The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

As I get older (maybe not necessarily wiser), I feel that as a society, we are becoming far less tolerant and yet far more sensitive – something of a paradox, possibly linked to a decline in personal resilience and a lack of quality and robustness in public discourse. And for a country that is both a secular state and a liberal democracy (and definitely not a theocracy), there has been a surprising amount of debate in Australia recently, about the need for a new or revised “freedom of religion“.

John Stuart Mill – Image sourced from Wikimedia

Much of the commentary has been prompted by the thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks by a professional sports player, who espouses a particularly fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Because the very public expression of his personal beliefs led to the termination of his employment, this has been interpreted as a curtailment of the player’s freedom of religion.

Without getting too legalistic (and there is an administrative review pending), the player’s public statements were out of line with the social values and civil rights espoused by his employer – to the extent that they could bring this particular sporting code into disrepute. It was also a repeat incident. At the very least, these comments could have led to a reduction in the employer’s revenue from sponsors or spectators. (And let’s consider that his comments drew so much attention because he had the privilege of a public platform, one which came as a result of his employment status and his professional profile.)

According to this player’s particular creed, his human-constructed belief system permits, condones and even encourages the use of language that bullies and belittles people who don’t adhere to his own views on sexuality, lifestyle choices or even “belief” itself. While much has been said about the homophobic nature of the said player’s tweet, let’s not forget he also targeted atheists in the same context, simply because they are non-believers.

As I frequently tell customer call centres, who often like to blame the “system” for their own organisation’s failings, a system is only as reliable as the people who design and run it. So, if being an adherent to a particular belief system means you have to hold and profess abhorrent views, especially those that are out of step with civil society, then clearly there is something at fault at the heart of that mechanism.

I recently heard a speech by a retired judge on human rights and civil liberties. He referred to an aphorism attributed to John Stuart Mill, in connection with his treatise “On Liberty”, and the harm principle:

“Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins”

In other words, you may be free to say what you like, but Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom means that (despite Voltaire’s standpoint in defence of free speech) even your verbal punches are not permitted to interfere with or harm someone else’s rights – yet alone instill in them a fear for their personal safety and human dignity.

Nowadays, some might say that too many people are prone to having a metaphorical glass jaw – that they take offence too easily, and seek to find malicious intent in any views or comments that they find objectionable or that do not accord with their own world view. Equally, people can (metaphorically) stick their jaw out, seeking to provoke a reaction by drawing attention to themselves, so that they can claim “foul” when they bang up against a countervailing fist. The boundary between personal rights and freedom of expression is becoming increasingly blurred.

When it comes to calls for the special protection (and even promotion) of religious freedoms, I have something of a problem. Quite apart from the entrenched social prejudices inherent in many organised religions, it seems incongruous that such institutions can claim tax benefits as charitable bodies, and receive public funding while enjoying exemptions from certain anti-discrimination laws.

Although we don’t have a law against heresy in Australia, we still have blasphemy laws in most States. Even though they are rarely invoked, the fact that they exist reinforces the notion that far from needing a “freedom of religion”, religious beliefs are somehow already seen to be above the law. Surely, in a multi-cultural, secular and pluralistic society, religious beliefs will have to take their chances alongside (and rub up against) the rest of human constructs and natural systems – science, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, sociology.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night

 

 

 

 

Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

In last week’s blog on the attention economy, I alluded to the trade-off that exists between our desire for more stimulus, and the need to consume more (sponsored) content to feed that hunger. Given the increasing demands on our available attention span, and the rate at which we are having to consume just to keep up, it feels like we are all developing a form of ADD – too much to choose from, too little time to focus on anything.

Christian Marclay – “The Clock” – image sourced from Time Out

Personally, I place a lot of the blame on music videos. Initially, this format merely reduced our attention span to the length of a 3-minute pop song. (Paradoxically, there was also a style known as the “long form music video”, which stretched those 3 minutes into a 10-20 minute extended narrative). Then, in recent years, the video format has been distilled to a series of jump cuts – no single shot lasts more than a few frames, and the back-n-forth between shots often has no narrative cohesion other than serving the technique of the jump-cut itself. I sometimes wonder if the reason for so many jump-cuts is because too few of today’s pop stars can really dance, forcing the director to distract our (minimal) attention from the poor moves. (Note: pop stars who can’t dance should take a leaf out of The Fall’s playbook, and call in the professionals, like Michael Clark…)

I have previously made a brief mention of Slow TV, which made a return to Australian channel SBS this summer in the form of trans-continental railway journeys, a UK barge trip (can it get any slower?) and a length-ways tour of New Zealand. These individual programs can screen for up to 18 hours, a perfect antidote to the ADD-inducing experience of jump-cut music videos and social media notifications.

Concurrently in Melbourne, two installation works are on display that, in their very separate ways also challenge the apparent obsession with rapid sensory overload in many of today’s video content.

The first is “The Clock”, by Christian Marclay – a sequence of finely edited clips sourced from a multitude of films and TV programmes that together act as a real-time 24 hour clock. The work also manages to reveal a beguiling (dare I say seamless?) narrative from such disparate and unrelated scenes that you really do begin to wonder how the story will end…. The fact that some of the scenes are quite mundane (and whose main function is to indicate the passage of time), while others are iconic cinematic moments, only adds to our real-time/real-life experience of the ebb and flow of the seconds, minutes and hours.

The second is almost the complete opposite. “Cataract”, by Daniel Von Sturmer comprises 81 screens, each showing looped sequences of somewhat banal events. Although each video event is no more than a few seconds, and none of the loops are synchronised with each other, it does not feel like a series of jump-cut edits. This is partly because the events, despite their brevity, are all engaging in their own way; and partly because even though we know it is a loop, we somehow expect something different to happen each time (maybe because our brain is wired to find a narrative even when none exists?).

According to the gallery’s description of “Cataract”, “the world is full of happenings, but it is only through selective attention that meaning is found”. Quite appropriate for the attention economy and jump-cut culture – meaning is where we choose to see it, but if we are not paying the appropriate amount of attention or if we are not viewing through a critical lens, we risk missing it altogether.

Next week: The Future of Fintech

 

Manchester, so much to answer for….

I spent most of the festive season in and around Manchester, once a focal point of the industrial revolution (and the home to dark satanic mills), now a city that is as much about technology and culture (and the location for MediaCityUK). Plus, it’s a city that takes its hedonism very seriously, a place where a table is simply something to dance on…

Manchester Town Hall – photo by Mark Andrew – image sourced from Wikimedia under Creative Commons

I have had a direct connection with Manchester going back nearly 40 years. Prior to that, Manchester for me was probably defined by its famous football club (and that other one), Coronation Street (the world’s longest-running television soap opera), and the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now one of the few remaining sources of objective news coverage).

Then, in the late 1970s, Manchester started producing some of the most innovative music in the wake of punk. Manchester was the home to cutting-edge bands, labels, producers, designers, writers and fanzines – many of which outshone the best of what even London had to offer at that time. Record labels such as Factory, New Hormones, Object and Rabid helped launch the careers of Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Ludus, Malcolm Garrett, The Passage, James and even Jilted John; while bands like The Fall, Magazine, The Frantic Elevators and The Distractions (plus fanzine City Fun) all added to the colourful mix. Then came New Order and The Smiths, followed by the Hacienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the rest of the Madchester era (as brilliantly told in the film “24 Hour Party People”).

So Manchester’s cultural output from that period has definitely shaped and informed a lot of my musical (and reading) choices. Just before Christmas, it was announced that musician and lyricist Pete Shelley had died. Along with Howard Devoto, he formed Buzzcocks, who inspired many other bands and independent labels with their debut 1977 release, the Spiral Scratch EP (also one of the first UK punk records). Their appreciation of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Odilon Redon, and writers like Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gogol meant that (along with many of their contemporaries) they made music that was not just about 3 minute pop songs. Plus, these literary influences prompted me to seek out those Penguin Modern Classics – much more interesting than my high-school set texts….

Every time I visit Manchester, I’m also reminded of the wry sense of humour, and the general tendency towards gritty resignation (along the lines of, “If you can’t laugh about it, you may as well give up now”).

One example – while checking my luggage in at the airport, I had the following exchange with the staff member behind the counter:

ME: “How are you today?” (it being a very early morning during the festive season, and goodwill to all people etc.)

THEM: “I’m full of it”

ME: “Full of the joys of Christmas?”

THEM: “No, the flu”

Another example (see opening reference to tables) – a quotation from Mark Twain, appearing in a public art gallery, had been modified to read:

“Explore, Dream, Disco…”

And as if by way of reinforcement, for Christmas I was given two books, essential reading for anyone wanting to further their appreciation of Mancunian (and Salfordian) pop culture – “The Luckiest Guy Alive” by John Cooper Clarke, and “Messing Up the Paintwork – The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith”.

The late Mark E. Smith, founder of The Fall (and no relation to the band The Smiths…) led  a group famous for its longevity, its voluminous discography, and its revolving door of musicians. In reference to the latter, he once said:

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

Next week: Startup Victoria – supporting successful founders

 

 

 

 

Looking back on 6 years of blogging

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past 12 months, the season of lists and growing wistfulness (to misquote Keats). Time to think about the year that was, and what might have been. I have been writing this blog for 6 years, and it seems like a good opportunity to take stock, as Content in Context takes a break until the new year.

First, some facts. The most popular post this year has been “I’m old, not obsolete”, even though it was published more than three years ago. In a similar vein, my most popular posts of all time could both be regarded as evergreen articles: one about crate digging in Japan, and another about the new conglomerates (update here). This year’s most popular new posts were both about Blockchain (here and here). In fact, I have mentioned the broader topic of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and digital assets more than 50 times in the past 5 years, starting with a reference to CoinJar in mid-2013. Not too surprising, given this is where I have been focusing most of my efforts over the past two and half years.

Second, as regular readers will know, I have tried to be very disciplined about the frequency and scheduling of my posts. Whether this is purely for my benefit, or whether it helps my audience, I don’t know – but it seems to work, as I need a regular deadline, and posting on a weekly basis avoids the risk of fatigue (my own and the readers’).

Third, I realise it took me a while to find my voice – and to gain confidence in sharing my thoughts and ideas in public. Some of my early efforts didn’t quite hit the mark, as I was either trying too hard or I hadn’t yet identified what made my content have impact. Over time, based on reader feedback, the more I express my own opinions (rather than regurgitating other people’s’ views) the more that people engage with the content.

Fourth, I have always maintained two key principles in producing this blog: 1) every word is my own; and 2) no cash for comment. Over the years, I have been approached by numerous freelance bloggers who want to produce articles for me (for a fee, of course); and by PR firms who want to push sponsored content on behalf of their clients. I have managed to avoid going down that path. Nothing wrong with either activity, but it’s not in keeping with what I set out to do, and it would undermine my desire to be authentic – plus, I think it would potentially compromise my independence.

Finally, writing this blog often helps me to work out my thoughts, and develop them into ideas that I can use for my consulting work. At the same time, this platform allows me to air my views on topics which don’t immediately relate to my professional life – but which are consistent with my personal perspective and tastes. And while this blog doesn’t define who I am, it does form part of my personal branding, and I also hope it is a true reflection of my beliefs and values.

On that note, my I wish all my readers a safe, peaceful and reflective festive season. Usual output will resume in the New Year.