s intended to celebrate the power and importance of community, but I think it’s important to remember that community, society, the corporate We isn’t just about projects and clubs, it’s about a way of thinking, a way of thinking that means we actually work together instead of ignoring crimes and becoming jerks the minute we sit down behind a steering wheel or a keyboard.

That way of thinking is a powerful thing. My wife and I got married in August, and our wedding is a fantastic example of the Power of We. Friends did our catering, made our cake, took photos and moved chairs and decorated and arranged flowers and… Well, it was a genuine example of a community – no, a few different communities – coming together and making our big day special. I might moan about inconsiderate commuters, but when I do, all I have to do is look at my wedding photos to get a wake-up call: sometimes community works. Heck, most of the time it works, that’s why we have a society, that’s why we have sub-cultures, that’s why, when a bunch of people rioted last year, communities in London had organised clean-up crews by the next morning. They held their brooms in the air and proclaimed that chaos wouldn’t win.

It’s that humanity, those faces, that help me to remember what’s really important. We can look at Jimmy Savile or Rupert Murdoch and see how, over the last year, media, law and politics collapsed and allowed shameful crimes to be committed. But I can look at my friends, I can look at colleagues who were in Yemen and Tunisia when the Arab Spring took hold and see that communities can work together to create something amazing, something good.

It’s easy to be cynical; it’s harder, but more more powerful, to believe that things can be different. Or, as the Smiths once sang, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind”.

And the Power of We shall stand.


Not Quite A Luddite: Not everyone’s going digital

This post was inspired by an entry over at Maggiecakes, about living ‘a digital life in a pre-analogue world’. It’s an interesting post, raising questions about the interaction between ‘digital natives’ (or at least enthusiastic adopters) and those who don’t readily adopt technology, either because of personal choice, local context or, in extreme cases such as the Amish, personal conviction. Now, I’m by no means a neo-Luddite, but the post did raise something that’s concerned me about the rise of the digital society and who or what gets left behind.

That the digital divide is a genuine phenomenon is clear just from my family. My mom has never used the internet, and she’s not interested in doing so – anything that needs to be done online can be done by me or my sister, and you know what? That’s fair enough. As for silver surfers, well, my grandmother struggled when we got her a slightly more high-tech phone, so computing was never going to happen; my other grandmother never owned a telephone. Again, fair enough. Anecdotal though this is, it reminds me that the transition to a digital world is going to take longer than the technology would like.

So I read about exciting developments I’d like to use in the real world (blame Wired) – augmented reality, for instance – but let’s not kid ourselves, the biggest issue facing my town in terms of new technology was probably, realistically speaking, switching off of the analogue TV transmitters. This isn’t intentional, but regardless, I doubt there’s a huge concentration of bloggers or Twitter users locally.

Reading that back, it sounds patronising. It’s not meant to be. Despite us defining our friendships by Facebook, it’s not that way in the real world. For my generation, getting a group of friends together for a night out is now a military operation – for older generations in my area, there’s still an emphasis on physical community – coffee mornings, mother and toddlers groups, churches, pubs. And even though I’m the sort of person who can happily sit in a corner reading a book all day, I think there’s something powerful about groups of people meeting together regularly, forging community – a lot has been written about how Twitter has mobilised the 2011 protest movements across the world, but maybe there’s a more powerful story in how the Occupy movement models a rebuilding of community by setting up camp next to each other.

Maggie’s post also draws attention to communities that deliberately reject technology, specifically the Amish. Now, I’d struggle with the Amish lifestyle – I like having a car and telephones and the internet – but I can understand their concerns about how technology might undermine society, mainly because I don’t think any of us have really got a grasp on what’s happened over the last thirty years ago.  Certainly it would be a shame to see traditional crafts disappear, but that’s because I come from a line of carpenters (see that photo to the right) and I have no woodworking ability whatsoever – unlike aforementioned Amish folk. I’ve blogged about that before; I hope that when everything goes digital, there will still be room for the physical. That’s probably hyperbole, but there does seem to be a sense in which we’re valuing the online over the offline (see all the controversy over library closures).

So I’m a digital fan living in a world that hasn’t quite caught up with technology. And you know what, I kinda like that. It helps keep offline community and crafts on the radar, and it helps break down the digital divide by acknowledging the other side of that barrier (something that doesn’t always happen). I can live with that.

Still need to learn to whittle though.



See How The Monsters Fall

I’m just old enough to remember the dying days of the Cold War, news reports full of Strategic Defence Initiatives and the tick-tock of the Doomsday Clock as it moved closer to midnight, inspiring nightmares and Watchmen as it went.

Then, in 1989, the whole house of cards collapsed, seemingly overnight but I guess the cracks were showing long before, at least to those with eyes to see. The Bogeyman had fallen and he didn’t even get chance to launch all those nuclear missiles. The monster had been felled.

I wonder if that’s how it felt to all those living at the end of the Second World War, hearing that the spectre who had cast his deathly shadow over the fields of Europe now lay dead in a bunker in Berlin?

Libya was once another such bogeyman, responsible for terrorism and the Lockerbie Bombing. Heck, Libyans are even a destructive presence in Back To The Future. But somewhere along the line, Gaddafi became the comedy uncle of global dictators, at least in the western world that didn’t have to live under his regime.

It was a different story in Libya, of course, and yesterday the revolution that started in February reached something of a climax with the death of Colonel Gaddafi. Another dictator down, another fallen regime.

I’ve said before, probably too many times, that this is turning out to be a very strange year, almost as if 2011 has served notice on the leaders and institutions that are corrupt, oppressive or simply anachronistic. Maybe we felt that they’d last forever, that their power would pass to the heirs and nothing would change. Suddenly that no longer seems to be the case, and it ‘s steange and disorientating and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful.

GK Chesterton said, in so many words, that fairy tales don’t teach children that monsters exist – they already know that – but fairy tales do teach them that monsters can be beaten. And maybe, in some less mythic way, the same is true of protest songs and Twitter. We’ve learned that monsters – Gaddafi, corporations, media corruption – aren’t invulnerable, aren’t immortal, aren’t omnipotent. That knowledge is liberating and empowering and intimidating, because it confers on those who’d succeed a monster the responsibility to do a better job.

And, as 2011 seems to be restructuring the world around us, that responsibility necessarily falls on us all. We are the 100%.


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Banned Books Week 2011

20110926-071232.jpgOver in the States it’s Banned Books Week, run by the American Library Association to celebrate and promote freedom of speech. It’s worrying that such a celebration is actually needed, and as someone who’s always been a reader, I was curious to find out how many of the titles appearing on the ALA’s list of ‘Books Challenged or banned in 2010-11’ I’ve actually read (not many as it turns out, although bannings depend on context – here’s why Charlotte’s Web got banned in Kuwait).

Like most of us, I guess, the idea of banning books, especially in long-established democracies, feels wrong. It’s thin-end-of-the-wedge stuff; ban a book because of bad language or a sex scene and suddenly you’ve set a precedent for the next person who comes along wanting to ban something because it’s politically inconvenient or because it promotes manmade climate change. Librarians are on the frontline of this particular battle, but this has ramifications for a world where public funds to libraries are being cut at a rate of knots. Will privatised libraries have that same dedication to freedom of speech, or will the potential threat to profit margins be more influential? It’s a question worth asking.

But then, banning books is only part of the issue. Somewhere along the line the Internet got intelligent; now personalisation is its watchword and news, search results and retail recommendations get filtered based on our ‘preferences’. And sure, this can be convenient but it runs the risk of turning the internet, the great electronic frontier into a billion echo-chambers, one for each of us. Cyberia has become Cyburbia, and that’s when we become digital NIMBYs. Not purposefully, maybe not even knowingly, but sel-selection and software conspired to keep us disengaged from all those other voices out there. At least we can see when someone tries to ban us from reading a book.

(For example, look at the phrasing I used a couple of paragraphs ago. I’m not a fan of swearing at all, but calling it ‘bad language’ sets up a dichotomy that I’m not entirely comfortable with – what exactly would count as ‘good’ language?)

But this is my pessimistic streak coming out. As long as there are passionate, dedicated readers and librarians out there, literature and journalism will have their defenders. Saturday saw the Word on the Street festival hit Toronto; the Hay Festival does a similar job in the UK and around the world. Voices will be heard; words will be read. And no stories that get banned stay banned.

Because while information may or may not want to be free, stories always do.

The International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots a couple of weeks ago, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.