A while ago I had this to say about the hollow empire that once was Rupert Murdoch’s – and how I felt that the Guardian, in its page-impression-chasing “Comment is Free” section had reproduced such hollowness, perhaps quite despite itself.
The corrosive relativism – that platform for anyone, even one’s enemies (which, as you can see, I am suggesting has very curiously grown up in Murdoch’s imperial shadow and early example) – must have seemed a good idea at the time: that is to say, not corrosive. But I would argue that in particular the last General Election – the commentariats’ recommendations and all that has rained on us since – has shown the consequences and ramifications of such an approach: ideologies, after all, are not important in order that they may allow the non-thinking to impose the inflexible on good people but, rather, precisely this, to make it possible for the thinking to measure the pitfalls of the relativism they rightly explore. By always measuring such pitfalls at the same time as investigating new ideas, ideology helps – like a compass in the wild – the explorers amongst us keep on the right, intelligent and humane side of mix-and-match instincts to thought. And equally, in ideology’s absence, there is nothing left to define how far we are travelling away from the goals we started out with.
So if exploring ideas in a relativistic way is good, how do we guard against its long-term corrosive downsides (if, indeed, I am right to term and argue it thus)? That our newspapers are a reflection of our ways of thinking, doing and seeing is undoubted; that they fashion and impact on such ways is also clear; and that, above all, in the economically aggressive times for the industry all media are currently experiencing, that they will tend to strive any which way they can to overcome their own destruction, via online tricks (and tics!) of all kinds … well, it’s obvious that much of what has happened in the press over the past thirty years has had more to do with the overarching need to get to the end of the month than alleged empire-building and king- and queen-making antics.
In truth, democracy has been corrupting itself since the 70s; and the evidence is out there if you just care to look. Which hasn’t meant there haven’t been parallel movements designed overtly or covertly to satisfy – as a social species – our democratic urges. Open source software communities are one example of this. Where cogent and useful and supporting real purposes and needs, they can be examples of alternative democracy worthy of significant study. But we don’t even need to go so technical: the web, whilst mining the data and lives of so many of us, does also allow like-minded souls to aggregate around like-minded goals in so many online environments.
What’s now approaching is, however, something quite challenging. The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will blur the lines between offline and online: our fridges will tell us that we need to buy milk on the way home; our cars will end up deciding where we need to drive; our watches will inform us of our health and any remedial urgencies to be contemplated. As I concluded in another post on the same subject (whilst observing, sadly, the following lost opportunity: if only we’d called the Internet of Things a much happier Internet of People!):
As John Naughton reminds us, and Larry Elliott before him, the dominant mode of business is a business not of people but of things. It’s hardly surprising that someone should have defined the next wave of connectedness thus. What’s most worrying about it, however, is not the way such organisations repeat their behaviours. What’s most worrying about it is that democracy itself – currently beholden only to ballot boxes, paper-based procedures and other remnants of quite ancient times – will shortly migrate to this still undefined Internet of Things; will shortly be defined from top-to-tail by corporate capitalism.
And then where will people be able to find even a niche? Then where will people even exist?
This, for me, is the key issue to hand: how to make of an approaching (maybe we would more accurately say “encroaching”) Internet of Things a place designed for the grassroots input of all kinds of people. Not to connect the offline and online worlds only through technologies which track us, measure us and – ultimately – define us quite despite ourselves but, rather, use tech to bring the real world back into the centre of all our endeavour – whether that endeavour be cultural, social, political or economic.
From a corrosive relativism to truly recovering the soul of one of our greatest newspapers? And, consequently, in part, our much wider civic engagement? I don’t think it’s beyond the ken of intelligent people to be as ambitious as this. Look at this initiative, for example:
We believe that the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better
Guardian Membership brings together diverse, progressive minds, journalistic skills and the best of what others create to give you a richer understanding of the world and the opportunity to shape it.
In 2016, the Guardian will reopen the Midland Goods Shed at London’s King’s Cross to create a new kind of civic space.
The building will be a hub for big ideas and stimulating conversations. It will host events, activities and courses from Guardian Live and institutions we admire, as well as being the home of Guardian Membership.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the following article from September 2014 gives more background to how the Guardian sees itself in terms of this project.
So why do I suddenly find this so stimulating? We can harp on about London-centric initiatives (I myself often do; I don’t have the resource, on occasions neither the emotional desire, to trog on down to a place which is often quite negatively foreign to my ways of thinking); we can even argue that it may become a white elephant of grand corporate self-aggrandisement, if those who are developing it aren’t careful.
But right now, with the data I get the feeling that I have to hand, I don’t think the above will happen. And I certainly wish for it not to take over a beautiful idea we should all prefer to support, whatever our politics or ideological inclinations.
If we are to rescue the Internet of Things from those who would worship things instead of prioritise people, then public civic spaces like these where people of all ways of thinking, doing and seeing are physically able to meet other people, combined with video-conferencing tech for those who cannot be there in person, will inevitably become progressively more practical as the Internet we name the Internet of Things is – perhaps most hopefully – recovered for that Internet … of Our Mutual Civic Soul.