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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Dilemma (1)

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Here’s an interesting situation. Several times a year, I take part in university open days, where I sit behind a desk answering questions about courses from prospective students. Typically, at the undergraduate open days, the punters consist of a shy 16/17 year old and one or two rather more confident parents.

Here’s my problem. I don’t want to make the assumption that the older person is the accompanying parent and the younger person the prospective student. I’d be mortified if I made that assumption on the day that a parent, bringing their child with them for moral support or lack of childcare, was the prospective student. But, this happens so rarely that the parents and student just sit down assuming that I am going to read the situation as the obvious stereotype.

How should I react in this situation? Asking “which of you is the prospective student?” is treated as a joke or, more troublingly, as evidence of density or weirdness on my behalf. But I still feel uncomfortable making the assumption. I’ve taken to starting with a broad, noncommittal statement like “So, what can I do for you?” or “What’s the background here then?” and hoping that it will become obvious. That isn’t too bad, but there might be a better way.

More abstractly: we try to avoid stereotypes and making assumptions about people and situations based on initial appearance. But, what do you do when the stereotype is so commonplacely true that even the people being stereotypical are expecting that you will react using the stereotype as context?

Websites are Real, too

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

There are two radically different perspectives on what a website is. I only realised this a few weeks ago, and it suddenly made clear a number of confusing and frustrating conversations I’ve had over the years.

The first perspective sees a website as a brochure for the “real” thing. It is something that you read (that choice of word is very careful) before engaging with the “real” physical organisation. The second perspective sees the website as part of the reality of the thing. By interacting with the site (the choice of word is again very careful), you are interacting with the organisation, not engaging with some pre-real experience.

I noticed this when I was talking to a university marketing person a couple of weeks ago. What bemused me was that the marketing person kept asking “what is the message of this part of the website”? Of course, I understand the concept of a marketing message and why they are important—but, what I didn’t grok for a while was what that was the relevant question. This part of the website was the website “for” a new teaching facility and its activities (not a website “about” it). As such, it was going to contain a mixture of descriptions of the facility, signups for sessions, archival video material of activities, profiles of people involved, conversations about the activities, etc. My view was that the site was going to be a continuous part of the facility, such as much as the physical space and what happens in that space are, not just a one-shot “message”.

It is interesting to take a look at the history of the web with regard to this. Many early websites were seen as publications of their organisations, rather than being the online component of those organisations. This is obvious from their design; take, for example, this snapshot of the American Mathematical Society website from 1997 (thanks to the wonderful Wayback Machine for this):

e-math: website of the American Mathematical Society

the website isn’t “the online part of” the society; it is “e-math”; a website produced by the society. A snapshot from 2000 emphasises this even more:

e-math: The Web Site of the AMS

By 2001 the “e-math” branding has gone, replaced with just the organisation name; just like a modern web site would do:

American Mathematical Society

It is my impression that an increasing number of people see websites this second way, as a part of the reality of the organisation. To a digital native population in particular, the idea that the online experience is less “experiential” than the physical experience is otiose. Certainly, when I see a website for an organisation that is little more than a pamphlet, then I don’t think “oh goody, they have thought carefully about what they want to convey to me and distilled it down”; I think “this organisation isn’t anything more than a pamphlet”, or perhaps, to borrow an old slogan, “where’s the beef?”. (A related, but different, point is made by a well-known XKCD strip).

So, websites for rich, complex organisations need to contain their fair share of that richness (not “reflect” or “represent”; to have). In particular, for university websites, we really need to start undoing the tendency to move “real” content so that it can only be viewed by a restricted audience such as current students. That’s not to say that we can’t have marketing materials on the web, and indeed to give them prominence (much as we have marketing materials in meatspace). But, to say that just because websites play a marketing role, they should be handed over to solely marketing purposes is to sorely misunderstand how a large number of people engage with the web experience.

Graffiti for Conservatives

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Why is graffiti such a conservative medium? The vast majority of time when I see some graffiti, it looks like this:

graff

This looks very similar to the graffiti that people were doing when I was at school in the ’80s—we had a “graffiti wall” in common room, in a futile attempt to dissuade pupils from graffiting all over the school. Going further back, when I see the well-known images of graffiti on US subway trains in the 60s, again the overall look is very similar. For example, letters are bulbous and surrounded by a firm outline.

Naively, we see graffiti as a fast-moving avant-garde practice. We would expect it to be a rapidly changing medium, and we would imagine that there would be a rapid change of styles. But, this isn’t the case. Of course, there are exceptions, but the mainstream of graffiti looks essentially static compared with the mainstream of commercial design. Anyone with the slightest eye for design would be able to distinguish a number of design styles in the last 50 years, whereas a similar look at graffiti would fail to pull out much distinction. Graffiti seems to be a timeless, fashionless practice, more like a traditional medium like embroidery or baking than a high-fashion practice.

Perhaps the idea of avant-garde is more parochial than we think. We tend to assume that all practices will progress in the same way, with a cutting-edge fringe pushing ideas forward, feeding ideas into the next generation of the mainstream. But, of course, a lot of practices are not like that; instead, they are characterised by absorption in a craft tradition, showing deference to previous masters, etc. Perhaps graffiti is more along these lines.

Tattooing is another area where similar arguments can be made.

Making a Makerspace (1)

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Universities have lots of facilities for students that are not directly related to study. Some of these are functional or social spaces (e.g. cafés and bars), but some relate to a broader cultural and leisure activity that we expect students will be involved in. Examples include large facilities such as theatres, sports halls, dance studios and smaller facilities such as music practice rooms, photographic darkrooms and snooker tables (there is often a middle class bias towards the activities represented, but that is a topic for another time).

What processes do universities have for putting in new facilities of this kind? My impression is that the answer is none. If an activity was seen as important by someone at the time of foundation, then it has a facility; if not, it is very difficult to create a space for new activities. The exception to this is where a specific donation comes into the university earmarked for a specific facility.

An example of this that is current at my University is the campaign for a makerspace on the campus. This is the kind of thing that could not have existed fifty years ago when the University was being set up.

Should universities be more active in providing some standardised way of accepting requests for such facilities, and removing facilities that are less used?

Demographics (1)

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

This delightful headline speaks to a very narrow demographic:
"By the Power of Graysmill"

Multiculturalism is my Native Culture

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

There has been much poo-poohing of multiculturalism in the press and politics of the last few years. At best, these critiques argue that it is a half-arsed compromise; at worst, a threat to the existence of civilisation.

Multiculturalism is my native culture. As such, these attacks feel as strong to me as any attack on a specific culture.

I believe that multiculturalism—perhaps more accurately, panculturalism, the belief that through enthusiasm, tolerance and excitment about the rich variety of world cultures—we can create a society that is richer and more exciting to live in than any parochial monoculture.

I’ve visited monocultures, both by travelling half way across the world and getting a train half-an-hour out of London. I find their constant filtering of life through a single lens tedious.

In so many ways—from the trivial issue of being able to get food from a dozen cultures within five minutes of my flat, to interacting on a day-to-day-basis with people whose backgrounds are so different from mine, this is a key part of what makes my life interesting and meaningful.

This ain’t your grandmother’s multiculturalism anymore. People born in major cities in many countries are increasingly growing up as pancultural natives. To them, the UKIPpy desire to create (yes, create, not return to; you cannae step in the same river twice) a new, tedious monoculture is a threat to their native culture as any external “threat”.

We need to reclaim multiculturalism from the idea that it is a compromise for everyone involved, and celebrate the idea that we can create a better society by bringing together the best that we all have to offer.

How to be a Crashing Boor (1)

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It is interesting that, despite the general impression that “anything goes” in art and culture of recent decades, there is still a very strict sense of etiquette and propriety in different cultural forms. Whilst material can be offensive, boundary-pushing and provocative, things that push against the formats in which we are acculturated to present work are instantly seen as boorish and outgroupy, and very much not pushing-the-boundaries of the cultural form. Some examples that I’ve come across in the last few years:

  1. Someone wrote a piece of contemporary-classical music that consisted of multiple sections that were to be played in between the other pieces on the program. The composer got a lot of flak for forcing themselves across the concert as a whole, rather than accepting the traditional notion of a single slot in the concert. It was seen as crass and arrogant. I can imagine that a similar uproar would be met by some visual artist who insisted that a work occupy lots of different small spaces in the gallery.
  2. Even in the most in-yer-face offensive styles of comedy the comperes are unfailingly polite and respectful towards the comedians. I’m surprised that no-one has broken this yet; it seems that even when you put the most cynical comedian in the compere role they start talking about the “love in the room” and all that hippyshit.
  3. Anything that goes against acknowledging the work that went into a performance or the hierarchy therein: a composer/playwright taking a bow before the performers have had their chance, a piece of work that fossicked around with the labelling of art in a gallery, or similar.

Gove likes Beyoncé Really

Monday, November 28th, 2011

It is interesting that, in a recent speech, Michael Gove dissed Gordon Brown’s professed liking of the Arctic Monkeys as “teenage” taste. It was Gove who, reviewing on The Review Show started to make politicians look culturally engaged in a contemporary way, with his positive comments about a wide range of both “high” and “low” culture performances—he seemed to show a genuine appreciation of a breadth of culture.

Of course, speeches are not written by people who speak them, and I am sure that this was just a bit of political-machine posturing to try and appear serious in (supposedly) crisis-ridden times. But, this seems a posture that is wide-of-the-mark; once again, politicians, in trying to be serious, end up looking like wonkish obsessives who are out of touch not just with “da yoof” but with serious people in middle age.

How I failed to get into Cambridge University

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I applied and failed to get into Cambridge University when I was a teenager. I don’t care that I didn’t get in—I had three wonderful years at York instead. Nonetheless, I’m interested to think in retrospect about why this happened, whether my (very standard comprehensive) school could have done anything to prepare me better, and whether this situation still obtains twenty years later in schools similar to mine.

The positives. My school was very encouraging. They spent time with me honing my personal statement and writing what I assume was a decent reference.

The negatives. I think that the details matter. This is where the public schools have the advantage. Dammit, I could coach someone pretty well for Oxbridge admissions, despite having never been near the place except as a tourist.

One problem is that half-understood advice is sometimes as useless as no advice at all. I remember being told that I should read a little bit more around the subject, learn some things that were off-curriculum. If I was advising someone these days, I’d say the same thing—basically, that the prospective candidate should read some of the more challenging popular science books in their subject. However, I didn’t really know what this meant, so I went to the local library, which had a couple of maths books that weren’t school textbooks or similar. I read a book entitled something like “maths for business”—the first part was all about linear programming, which I learned in some detail and found very interesting. At my interview I got the inevitable question about what I had been reading, in particular if I had read anything about maths, and said that I had read a book about “maths for business”. The interviewer said something slightly bemused like “you mean, how to calculate a mortgage, and that sort of thing?”. I replied with something like “no, not really”, but I couldn’t really articulate what the book was about, so that line of questioning faded out.

The detailed choice of words matters. If I had said “I’ve been reading a book that talks about this thing called linear programming” then I might have started an interesting conversation. This is exactly what can be coached carefully.

I also think that it is important to choose the right, illustrative examples; this is part of understanding the reasons for asking the question as well as just understanding the question. In a previous attempt to join the Establishment, when I applied for a scholarship to the local private school aged 11, I remember being asked at the interview about what I watched on TV. I waffled on about enjoying the A-team and Family Fortunes and so on. Of course, I was just as enthusiastic about watching Mastermind and Tomorrow’s World or whatever else would have been the appropriate—but I didn’t understand that this was important. I gave a very direct, off the top of my head answer, sampling essentially randomly from the set of possible answers, and it wasn’t the right one. Again, this could trivially be coached out, even without my having any understanding of why the “right answer” was right.

Is this still the case today? Perhaps. One great thing is that there are loads of websites where prospective students can meet online and discuss these issues, so obvious faux pas get trapped early on. But, I still worry—if I were interviewing a student, and they gave some waffle about a business maths book, would I look upon them as favourably as the student who had read Ian Stewart or Marcus de Sautoy and could engage with the ideas therein? Does the student who says that they’ve “enjoyed programming in HTML” deserve the opprobrium that they would get, even though this might have been precisely the term their teacher might have used? I’d hope to be able to tease out the genuine ignorance from the shibboleths, but I worry that I don’t always succeed.

On Coming from Nowhere

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I come from nowhere. This is a rather overdramatic statement, but it kinda has depth. Let’s unpack this a bit.

I didn’t grow up in a place that had cultural significance. I grew up in the “respectable working class” suburbs of a large but fairly nondescript city in the non-region that is the East Midlands. Occasionally you meet people who have some passion for the city (Nottingham), but it is rare, and it doesn’t have the cultural oomph of, say, growing up in Liverpool, Glasgow, the East End of London or (for that matter) Surrey (which elevates dullness to a culture). I find it strange when people have a really meaningful link to a place where they grew up—even a place that they haven’t lived in for years. I used to work with someone who, despite living elsewhere for the last 30 years, strongly identified with the Scottish borders where he grew up as his home, and regarded this as important. I can’t say that I do, or perhaps could attribute this to where I grew up.

I grew up without a religion, but with a vague dash of woo. This specifically isn’t to say that I grew up in a hardline atheist environment. I grew up in a family/culture that sat in the vaguely something-out-there, vaguely-agnostic, vaguely culturally-christian kind of nonreligion.

I grew up as an only child in a family that was distant, on both sides, from their extended family. This leaves me with a peculiar, and probably vastly overidealised, notion of a large extended family. For example, I am loosely envious of people who have large, extended (both in terms of family size and length of meeting) family Christmasses—in my family, Christmas has been a few hours on the 25th December with my parents, and by the evening it is back to normal. I understand, though, that people who have this more-or-less uniformly hate it and regard it as a tedious obligation.

I grew up in a “class gap”. I can’t do the “I grew up eating gravel” that some of my proper working class contemporaries can do; equally, I was sufficiently distant (e.g. in terms of cultural capital) from the genuine middle classes. My parents clearly believed themselves to be working class, though we were frequently seen as “posh” by by schoolmates, largely as a result of living in a detached house on the edge of the council estate rather than in one of the council houses.

The importance of gender has always been a mystery to me. I don’t regard gender as being all that important, outside of areas where it is immediately relevant. I’ve always interacted with lots of people both male and female without really noticing. I find the idea of social groups based on gender to be weird—occasionally, I’ll get invited to go along to an event that is male-only and I always refuse these, I can’t understand what people would get from such a group. Similarly with regard to race and ethnicity.

This isn’t to say that I would want to have a strong background, but I sometimes think that it would be good to have something to push against—when I read a book review about (to give a recent example) the difficulties of growing as a lesbian in Jewish North London, I feel that my situation doesn’t give me something to move outward from. I might want to reject my background, but at least I’d like some background to reject.

When I explain this to friends, I often get a reaction that is trying to convince me that I do come from somewhere, e.g. by explaining that I have a community in the form of my academic discipline. This isn’t really about where I come from, though, but about where I have ended up.

That said, I don’t care too much about this. I am vaguely jealous of people who appear to come from somewhere, it adds depth in some indefinable way. Nonetheless, I feel that it conveys an interesting perspective on the world. For example, I find territorial political/religious disputes (Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the middle-east) rather incomprehensible. Why not just come to a pragmatic solution and agree some kind of division? Of course I am not really that naive: I understand rationally, but nonetheless try as I might I cannot emotionally grok the feelings of someone who really believes in this sort of cause. Why, in the end, is it really that important? What must it feel like to really come from somewhere and care about it?

My perspective on such disputes leaves me with an oddly contradictory feeling. On one hand, I feel remarkably naive, like some 5-year old saying “why can’t they just all sort it out”. On the other hand, I feel remarkably mature, like a teacher who is looking down on a class of children having a fight and apportioning equal blame to all with jaded indifference. When I was a kid, I was morally outraged at some of the teachers’ decisions—their lack of interest in trying to explore the reasons why we were e.g. fighting seemed outrageous—but, in retrospect I can see how it looks when you take a perspective that views playground politics as trivial.

Similarly on various kinds of prejudice in society, I feel that I am getting a lack of prejudice “for free”, which feels odd somehow. I like this situation, but I feel that people who have had to work hard to not be racist or sexist somehow have a greater depth of engagement with the issues, whereas I’ve just swanned in without any of these prejudices in the first place.

I wonder what it feels like to really come from somewhere in this sense?

Insouciant or Old-farty?

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

John Prescott on the Channel 4 news tonight referring to what was being posted on “the Twittering” made him seem really out-of-touch. There was a time when this kind of casual unfamiliarity with popular culture was an insouciant flag that one’s mind was on more important things, that one did not concern oneself with trivia—a schtick that Brian Sewell plays (more consciously than a lot of people realise) to this day.

I don’t think that this really works anymore. You just end up looking old-farty rather than insouciant, like a desperate old uncle trying to show that you are still down with the kids but just getting it wrong. There seem to have been three stages in this process:

  1. A time when politicians and similar public figures were expected not to engage with popular culture at all—where it would have been seen as bizarre to expect that they would.
  2. A time where they were increasingly expected to have some engagement but didn’t really, and so wheeled out some press-officer verbiage about who their favourite band or Eastenders star is—sometimes excruciatingly off-the-mark (like one of our admissions officers talking about “Florence and the Rage Against the Machine” playing at the university summer ball).
  3. A time now when they genuinely do engage with popular culture, and it would seem weird not to.

Accident of Birth

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I have no emotional passion for partisanship. Football matches (national or local), patriotism, a swelling of belonging to a religion irregardless of belief—none of these do it for me. I think I understand why: it is because they are all basically, to me, arbitrary accidents of birth.

I think I have the following mental model: some essence of the sense of me-ness, looking out from this body, was placed there in an arbitrary way. I could “just have easily” been born in a place where I would have been a Sikh, a Mongolian, or an East Fife supporter as the place that I did end up. As a result I just cannot feel any emotional depth to these cards that I have been dealt. Their very arbitrariness precludes me having any passion for them—they seem as arbitrary to me as if I have been dealt a card saying “you will support football team number 148″ at some rite-of-passage.

Of course I realise that this notion of my soul being bowled at the Earth by some wild-armed deity is nonsensical. Nonetheless, this is how I’ve always felt deep down, and it is hard to shift the actual feeling.

This extends to religion in an interesting way. It seems weird to me that we don’t go through a period of religious seeking, and settle on the religion that we most think is likely to be correct. After all, we only get one chance to be right (in most faiths), and what is the chance that I have been born into the right place. If one of the world’s religions is correct (I appreciate that this is a trite view), then my chances of having been born into the right one are at best one-in-five. Why would I not, as a rationalist, try to find the right one? Yet when I tried to explain this to my parents as a teenager, the reaction was one of horror, like I was about to go out there and end up in a cult. (This notion is riffed on in a Mitchell and Webb sketch, where someone gets to the gates of heaven only to find out the the Amish were right after all, and that only Amish people will get into heaven; surely this shouldn’t be funny if we have an intuition that there is One True Faith, yet religious people seem to assert that this is the case).

Some of this crystallised when I came across the ideas in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. In that book he argues that moral actions should be guided by a principle that we do not know which of the actors in a particular situation we will be represented by. For example, the reason that we should regard theft as morally unacceptable is that if we regard the situation “as a whole” we are as likely to be at the receiving end than the active end, and so overall we would not want that situation to obtain even if the thief benefits from the act. This seemed to me unremarkable and utterly intuitive: why is this considered to be a deep innovation in our understanding of moral action? It is only by talking to other people over the years that I realise that this is a very unusual position to hold intuitively. Like M. Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who was shocked to find that he had been speaking prose all this life, I realised that I had been an intutive Rawlsian throughout my moral development.

Apple Store Encounters

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Walking up the steps in the Apple Store t’other day. Person in front of me was dressed, to a first approximation, identically—Doc Martens, pinstripe trousers, long-sleeved black T-shirt, with a stubbly beard and slightly grown out hair, carrying a messenger bag.

Wild coincidence—or am I just a bloody hipster cliché ;-)

Radical Robes

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Thinking about the notion of academic robes at graduation ceremony. From time-to-time the idea of academical dress gets attacked for being irrelevant and outdated. I’d like to argue instead that there is an important radical signficance behind the idea of dressing in academic robes for graduation.

Over the last fifty years there has been a pressure in society towards the idea that the only acceptable form of formal dress is that associated with the business community. Increasingly the distinctive formal dress-codes associated with various professions and things of value in society have been rubbished as irrelevant in “the modern world”; distinctive modes of dress associated with learning, scholarship, teaching, the law, religion, et cetera have been put under pressure. We might want superficially to hurrah this as a victory for egalitarianism; why should practitioners of such things get the chance to lord it over “the rest of us” by distinctive forms of dress.

This might be acceptable if the alternative was a class- and profession- neutral mode of formal dress. However this is not what has happened. What would people wear to an occasion such as graduation if academic dress were to be deprecated? I imagine that the vast majority would wear some tedious grey suit redolent of years of tedium in the accountancy profession. The mode of dress chosen would no longer represent learning, nor would it represent personal success; it would have the subtle smell of the idea that the only success worth having is that represented by business, and that we celebrate success by shrouding ourselves in the dress associated with that activity. “We are all businessmen/women now”.

The situation is rapidly becoming similar to that of mediaeval europe, where membership of the church was a prerequisite for any other profession, and therefore priestly robes became the standard formal dress later diversifying into academic robes, barristers’ gowns, et cetera. It was incomprehensible that someone could become a professional in some other field without being a priest first. We are in a similar situation today with regard to business; it is becoming increasingly difficult to assert an identity as a lawyer or academic or whatever without the implication that one is “really” a business person, just “trading” in the “law business” or “university business” or whatever. This is subtly supported by the modes of dress which are deemed “acceptable” in society. The use of academic robes in graduation ceremonies is a healthy cock-a-snoop at this bland uniformity.

Fading Microcultural Phenomena (2)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Another example of a bit of microculture that is fading completely from view, yet which was thriving when I was a teenager: the idea, amongst “adults”, that popular culture is non-productive and a waste of time. My evidence-base for this is the school concerts that I performed in as a teenager: parades of dance and music that went on for hours. What music was used for these? A small part of “high culture” music—a senior pupil playing a bit of Mozart on the clarinet. But, this was a fairly small component—as was the amount of genuine popular music (in the broad sense) of the time. Mostly, the concerts were dominated by what we might term light music—not just in the narrow sense of the word, but in the sense of things like show tunes, film music, old pop music, sanitized versions of folk songs, et cetera. Gradually, some things would move from “popular culture” into “light culture”; an example of this was ABBA. Real popular-culture music was not admitted; there was an argument one year about whether a (very good) rock band that the pupils had formed should be allowed to play (eventually, they were allowed to play outside the hall during the interval).

A kind of “light culture” existed whose advocates probably looked up to, but didn’t really like traditional “high culture” (certainly not in large doses) yet who saw “popular culture” as being genuinely destructive and dangerous.

I don’t think that we would be having these sorts of distinctions today. The distinction between “light culture” and “popular culture” is fading. The idea that popular culture rots the brain, or takes time or moral energy away from better things, is fading. In a world where a member of the Shadow Cabinet can describe Beyoncé as one of the “cultural highlights” of the last decade, and mean it entirely genuinely, things have changed enormously.