Film Gay Politics Politics Television

Should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Today’s social media controversy comes courtesy of former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T Davies who has gone on record in an interview that he believes gay roles should generally be played by gay actors.

As you might expect, the response to this argument has been both immediate and strong. Some people have argued that it’s against the whole principle of acting to say that people should only play people like themselves (while obviously skipping over the obvious complexities of — or analogies to — a white actor playing a black character or a man playing a woman’s experience). Others have argued that if straight actors can’t play gay, then gay actors should not be able to play straight characters either.

In the middle of a lot of this is the same sort of generalized tedious sentiment we often get in these kinds of discussions – stuff that goes along the lines of, “it’s all political correctness gone mad” – groans about the “woke brigade”.

Now, these positions are infuriating, frustrating and wrong, but for many people why they are wrong is far from obvious. Superficially, they seems simple, commonsensical, self-evidently right. So for that reason I thought I’d go a bit above and beyond the call of duty and write a little piece explaining why subjects like these are more complex and intricate than they might initially appear, and why—in my opinion—even if it may not be desirable long-term, it is far from unreasonable to argue that gay parts should generally be played by gay actors.

I’m going to break this into three separate questions which I think have bearing on who should play which roles:

  1. Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?
  2. Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?
  3. If straight actors shouldn’t play gay, does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

I’ll then try and wrap things up with a brief summary (you can skip to that right now if you can’t be bothered to read everything) and a brief articulation of my own opinion.

But if you’re with me for the long read, let’s jump right in…

Question 1: Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?

No. The truth is that there is not equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors, any more than there has been equality of opportunity for female actors, people of color or any other non-gay member of the LGBT community.

While it has clearly become easier for gay actors to get ahead in Hollywood or in acting generally in recent years, being gay is still often an impediment to a successful acting career at the highest levels.

It is simply true that actors who are out and proud and well known as being gay simply don’t get given straight roles as often—particularly straight leading roles—in movies or TV. Out gay actors who take on these roles are often characterized as ‘not believable’, while a straight actor who plays a gay role (at least over the last thirty years or so) is more often characterized as ‘brave’.

So here is our first argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people. There simply aren’t very many LGBT roles on TV or film, gay people are under- and often mis-represented, and (if they’re out) they’re often simply not allowed to play high profile non-gay roles.

Surely then, if gay actors are being purposefully excluded from many prominent straight roles, they should at least be considered preferentially for gay roles?

Question 2: Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?

Our next argument is based on the assumption that it is necessary, desirable or significant for gay people to be accurately depicted in drama. You can break this assumption into two parts – (a) that it makes for better drama to have more authentic performances, and (b) that it is morally or politically important to portray gay people in an accurate, convincing or (most importantly) non-stereotypical or discriminatory way.

I think that first part is self-evidently true most of the time and barely worth interrogating. The second part depends on whether or not gay or other LGBT people are still disadvantaged in society, experience discrimination or harassment, or are under-represented in drama. All the evidence says that they absolutely are.

Gay men generally earn less than straight men, gay people still often don’t feel comfortable express affection to their partners in public, gay teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and twice as likely to ‘succeed’ when they try. Gay kids also represent 25-40% of homeless youth across the US and UK, and well over 90+% of gay kids report hearing homophobic abuse in the playground on an almost daily basis.

It seems clear to me—given this situation—that there’s an obvious imperative to try and fix things, or at least to not be complicit with them. And one obvious way to fight misinformation and discrimination against LGBT people is by attempting to represent them properly on TV and film.

This obviously does not mean by any means making every gay character a paragon of virtue. But it does mean representing gay people as they actually are—in all their range, variety and complexity—rather than resorting to stereotype or discriminatory tropes.

Which brings us to our second question – are straight actors capable of doing this?

The short answer here is yes. They absolutely can. And they sometimes do. I can name a number of films and movies where I think straight people have done tremendously good work portraying gay characters.

But as always, the devil is in the details. And the longer answer is that even today, many straight actors do not truly understand the lived experience of gay people and so — rather than depicting rounded characters that reflect real life — they either portray two-dimensional figures without any richness or understanding, or they resort to codes or symbols or stereotypes to communicate ‘gayness’.

The reality is that LGBT people often have some commonalities of experience that are often invisible or simply not understood by straight people. There’s the common experience of growing up around homophobic comments, and then coming to realize that those comments are about you. There’s the common experience of having crushes on people and knowing that you have to be completely secretive about them. There’s the common experience of lying to people around you and misleading people because you’re scared of how they’ll react if they find out the truth. There are the common experiences of coming out to friends, family, colleagues – over and over and over again as you meet new people. The common experience of someone you like making homophobic comments because they just don’t know. The common experience of not knowing how much of yourself you can reveal on the street without fear of attack. There’s the different way you meet people like yourself, the different support infrastructures you fabricate for yourself. The list goes on and on.

Not all LGBT people experience all of these things, and no doubt some experience none of them. But for most LGBT people, their path has been different from most of their straight peers and there will be things that most LGBT people experience that most straight people will not. And these things are a part of the complexity of the character and backgrounds of almost every fictional gay person.

For many straight actors, their experience of gay people will be via two unrepresentative samples, (a) their most confident out gay friends, (b) via previous representations of gay people in movies and TV. Forty years ago those representations were of sad, disillusioned, broken people who had horrible times coming out or were in the process of dying of AIDS, or ultra-camp flamboyant people with limp wrists and catch phrases. Twenty years ago they were more often than not very attractive and well-groomed men who were slightly bitchy best friends to nearby career women. Today they’re a lot better and more nuanced, but they’re still flawed. You only have to look at fantasy fiction to see that there’s still prejudice in movie making. How many daring archaeologists are gay? How many leather coat wearing space cowboys are gay? How many spies? How many secret agents?

So let’s summarize our second argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people: while there are a number of examples of particularly good straight actors who have very effectively played gay characters, they are uncommon and massively overwhelmed by bad ones. If you want to fix that misrepresentation (and in turn have a positive effect on the lives of gay people) then one thing you can substantively do is cast gay actors in gay roles.

Which brings us to our final question…

Question 3: Does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

The two previous questions are, I think, fairly self-explanatory. But now we reach one that is a little more complicated to answer. The threads of this answer are already present in the two we’ve already made, but to make them clear and explicit we really need to address the most fundamental mistake people tend to make when they talk about minority groups.

So the commonly expressed position we’re investigating is superficially simple – if straight people should probably not play gay characters, then surely it’s only fair to say gay characters shouldn’t play straight?

But the basis of this position is fundamentally flawed. The argument is that we should treat both groups symmetrically — that the experiences of gay actors and straight actors — more still, gay people and straight people — are fundamentally the same but opposite, effectively equivalent and therefore if we decide on an action for one, it should necessarily apply to the other – ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.

The problem is this is simply not true. When you’re talking about minority groups in this way, the two sides are almost always not symmetrical. The two sides are in fact very different. And the logical consequence of this difference is that things that might be okay for one group might actually not be okay for another.

The best way for me to explain this is through an example and please bear with me here, because I think it will make things much clearer.

A position based on symmetry might be a bit like this: “It’s wrong to have gay bars if we don’t also have straight bars!”

Now—for the moment—I’m going to ignore the reality of the situation that there are often straight people in gay bars, and that most non-explicitly gay bars are effectively de facto straight bars containing an equally small proportion of gay people. Instead I’m going to take the position at face value – and talk about why explicitly gay bars are a thing and explicitly straight bars are not.

So here’s the first bit of asymmetry in the lives of straight and gay people. A very small proportion of people in the world are LGBT. It is strongly debated what that proportion is, but for the sake of simple maths let’s say one person in fifty is explicitly gay.

Now, one of the most common places to meet someone you end up forming a relationship with is at work. The percentage of people who meet their partners at work varies depending on who you ask, but it’s somewhere around 15-25% of relationships.

So let’s imagine an office containing fifty people with an equal gender split and one in fifty people being gay. That means the company contains 25 men, 25 women.

It follows then that if you were a straight person in that company, you would most likely meet 48 other straight people. And of those straight people, 24 or 25 of those people would be of the opposite sex.

Let’s compare that with the gay person in that company. They will most likely meet no other gay people. Probabilistically, to have a second gay person in the company, it would need to double in size to one hundred employees.

Now you have two gay people in the company, but they are just as likely to be the opposite sex from each other, and therefore incompatible. To be confident that our initial gay employee will likely meet one other gay person of the same sex at work, the company would have to be twice the size again (200 people). That would mean likely four gay people at the company in total.

In comparison, in a company of two hundred people, 196 would likely be straight. And each straight person at the company would meet 98 heterosexual people of the opposite sex.

And we’re still not done! It’s still the general assumption that people you meet are straight, and there are still a number of reasons why gay people might not be out at work. So let’s imagine only 50% of gay people come out. So now we need to double the size of the company again. We’re now in a company of four hundred people, where each straight person is associating with 196 heterosexuals of the opposite sex. The gay employee meanwhile knows one out gay person of their preferred sex.

That’s an example of an asymmetry in action. And it doesn’t just apply to workplaces, it also applies to bars, nightclubs, universities etc. Every environment that is simply representative of the general population will make it dozens to hundreds of times easier for a straight person to meet someone eligible and potentially interested than a gay person.

As a result, gay people create ‘gay clubs’ and ‘gay bars’ to meet other gay people, while straight people already have de facto straight bars all around them at all times and making them explicitly straight simply excludes gay people from 98% of society.

So how does this apply to our final concern – if straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles, does it follow that gay actors should not play straight roles?

Well, let’s look back at our first question – are gay actors given an equal shot at straight roles? The answer was no, there’s an asymmetry there. Out gay actors were less likely to get leading straight roles than straight actors were to get gay roles. Giving gay roles to gay actors starts to fix that problem, but as long as there are disproportionately few gay roles, making things equitable also means letting gay actors play straight roles.

Does the same apply to our second question? Are there asymmetries at play that mean that it’s less problematic for a gay person to play straight than vice versa? I would argue there are at least three worth mentioning:

  • An asymmetry of knowledge
  • An asymmetry of power
  • An asymmetry of number

First up – the asymmetry of knowledge – most straight people do not grow up or live in predominantly gay environments, whereas most gay people do grow up and live in predominantly straight environments. The entire world is a predominantly straight environment that gay people simply have to operate within. For this reason, gay people are much more likely to be comfortable and convincing and accurate playing straight – at least partly because they may have spend good portions of their lives doing precisely that.

Second – the asymmetry of power – unlike gay people, straight people generally do not grow experience prejudice because of their sexuality. This means that accidentally misrepresenting straight people is much less problematic. Instead of furthering or creating a negative view of all straight people, it’s more likely to simply make that character look objectionable or unpleasant.

Third – the asymmetry of number – because there are far more straight characters and straight roles, the negative effect of one misrepresentation of a straight person—among all the thousands committed to film and TV each day—is also much less pronounced or important.

Conclusion: So should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Okay, so let me bring that all together. In short, the argument I’ve made goes like this:

  • The argument is that anyone should be able to play anyone else and that if straight people can’t play gay roles, then gay actors shouldn’t play straight ones. This position sounds intuitive but is in fact wrong;
  • On the whole gay actors have fewer opportunities than straight actors, and if we’re not going to give leading straight roles to gay actors, then the least we can do is give gay roles to gay actors;
  • Straight actors often are more ignorant of the lives of gay people than gay actors are of straight people – and since accurate representation matters, gay actors are better placed to play gay roles;
  • These situations are built on asymmetries of knowledge, power and number between straight and gay people, which mean that straight actors playing gay roles are much less likely to be accurate and much more likely to be damaging than gay actors playing straight roles.

For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that Davies’ arguments are not self-evidently wrong or hypocritical.

But I’d like to go a bit further. As I’ve argued throughout this piece, these positions are fundamentally based on asymmetries between gay and straight people. Some of those asymmetries just won’t go away – it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a time where there are as many gay people as straight people in the world.

But some of them can be fixed. We can make the experience of growing up gay or being gay in the world less alarming, dangerous and scary. We can make straight people more aware of the experience of being gay with more accurate representation and education. We can work to help audiences feel more comfortable with gay actors to take on straight leading roles. We can increase the number of LGBT roles in drama so that it’s truly representative. And here is where I think my position diverges a little from at least the summaries of Russell T Davies we’ve seen around in the last day or two.

Because if we do try and fix these things then at least some of these arguments will—over time—lose their potency. We actually can work towards a day where it is at least more okay for any good actor working in good faith to play gay or straight whatever their sexuality. Where we don’t have to think continually about how we make sure that gay people are represented and gay actors have equal opportunities and we genuinely can just give the right roles to the best people. We’re just not there yet. And to get there we probably have to follow a narrower and more complicated path – much like the path that Russell T Davies has mapped out.

In the meantime, we work and we push and we explain, in articles in the Radio Times or in never-ending blog posts, to those few who are willing to listen, always hoping that together we might get a little closer to that day.

Thank you for listening and goodnight xx


How to donate to US elections without getting spammed to death…

Like many people who live in America I have donated to US political candidates and campaigns. And like many people who live in America I have subsequently found my entire life suddenly and completely overwhelmed by text-messages and e-mail spam and phone calls and any number of other venal, stressy, desperate campaign messages.

Now of course by law you can unsubscribe from these things, but sometimes without realizing, it often turns out you’ve actually donated to a few different services – whether it be Act Blue or a specific campaign or to the DNC or whatever. And you have to hunt everyone one of them down to get unsubscribed. And go through a whole bunch of rigmarole and fighting and arguments to do so.

(I suppose it’s also possible that you may have donated to a Republican campaign. I find that unlikely, but if that’s the case, keep moving please, there’s nothing for you here.)

Anyway, I was so put off by the torrent of crap I got after donating many times to Barack Obama’s campaign that I spent a large amount of time getting myself off every single one of their records and lists. And then I decided I did not want to donate any more money again after that until such a point that the Democrats made it easy to choose how much spam you should get, and easy to unsubscribe. But they never did. So I didn’t donate to any political campaign in 2016. And then Trump got in and it was clearly all my fault. Lesson learned.

Anyway, this year I decided I wanted to donate again, but I wanted to do it a bit more intelligently. And after a bit of research, this is what I recommend. It’s really quite easy and non-threatening.

(1) Get a Google Voice account. This is essentially a real telephone number that you can receive texts on and can reroute to your actual phone line if you want. Use this number in everything you do with a political campaign. Then go in and change the settings to automatically go to voicemail and to not be put through to your main phone number.

You can go and check your messages and texts at any time you want. It’s a real number and it works. You’re not breaking (as far as I know) any laws or rules. You’re just keeping it off your damn main phone.

(2) Use + signs in your e-mail address. This is a sneaky little trick that allows you to tag an e-mail address you give out. If your e-mail address is (for example), you can actually give out the e-mail address and it will 100% work. The bit after the plus is ignored by the routing systems, but is preserved when it enters your e-mail client.

That means if you do nothing, an e-mail sent to will end up in the mailbox of You can make as many of these e-mail addresses as you like and they’ll all work.

However, the full address with the +democrats on it is still visible to your e-mail client. That means you can then set up a simple rule to mark all messages from that account as read and file them away in some hidden folder that you never look in.

I think you basically still have to provide your home address and that means they can send mail shots and the like, but to be honest, I’ve never found that interruptive or a particular problem compared to continual mail spam, text messages and phone calls.

Anyway, if you set that stuff up—and it literally takes half an hour to do it—you can then continue to donate with those details to whoever you like and you do it completely safely without having to worry about them continuing to spam the living hell out of you.

And sure, that means you also won’t see the daily begging e-mails or texts from your preferred candidate, and that probably means you won’t end up donating as much from guilt or shame or fear. And that means that your candidate will probably not get quite as much money as if you donated as normal. But if you’re anything like me, that wasn’t the option any more. The option was donate and live in rage and frustration at how often you’re harassed or give up donating forever. This feels like a reasonable compromise to me, and it has worked extremely well this election cycle.

With any luck at some point political parties will learn that relentless spam and calls and guilting people may work in the short term, but that its long term consequences are to alienate and piss of their own supporters. It seems short sighted to me. It seems like an obviously bad approach long-term. But they haven’t learned it yet, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do what you have to do to get through the night.

Journalism Politics Social Software Technology

Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.

I was commissioned to write this Op Ed by NBC News after discussing the matter on Twitter at length. It was a fun if surprisingly hard thing to write. I never managed to get paid for it and never signed anything, so I think it’s probably okay that I republish it here. The original home on NBC News is here: Trump blocked me on Twitter.

A little over six months ago the President of the United States of America blocked me on Twitter. He or his people decided — over the course of one weekend in June — to purge those of us who had been fact-checking him online. By Monday morning, most of us were gone forever.

In a normal administration, a fairly minor micro-scandal like that might represent the high-water mark of public interest in the president’s social media life. Even in this case, there’s more to the story than perhaps meets the eye — blocking critics from official public fora could arguably be illegal — but still, I can’t imagine any previous president spending much time worrying about the effects of Twitter on their agenda.

But things have changed. Today, the censoring of President Donald Trump’s critics represents only the tiniest part of the Trump and Twitter love story — a never-ending 24/7 horror show focusing on and around a profoundly irresponsible and incompetent man’s willful and occasionally terrifying use of social media.

Let’s review: Trump — in the last year alone — has used Twitter to systematically lie to the American peopleattack the very idea of the free pressundermine public trust in America’s core institutionsunderplay racist terror actssupport alleged child molesterscall himself a geniusalienate America’s allies and perhaps worst of alltaunt the world’s most autocratic and unstable nuclear power.

It’s no wonder that so many activists now argue that Twitter has a moral responsibility to ban the president. At protests outside Twitter’s San Francisco offices earlier in January — protests that eventually triggered an anemic and half-hearted response from the company — activists argued that Trump’s appalling behavior had broken the company’s Terms of Use regarding abuse and harassment and should result in him being banned.

They also said that Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey — by creating a space where Trump could circumvent normal media checks and balances — had directly contributed to the president’s rise to power. Enough is enough, they argued. Ban this man.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. I also know some of these activists personally and they are honorable and decent people. But ultimately I believe Twitter must fight to keep Trump on the platform.

For good or ill, Twitter is one of the closest things we have today to a de facto “public space” on the internet. I believe we need such a space. And I believe over the last couple of years, under extraordinary (if deserved) pressure, Twitter has just started to really understand the full range of responsibilities that occupying such a role entails.

One of these responsibilities is to provide a space for the political discourse of a country to play itself out. These are the spaces we now use to debate the issues, to campaign and — now — even to discuss and announce policy. Ideally they wouldn’t be spaces owned by for-profit corporations, but truly public places with rights and responsibilities defined and protected by law. But the U.S. government has shown no inclination or ability to fund or build or run such places, so instead we are where we are.

And where we are is in a country where almost half of the electorate voted for Trump. He did not organize a military coup. It wasn’t a massive administrative error that secured him the job. It was, as much as some people may dispute or dislike it, the will of the people. And until such a time that he’s removed from office, if Twitter is to remain the de facto public space we all need, the will of the people matters.

I’m not going to pretend there isn’t realpolitik in play here too. Let’s face it: Banning the president from Twitter would not remove his platform, he’d simply move to Snapchat, or Facebook or Ello. And if he were banned, the partisan outcry over the decision would probably rend Twitter in half in the process, potentially killing the product and the company in the process. There are no victories there.

Because in the end, the only victories can come from the same processes that got us here. We need to take responsibility as an electorate. If we want him to stop debasing the presidency on Twitter, we need to remove him from the presidency, not remove him from Twitter. We need to support our courts in the fair implementation of the law. And we need to hold our elected representatives to account as they attempt — in turn — to keep Trump from going off the rails.

Meanwhile, there is something we can ask of Twitter. We can ask them to be clear about how they see their role in the world. We need to know what they believe in; what they stand for. We need them to demonstrate that they fully understand they’re not simply a neutral communications mechanism. Today’s Twitter is a place where business happens, elections happen, government happens — and with the arrival of Russia onto the scene — international tensions play out. We need Twitter to show us they understand this and that they’re up to that challenge.

And perhaps we can ask them one more tiny thing — to review their policies on politicians blocking or banning users engaged in legitimate, non-abusive political debate. Twitter’s own statement stood up for “necessary discussion around [politicians’] words and actions, but we can’t have that discussion if those politicians shut us down. And in this post-truth world, we need all the help we can get.

Tom Coates is an entrepreneur and technologist who has developed software products for the BBC, Time Out, Yahoo, Nokia and Jawbone among others. Over the last 20 years he’s written and spoken extensively about tech culture, social platforms, location and the Internet of Things and his work has been featured on the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, MIT Technology Review and in the Daily Mail. His most recent project was the smart home software company Thington, which was acquired last year by eero inc. 

Humour Illustration Politics

Alt-Right, the Comic Strip

This was originally posted over on Medium and a copy of it was moved over here for consolidation purposes in May 2020.

Online last night I saw a bunch of people accusing the left of being bigots for protesting against racist and sexist rhetoric. The argument appears to be that the left are hypocrites for not respecting the freedom of expression of racist, sexist and discriminatory people to be racist, to be sexist, and to discriminate.

At its heart there is a tension here and it’s a tension as old as political theory —that all people should have as much freedom as possible but without compromising the freedom of others. But it’s a tension that we work out over time, in law and in practice. Fundamentally, most on the left have come to the conclusion that stopping people acting in racist, sexist or discriminatory ways results in far more good than harm — a feeling that those who experience sexist, discriminatory or racist abuse seem (for some reason) to feel even more strongly.

Anyway, I find the rhetoric on the alt-right about this stuff beyond offensive and awful — somehow equating threatening to take fundamental rights away from people with protesting about those rights being taken away. And I didn’t quite know how to express my frustration. And weirdly, the best I could come up with was a few short comic strips.

So here they are — five short strips which I think express the absurdity of the hypocrisy and contradiction in the alt-right position. Feel free to use them however you want (as long as you don’t edit the text in them). I’m releasing them under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives International License.

Donald Trump wants to register Muslim Citizens
Donald Trump and the birther myth
Donald Trump discusses grabbing women ‘by the pussy’
Not pretty enough to harass
False statements regarding Mexicans and crime
Politics Technology

On being adult about childish behaviour…

I promised myself I wouldn’t get involved in the whole debate about Adria Richards, but as it drags on and more and more articles are written about it, I find myself troubled by the extent of the polarisation going on.

On one side we have the people who are arguing fundamentally that Adria Richards over-reacted to what appear to be a number of clumsy and childish jokes – jokes that (from what I’ve read at least) appear to be of the ‘he’s got a big dongle’ variety. My opinion? Yeah, I think she massively over-reacted, made a performance out of the whole thing that was entirely unnecessary and got a couple of people told off at a conference who maybe over-stepped the line but probably didn’t deserve that kind of public kicking.

On the other side we have the people arguing that Adria was treated absolutely abhorrently afterwards and that the sheer depth and violence of the things said about her and thrown at her – the volume of the vitriol she had to experience – went way beyond blunt sexism. These people are arguing that this demonstrates structural misogyny, clear discrimination, the horrible consequences that meet a woman who prominently stands up and makes a stand. My opinion? Yeah, that all makes sense too. She was indeed treated awfully. All of us working in the industry should be ashamed of the whole situation. It’s been hideous, horrific. Beyond that. It’s morally wrong.

But here’s the bit that puzzles me. Both of these positions seem to me to be entirely correct and both of them seem to be completely compatible as well. It seems to me to be a vanishingly small proportion of people under fifty who would be legitimately offended by a big dongle joke. It also seems to me to be a tiny proportion of the people in the industry who seriously think that death threats, rape threats and massive sexist comments are something to be encouraged.

So why has it all become such an ungodly fight? We seem to have approached a point where any actual sensible discussion of questions raised by this situation is borderline impossible. The positions are polarising to such an extent that—rather than just accepting what the vast majority of us must surely know to be true—everyone’s being pushed, or pushing themselves, to the edges. The arguments now appear to be that either Adria fucked up and for this reason she deserved to get rape threats, or that since she got rape threats she cannot possibly have fucked up.

These are both ridiculous positions! These are insane positions! These are totally irrational positions! In our attempts to find meaning in this event we’ve got people trying to find a neat narrative that wraps everything up elegantly and cleanly. But such an attempt is doomed to fail here. No one comes out of this cheerfully. There is clumsy human self-importance on the one side and a great swathe of unpleasant, unwashed, dickish, abusive and disgusting morons on the other.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d never for one minute suggest that Adria’s actions and the responses to them are commensurately awful. The horrific attacks on her remain beyond the pale, where her behaviour (in my opinion at least) was merely a bit eye-roll worthy. It’s just important to remember that the extent of the venom she’s had to endure does not in itself make her an infallible saint – any more than the error she made in any way justified the demonisation she’s experienced.

The world is more serious and flawed and nuanced than these narratives would make us believe. The tech industry is not 90% full of sexist arseholes desperate to drag all women down. Nor is it a magical meritocracy in which all the right people achieve riches. Over-simplifying things to this degree makes it harder to solve the problems that we have as a culture. It makes it harder for us to fix things. We can’t afford to just react like this. It helps no one. We have to be adult about childish behaviour.

Ethics Politics Talks

A New Sincerity

This piece was originally delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, and then published on Medium.

One of the most fundamental problems of our ages is that we’ve lost our trust in the very idea of truth. The loss of ‘truth’ corrodes every aspect of our societies and lives and it’s something we must actively fight against if we want a better world…

I believe we need a New Sincerity. I believe we need a new focus on ideas so basic and fundamental to our lives and to our public discourse that they affect everything else we do, but which have drifted, been co-opted and now stand to be abandoned as old-fashioned, even naïve.

I think we need to get past our current cynicism and ironic detachment, drag the best out of the ideologies of the last hundred years and form something entirely new out of them. Something solid and lasting and boring and brilliant. Sincerity.

For me Sincerity is really two things.

Firstly—and this may be a tough idea to swallow—I believe Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth. It’s not just about saying what you feel. It’s not trying really hard to believe in what you say. It’s not even believing in what you say. It’s much more important and fundamental than that. It’s about believing that there is such a thing as truth and that truth matters. I say it again, Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth.

And secondly—as much as possible—I think Sincerity is a belief in the honest and open expression of that truth. It’s a belief that it is important not just to acknowledge the existence of truth, but to make an effort to discover it, and then to express that truth appropriately and as well as you can.

These statements may seem self-evident—that truth is real and good and that we should attempt to express it honestly—but I’m no longer sure that they are. In fact, I think these views are increasingly seen as old-fashioned and naïve, even stupid. And I believe that this is because that both of these ideas have been under systematic assault for decades.

And I believe that without a belief in sincerity and truth, our political debates, our media, our way of life becomes nothing more than a place where arguments are played against one another like Pokemon. Everything becomes a strategy to win the debate—gotta catch ‘em all—no matter the effect on the world. It’s cock-fighting on the Hindenburg.

A short story about truth

So what is the shape of the assault that sincerity and truth are subject to? Where is its origin?

At one level, you could go back to any political thinker throughout the centuries—back to Plato perhaps—to see the background of this particular story. Or maybe you could take another tack, and explore the emergence of public relations or advertising.

But part of me sees our current situation as the particular result of a particular moment in time, and that’s when ideas that emerged in the political left and the humanities departments of our major universities—both groups that I’ve had a significant stake in—start to get appropriated and abused.

This is one way in which that story might have unfolded.

Over the last century, people from all kinds of different backgrounds—people historically discarded or sidelined by society—gradually started to rise up and demand rights and visibility.

And in the process they demanded access to the narratives and histories of our world. Was an ‘Intimate History of Sex’ really a history of sex at all if it only talked about straight people? Could you have a history of Europe when half the population wasn’t even mentioned?

These questioning voices managed to expose the traditional writing of history as having been written by a very narrow group of academics with an equally narrow set of preoccupations. These were people actively—if unconsciously—tracing a path from the past to the present to create arguments or justifications for the way things were. They were explaining their own inevitability; their rights to power. These narratives of the past needed to be put under pressure, and when they were, they exploded.

And from there the divergent voices moved on to attack the grand narratives of previous ages: everything from Manifest Destiny, the Civilizing West, the Natural Superiority of some races, Victorian morality, all the way through to Capitalism and Communism. And these new perspectives revealed these narratives to not just be natural truths of existence simply described by impartial men, but as new ways of creating and enforcing control on the world.

And having done that they fought for a pluralisation of voices, a rejection of the very idea of the Grand Narrative, and a radical re-examination of history itself. Churchill said (or may have said), “History is written by the victors”, but this new generation believed that it should be revised and expanded and criticised and opened up for everyone.

And this new approach to history was just one of the new stories that collectively challenged all of our assumptions and orthodoxies to the extent that we even began to question the ground upon which we stood.

Derrida and deconstruction, post-structuralism, postmodernity. Fascinating ideas that pulled our thinking away from the physical and directly political into a world of language and discourse, where thousands of voices and ideas resonated and competed and intermingled with one another endlessly through a real of symbol and concept.

We seemed to be moving into an environment composed of polyphonous voices, brands and narrative mixed with the numinous and magical. And that was before the internet came with its new set of promises and dreams. Universities were full of people aspiring to a Philosophical Singularity or Rapture – eager to shed the fixed, stolid ideas of the generations that came before them, combust into intellect and finally embrace the divine.

And somewhere in the middle of all of these discussions, believing in truth—that things actually happened, that there are facts, that argument can only be made on evidence, that having a strongly held belief is simply not enough to build public policy upon—somehow truth became unfashionable.

And the graduates of our universities went out into the world with new skills and techniques to interrogate the world with, and a slightly woolly sense of the value of everyone’s voice and a deep suspicion of anyone attempting to argue for the real, the true, the solid, the definitive. And they look at the world at an ironic distance, enjoying things or critiquing them at arms length as if they weren’t quite real.

And slowly and horrifyingly in the background, political operators from every party and background spotted the power of these new ideas and intellectual techniques. Perhaps they even believed in them too. And they cherry-picked the most potent and they started to employ them without mercy.

A loss of sincerity

Today then, it looks to me as if great swathes of public institutions, politicians and media, academics and public intellectuals have given up on truth, and see no value in sincerity.

For them, sincerity is now simply about arguing earnestly for what you strongly believe. But it’s belief unsupported by facts in defiance of knowledge and information. It’s belief that rejects truth. How can politicians be considered ‘sincere’ when they stand up and deny climate change?

If—when confronted with massive evidence from reputable sources—you still choose to go with what your gut says, then you must be a person with no respect for truth. And if you no longer believe in truth, then how can you be sincere?

Our press too are not sincere when they dredge the muttered effluvia of our representatives for material with which they can manufacture controversy.

They’re not sincere when they present a debate between two sides of an argument that only truthfully has one side. They’re fabricating conflict, and they’re doing so for the spectacle. They have no respect for truth.

You can see this even more clearly in the experts they get to speak in opinion pages or on TV. They’re all representatives of political parties or advocates for them in one way or another. They no longer believe in the impartial expert who can present an argument fairly. Apparently everyone is biased nowNo one is trustworthy. With such beliefs, how can they be sincere?

That poisonous imp who took over from Larry King on American Television has expressed on a number of occasions how he believes that news is just another branch of the entertainment industry.

Perhaps he finds that depressing. Perhaps he’s gone along with it because he thinks it’s inevitable. Perhaps he thinks that’s just the way the world works now: the best story wins.

To me that’s the larger crime. It’s a declaration that truth is now just the trellis upon which you grow your stories, until—that is—they reach such a point where they’re capable of supporting themselves.

Sincerity and craftsmanship

What I do for a living is try and work out the shape of the near future. I do that by looking at the technologies that are emerging and I try and combine that information with a sense of the kinds of things that normal human beings want to do or find fun or are useful. From these combinations come products. Some of those products get made. Some of those products are better than others.

The thing I’m trying to find, and which exists for all good products, is what I call the ‘hard nub’ in the middle of the idea. The ‘hard nub’ is the coresolid‘true’ thing about the product. It’s the bit that expresses what it’s for, and can normally be expressed to someone relatively simply.

Finding the nub is far from an easy process though. You really have to dig into how people operate, what they care about and when you’ve found the nub, you’re still only a hundredth of the way through the process of trying to find a way to express that truth honestly and clearly.

One of the reasons I love the technology industry is that—for all the crap that goes on around in the media and Techcrunch and all the blogs and the gossip stuff, and for all the bloody corporate speak crap that actively works to mine all potential meaning from language in order to avoid any potential liability—at its heart, there really are people with a passionate belief in trying to build interesting and useful new things. They believe in quality. They believe still in progress. They love making stuff.

When a product manufacturer cuts through all superfluous style and decoration and brings out the heart of a product, you guys know it. You can feel it. And when they do we love their products as a result. They just feel right.

They feel solid, real, functional and beautiful. The beauty is a result of function perfectly expressed. Without the function the beauty would be fake. And the function would be useless or buried, without the simple expression.

The New Sincerity

So what is the New Sincerity? It’s a belief and commitment to truth. It’s arguing for truth, not aggressively as a weapon, but in order to illuminate. It’s thinking critically. It’s being fair. It’s being open to having our own ideas questioned and to incorporate what we learn into our world view. And it’s holding public figures and journalists to the same standards. It’s about attempting to abandon ironic detachment and embarrassment and embracing the world for what it is. But most importantly, it’s about abandoning the idea that the truth is something bendable, flexible, relative, unreal.

Truth is not something that everyone has their own particular special equally appropriate version of. It’s much more than that.

It’s one very real, beautiful thing, unfathomable in scope, unknowable in its totality, revealed in part by the combination of our billions of perspectives and by the employment of our minds. It’s one thing with a beauty and wonder that we all deserve access to, and which enriches all of us. It’s the keystone of our civilisation and there is nothing more important.

And I mean that sincerely.

This piece was first delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco. There is a video available from the event. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before or since and I have no idea whatsoever how good it is.

Business Politics Technology

Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?

A couple of days ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on his blog called A Rant About Women which took as its subject the comparative comfort with which some men are prepared to market themselves, mislead and lie to get ahead compared to women.

I’ve been reading responses to this piece on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’ve become increasingly horrified by what I’ve seen. Generally, it’s being viewed as a call to arms to create a new breed of women who are as self-important, self-promoting, shameless and arrogant as some of the worst (and most celebrated) men in the industry. This attitude is being viewed as the ‘way to get ahead’ for any individual wanting to make their mark in the world.

I’m prepared to accept that there’s a correlation between attitudes to competition and self-promotion and gender. I’m not as prepared to take it as far as Clay seems to, but I’ll go along with its generalised existence.

And clearly, if aggressive self-promotion and pompous self-aggrandizement is what gets people ahead in the world, then at the individual level, it’s better to perform in that kind of way than it is to sit passively and watch yourself get passed over by more clumsy, venal, smug, aggressive, macho idiots.

But at the level of the company, at the level of the community, at the level of the industry – are these attributes in fact in any way desirable? Does self-promotion really lead to great products or projects? Is the ability to lie and mislead really what it takes to achieve?

My experience has been that there’s definitely a role for the arrogant and the pushy in the creation and promotion of a project. It’s also taught me that this skill is a small part of the set of skills necessary to produce something great.

The kinds of things that result in great products are tangible skills, a desire and a pleasure in collaborative building, an aspiration and sense that you’re making something important, a sense of teamwork, room to experiment, the ability to bring out the best in the people around you, a good work ethic.

Alongside that a desire to show-off can be really beneficial, a confidence in your ability is essential, the ability to push yourself into new areas certainly a benefit. But these attributes can also get in the way. There’s something in American culture in particular which values the pushy and the determined, but we’ve all worked with people whose confidence massively outstrips their abilities, who cannot work together with other people because they think they’re superior to everyone else.

And we’ve also met a whole bunch of people in the industry who do nothing but self-promote, working day and night to sell themselves, and achieve positions massively disproportionate to their tangible abilities. There are people in our industry in positions of substantial power whose reputation is built upon the way in which they present themselves as being visionaries and experts. Some of them have found that it’s simply more efficient for them to spend their days building that reputation through PR and self-promotion than it is to demonstrate it through the things that they make, the value that they create.

I’d never argue that we should forcefully reject anyone who manifests confidence, skills in self-promotion or who is cocky enough to sell themselves. But what I want to strongly resist is the idea that it is these attributes that we should be promoting – either in women or in men.

It should be unacceptable for us to say that lying about one’s abilities is something that everyone has to do to get ahead. It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.

Instead we should be demonstrating that great projects, like the ones Apple produces, are at least in part based upon trying to produce the best thing possible, feeling the integrity in the product you’re making. Trying to do something good. We should acknowledge the example of Flickr who created an astonishing culture of extremely talented engineers and designers around the very real aspiration to make something beautiful, powerful and good for the world. Or the guys at Twitter who discovered their idea initially by letting small groups experiment in interesting directions rather than dogmatically following the vision of a bold cocksure individual.

Good projects come from good people, good vision, good execution, good collaboration, good insight. And it’s these traits – and the ability to spot them – that we should be encouraging in our colleagues.

The right thing to do is to get it into the heads of our VCs and companies that a hunger to win at any cost is not the main attribute of a creative or productive person. That the ability to be intelligent, think through problems, work with other people, develop ideas effectively – that all of these traits are better indicators of success than how big they tell you their testicles are! That the person who comes to you with the biggest pitch is not necessarily the person you should be listening to.

And while encouraging people to spot the talented and the creative, we should also be considering how we shame those people who self-promote without creating. The financial collapse has taught us that rhetorical bubbles divorced from reality are a danger to us all. We’re already approaching this point – our industry has become venal, insular and dominated by marketing. We have come to value the wrong things. And if we want a continued vigorous, creative, free, open and equal environment, that’s something we have to fix. It’s not something to aspire to.

Journalism Politics Science Technology

On the OLPC Movement…

A couple of months ago I was asked by Icon Magazine to write a review of the OLPC XO laptop for the developing world. You can read the finished article in their January issue or on their site (OLPC review on However, since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the context and background to the review I wrote and decided that I wanted to elaborate around it a bit. I’ve also wanted to put up a version in public that hadn’t been edited for length (however judiciously). Hence this post – firstly some background to the piece and then the piece itself.

When I read a review of the XO I expect to stumble across some fairly standard positions. I expect the article to question whether the developing world really needs a laptop. I expect them to talk about the ecological impact of these laptops. I expect them to decry the project as (at best) utopianist folly and (at worst) some form of western naïve semi-colonial oppression. Most of these arguments make no sense to me at all.

The first position seems to be based on the assumption that the people of the developing world be better off gradually developing their economies through farming to manufacturing and ending up gradually in high technology industries. I personally think this ideology dooms these countries to always playing catch-up to the west. If there’s any chance of them leap-frogging great swathes of industrialisation to create a working and creative population that can compete on a world stage, then I don’t understand how any of us could stand up in good conscience and decry it.

Environmental damage through a proliferation of laptops seems to me to be probably indisputable, but what’s the alternative? Is it fair for rich countries to consume vast amounts of resources but stop poor countries having access to the same services ‘for the good of the world’? Can we really in good conscience deny other people what we take for granted? Perhaps if we were sending out hundreds of millions of Macs or PCs there might be an argument here, but the XOs are massively less damaging to the world than any of those devices.

The utopian accusation may have some truth to it. It’s difficult to know precisely how much chance a project like this has of success. And it’s difficult to know whether the technologists behind it are busily projecting their own ideologies onto developing countries in defiance of what those countries actually want. Probably the only way we’ll find out for sure would be to provide the machines to a few disparate groups of young people across the world and see how they develop–see what opportunities it opens up for them. Personally, I find the arguments convincing. I think there is a net benefit to come out of this. I think it will help. But it’s pretty tricky to distinguish your own beliefs from your prejudices. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being so confident.

For me, it comes down to the way we want to operate in the world. It’s extremely easy to adopt a pose of scepticism and cynicism about any attempt to change things or push them forwards. I’ve said before about a particularly aggravating tech commentator that naysaying is a sure-fire way to look sensible and intelligent without any of the effort of actually having to think. I stand by that, and I think the OLPC project has had its fair share of this kind of thinking.

Personally though, I believe that it’s possible to work for the good of all and improve the world. I think it’s a decent and honourable thing to apply whatever means you have at your disposal to raising the aspirations and possibilities of one of the planet’s most squandered resources–its residents. And I do buy the geek rhetoric that access to information, communication and education cannot but help people. As such, I’m prepared to give this project and others like it, the benefit of the doubt. And that’s why I decided to write this article in this particular style. I hope you enjoy it:

There’s something grotesque about reviewing Nicholas Negroponte’s XO–the so-called “$100 dollar laptop”–for a magazine like Icon. And that I’m writing the piece on my gas-guzzling SUV of a MacBook Pro can only compound the horror. This is not a machine designed to be evaluated by people like me. Nor is it meant to be bought by the kinds of people that will read this magazine. To talk about it in the same design terms as a lamp or a set of headphones borders on criminal, because in every way that really counts the XO is not a consumer artefact. It’s not trying to wheedle itself into your living room. In fact, quite the opposite. It has more in common with a clean water pump or an honourable approach to third-world debt than it does with an iPod. It’s a sincere but radical political act.

The result of a two-year project by “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), the XO aims to introduce primary school children in the developing world to the educational possibilities of technology and the network. Green and white with a tough, textured plastic body about the same size as a lunch-box, it has been optimised in every way to deal with the extreme conditions of its use. Its astonishingly frugal use of electricity allows it to function in areas where power is sparse or even non-existent. The screen switches into an energy-efficient black and white mode that is also readable in direct–even aggressive–sunlight. The rubberised keyboard seals the device against dust and water. Even the friendly green “ears” of the device serve a triple function – acting as latches, protective shields for USB ports and as antennae designed to extend the range of the distributed wifi networks that will connect children across the planet.

And this is a device optimised for the young. The keyboard immediately reveals the clumsiness and size of fully-grown fingers. Each key is springy and responsive–fun to touch and explore–but they’re packed tightly together to help small hands roam effectively. In every dimension, the XO is child-shaped. The grasp of the handle, the heft of it in your hands, the way it swings when you walk–it’s enough to make any adult feel like a freakishly large mutant. And it’s not only child-shaped, it’s child-resistant – it feels resilient, solid, indestructible–as if it could be used as a tennis racket without sustaining any real damage.

Yet what’s truly extraordinary about the XO isn’t the way it’s been tailored to work under extreme conditions, but the bets it places on our collective political and creative future. Geek utopianists have infused every aspect of the device with their own profoundly aspirational, positive and humanist political ideology. The XO is their lever to effect change at a global scale.

You can spot it everywhere. Every aspect of the device — from the operating system to the mesh networking that distributes connectivity to each machine — works on the principle that each node on the network can accomplish more together than they can apart. Every application on every machine is designed to operate in a social context – you can show off your work, share your web browsing or advertise an ongoing discussion. Some applications–including a version of Connect 4–are only functional at all if you have other people to play with.

The collaborative, communal experience is tied together by the “zoom interface” – the XO’s version of the Finder or File Manager. It allows a user at any time to zoom back from one particular application to their desktop, then to their community of friends and then still further to see everyone on the network. While zoomed out, you can see clumps and clusters of people collaborating and playing, always connected and situated within their community. The XO is not a device for loners. It is a device that believes aggressively in society and aims to support it.

There are also challenges to our traditional understanding of intellectual property. The communities in the developing world that cannot afford life-saving drugs can find themselves similarly constrained by the cost of textbooks–and often for similar reasons. But with a turn of the screen, the XO becomes a simple ebook reader connected to a network. It’s an environment ideal for the distribution of free knowledge, and so it’s no surprise to see Wikipedia involved in the project. Information, as the technologist’s mantra goes, wants to be free–and the XO is there to help that happen.

You can see similar principles at work in the pervasive use of open-source applications and software like the Firefox browser or Linux. This software is free to use, install and distribute but–more importantly–offers its very code up to exploration and change. The XO revels in this opportunity, making it easy for children to access and edit the very software of their machine. There are no finished creative works here, but simply sites for continual exploration and learning.

In every area, this iconic object is an attempt to refashion the world in the image of the dreams of its creators – noble, vigourous, creative and expressively utopian dreams. Every element is impregnated with these aspirations of sociality, play, creation, freedom. As a project and as a device, it’s beautiful and revolutionary.

If the perfected whole succeeds in its mission, these aspirations may find a new home in the minds of generations of children in the developing world. And this new generation – growing up able to access and manipulate knowledge, technology, literature, music and code – will bring to the networked world their new perspectives, voices and needs. It’s a project to transform the world: this small device has a substantial mission. It’s not a laptop, it’s a movement. And it deserves our full support.

Advertising Politics Public Relations

On Labour, Ipsos MORI and the TPS…

This is one of those grumpy old curmudgeonly men blog posts that I kept reading on the web and never really understood until very recently. I’m just warning you so you can get out now.

I have a long-standing grudge against direct marketers, which basically comes down to my desire to live uninterrupted in my own home without having people ringing me up, coming around my house or stuff crap through my doors twenty-four hours a day. I forgive people dropping off pizza vouchers as that’s more public service, but otherwise I bloody hate the bastards. I don’t know if it’s an intolerance that has come from the world of spam, but given that I get around seven or eight hundred pieces of spam in any twenty-four hour period and given that only about five hundred bits get caught by my filters, perhaps my tolerance has been rather exhausted. I could make a joke about how my spam filters have such problems with them because they’re mosly indistinguishable from all of my daily correspondence with friends and colleagues about the size of my penis, but I’m not sure that would be funny and anyone my mum reads my blog occasionally now, and she’d probably roll her eyes.

Going back to Direct Marketers, there is hope! There is a process you can undertake which will stop these bloody people harrassing you and it mostly works! By law, direct marketers from the UK have to check your address and phone number against ‘Do Not Call’ lists. So if you don’t want to receive this stuff, you just go to this page and sign off from all the various lists. While you’re there, you’ll notice a couple of creepy things about these lists, including that there’s a list called the Baby MPS which is a list that you and sign up to if you suffer a miscarriage or baby-related bereavement. It’s the list that stops them bombarding you with advertising crap for the child you’ve lost. It’s not up to them to find out this stuff, it’s up to you to let them know that your child has died. Better still–I would think–would be if they couldn’t send it to you in the first place without your express permission. But there you go.

I say it only mostly works because actually you still end up with stuff from abroad and some people just ignore it. So I went ex-directory and also signed up for BT’s Privacy Service. I think at the time I had to pay to get control over who was able to phone me, but that’s no longer the case, it seems. Together you can mostly fight to regain your peace and quiet, and if you’re prepared to shout loudly at anyone proselytising at your front door then you’ve pretty much got the whole kit covered.

Anyway, so I’m at home, and first the phone rings and it’s a bloody automated phone call from the Labour party asking me how I’d vote in any upcoming election. Interesting. Suggestive. Also really aggravating. My disgust for this kind of home invasion is such that I briefly consider voting Conservative to spite them. Or for Boris Johnson. I’d vote to bring Thatcher back from the dead (she’s dead right? in all the ways that count?) if she’d kick direct marketers back into the pit of hell from whence they’ve scrabbled their filthy little way up into the world. You can read about these people on the Direct Marketing Association website. They’re interested in ‘inspiring consumer confidence and trust’ in people who pump shit through your phone line and front door. They use that form of language that PR people are trained in, which is so drained of meaning as to be linguistic equivalent of one of those sandwiches that only the British sell, in pharmacies for God’s sake. Places where you go to get Thrush cream or treat your corns. Sandwiches and language alike are cold, damp, inoffensive, lack all substance and make you want to heave.

Ranting aside about value-neutral, intellectually empty advertising pap, I tell them how I’ll vote and then hang up. I’m sort of vaguely aware that–of course–the Telephone Preference Service doesn’t extend to political parties. Probably this is reasonable, although it makes me angry.

Twenty minutes later though, another phone call. This time from Ipsos MORI. Ipsos MORI are a polling company, and they make money by being paid by people to do polls on their behalf. Since they are not explicitly selling or marketing things to you, they don’t have to pay any attention to the TPS. Instead, they randomly dial numbers and then ask people questions about themselves and whatever service they’ve been paid to harrass you about.

I don’t realise that they’re within the law, so I cause a big stink on the phone. I know it’s not the fault of the people at the call centres, but they’ve been put there to insulate the people who really are responsible and there’s no way to get to those people, so if you’re going to punish the company in some way, if you’re going to get them to stop doing it, then you have to complain. They explain to me that they are a ‘bona fide market research company’ concerned with public affairs, media, marketing, ‘loyalty’ and advertising (I got the latter stuff off their website). This doesn’t endear me to them enormously.

Now, these people clearly get complaints. They have a section called Called by Us? which has four sections: “Where did you get my telephone number from?” which is a pretty decent question to get started with. Then my favourite, “My telephone number is registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and/or BT Privacy to stop cold calls so why are you calling me?”. Then one about the safety of supplying information and another about making complaints. That’s the lot. It’s clearly a pretty big deal. Their answer to the TPS question includes these lines:

There are no legal or regulatory requirements to filter unsolicited calls made for research purposes against the TPS. To exclude individuals with TPS registered telephone numbers could bias the results. It would also deny you the opportunity of participating in this research, the results of which may impact policies or services you use!

So the reason they inflict this stuff on people who specifically ask not to receive such unsolicited calls is because it would deny us the ability to participate! They even use an exclamation mark! To make it clear that this would clearly be ridiculous! But what if we don’t want to participate? Do we get the option to make that clear with the TPS? Nope. They’ll put you on a do not call list if you ask specifically, but it’ll be just for that one company, not any other. There’s basically very little you can do.

I know this is sort of a weird little petty vendetta by now, and I’m really sorry about that. I’m still getting in hundreds of press releases after writing a pretty strongly worded post on that subject that got a fair amount of correspondence. I’m still irritated by the way the Cillit Bang crew were prepared to plumb new lows to hawk some old cleaning drivel. This isn’t the same. It’s not the same scale, but it’s still really annoying. It’s another branch of sanctioned spam that you have no way of opting out of. PR spam. Comment spam. Life spam. Phone spam. It’s people actively costing you a little of your time or calm or space or patience to make themselves a tiny amount of money. And it would be all right if it was infrequent, but there’s a flood of it, everywhere, all the time, in every channel.

In this particular case, I went to Downing Street’s petitions website and tried to start a nice, simple little petition about this subject. Something nice and clean. It read like this:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to: ‘require polling organisations like Ipsos MORI to abide by the preferences of citizens who have opted out of cold-calling via the Telephone Preference Service.’

All organisations that want to cold-call to sell or market products in the UK have to check that the person they’re contacting has not declared they do not want to receive such calls via the Telephone Preference Service. At present, polling and research organisations are not required to abide by this law, and Ipsos MORI chooses not to do so.

They declare that not calling people would ‘deny [people who have said they do not want to be called] the opportunity of participating in [Ipsos MORI’s money-making] research’. The organisations concerned allow you to opt out of further contact from them, but does not stop other polling organisations
undertaking exactly the same processes.

This petition contends that it is not up to Ipsos MORI or any
other polling organisation to decide whether or not people
would like to be cold-called, it is up to the people they make
their money from.

The British public should be able to refuse cold-calling by
polling organisations at the Telephone Preference Service, and
the Government should hold these organisations to account if
they violate this agreement.

Unfortunately, the Downing Street site rejected the petition because (and I quote) it contained, “Potentially libellous, false, or defamatory statements”. I’m still trying to work out what on earth they were referring to, but if I come up with anything I’ll let you know.

Advertising Journalism Politics

On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…

While reading the new issue of incomprehensibly fascinating magazine Monocle–which has a parallel web presence orchestrated by ex-boss Dan Hill that stubbornly (and equally incomprehensibly from my perspective) refuses to include any content whatsoever from the magazine–I stumble upon an article about New Zealand called ‘Slow Zone’. The article is about the nation’s rebranding as a laid-back and ‘pure’ environment. In said article I notice that ex-O’Reilly all-star Nat Torkington is quoted as follows:

The Didsbury vineyard is among those featured on the wine trail along the heavily promoted Matakana Coast, although in the words of the rather tetchy local blogger Nathan Torkington, “Matakana doesn’t have a coast, it has a shitty little muddy river chocked with soil runoff from the farms that line it”.

Yeah that sounds like Nat to me! Very funny! Rather tetchy local blogger may now be on his gravestone. And in some ways that might be a good thing, since his other favourite words are rather more satisfyingly graphic. His wife would probably be delighted with ‘rather tetchy’. Or at least, maybe she’d relieved..? His original post that Monocle quoted is here if you’re interested.

This whole issue of Monocle has been focused around place-branding at the country level, and it started off being fascinating to me but has now started to creep me out. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of countries–and all their associated concepts of citizenry and representation–with the pure representational illusion of the branding consultancy? Or maybe it’s more than that? Maybe the reason I feel uncomfortable is that I’m feeling my way towards a new understanding of branding, public relations and advertising people.

The questions that are in my head are as follows: (1) Why are people drawn to these careers in the first place? (2) What pleasures does it provide them with? How does it support their self-worth? (3) Is there something in common between branding and advertising people and the kind of people who go into politics, and should we be equally suspicious of people drawn to branding as we are about those drawn to more overt power?

I think what draws people towards these careers has to be in part its core idea: that people can be influenced and changed–that things themselves can become different, transcendentally more than they appear to be–simply through the exercise of pure ingenuity, intelligence and the use of colour, imagery and language. I think it’s that sense of transformation–of the ability to recreate reality–that plays to the self-image of some of the dominant players in the industry. And it makes me very suspicious indeed.

I wonder to myself as I read about work in branding at these scales what a sense of power it must give a man to recarve a planet in their image without having to do anything proletarian like make anything. Something about the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable and seems to have significant parallels with the class system – that there is now an intellectual overclass that sits above and beyond a subjugated general public. But more even still, that this class feels itself able to deform and twist the world around itself with delicate tweaks of long, gossamer-like puppet strings, and that it’s managed to nuance and twist the messages even of its own discipline to such an extent that it’s not even fully aware of the hegemony that it’s created.

There’s something of new orthodoxy of the elite where young men and women are drawn to industries of control and coercion. It’s the same kind of rather alarming power game that meant that Henry Higgins could massage his Eliza Doolittle into someone fit to marry and that somehow we’d be persuaded that this was charming rather than entirely creepy!

And behind it all, there is the support of undergraduate classes in cultural studies and postmodernity that have been appropriated to alleviate the guilt of the reality-deforming by decrying the idea that there’s anything real beyond the rhetoric to protect or fight for.

I used to teach some of those classes. I’m not immune from blame.

Thank god for tetchy bloggers then! People who’ll declare the world as they see it, separate from marketing spiel and describe a glorious branded coast as a ‘shitty little river’. There’s a risk that we celebrate the cynical and consider that to be balance for the depraved, but I don’t think we’re there in this case. And I understand that branding is a force in the world, that it’s a thing that must exist, that there is no unmediated message. And I’ll live with it all. But let’s not celebrate it, eh? That’s just tacky.