Monthly Archives: June 2021

On Disruption

I imagine that if the covid virus was a character in a film it would be played by Robert De Niro in some variant of Taxi Driver:

You want disruption?!
I’ll give you disruption!!”

Back in the old days – 2019 say – disruption was a business goal, a sure-fire way to make more money.

Look at how Google had disrupted all the advertising money that used to go to newspapers. Look at how Amazon had disrupted the sales money that used to go to shops. Look at how Uber had disrupted local minicab companies. Everyone in business was looking to be the next platform, the next innovator, the next disrupter, the next stock market sensation.

Politically in the UK we could also see Brexit as the disrupter of party politics – lifelong Labour voters going Conservative; lifelong Conservative going Liberal Democrats; its waves still overturning election boats five years on.

Maybe for some people the pandemic has made them start to feel there are limits to how much disruption we can take at one time.

But maybe for some other people the pandemic has been the proverbial wake-up call, where they see major changes are urgently needed – climate emergency, biodiversity collapse, hunger, poverty – and decide that another type of disruption, or revolution if you prefer the older phrase, is now needed.

And maybe the interesting policy area is if these two groups of people could be substantially the same.

They might have had enough of the ‘old disruption’ such as declining High Streets and being unable to buy a cup of coffee without using a phone app and a credit card. And they might be eager for some ‘new disruption’ such as turning half a car park into a cycle park, or voting for ten thousand new electric buses.

What happens to groups and societies when a lack of empathy is amplified – some thoughts

We all like a good bit of drama, to have a story told well. It draws everyone in. It’s fascinating for us all to watch. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had its cheap standing area as well as the balconies for the richer folk. But the drama was staged – the actors use conflict to drive the story forward.

And crucially, when we leave the theatre we don’t copy the script, obviously by not killing and maiming people on our way home, but subtly by using our empathy for others in our social skills.

But today our in-built fascination with conflict and drama has been automated and monetised. Social and media companies and television production companies have employed psychologists to ‘improve’ their audience share by looking for low-cost ways to amplify conflict. By “social and media companies” I mean here those companies who cultivate very large audiences in order to sell their attention to advertisers, whether its Facebook, broadcast TV, online TV, Twitter or others with the same business model.

It’s important to say that this is not all media companies – I’d say that many companies producing video games have shown a great responsibility and service in creating safe spaces for people to explore and experience drama, minority communities and personal development. This often happens during play that is online in social groups with staffed moderation and curation of gaming communities.

But some social and media companies have deliberately used their algorithms and storylines to amplify conflict. For example, we saw in Channel Four’s programme Big Brother, when the initial high audience figures started to fall away, how the practice of “conflict casting” was used to select participants who were more likely to be antagonistic to each other. These days it is called “noisy TV” in the trade, which is meant to catch more people’s attention. Psychologists looked in particular for people who, for whatever reason, had less empathy than others. The Jeremy Kyle show also springs to mind. But so do the many ‘reality’ TV programmes with a divisive narrative, often against poorer people living on benefits.

We see the same dynamic in politics – Donald Trump shows less empathy than, for example, Michelle Obama. Boris Johnson with less empathy than, say, Ed Miliband.

But what might make great TV, might make memorable politics, might make compulsive posting online, is corrosive for society as a whole and for social groups.

Social groups are areas wider than our immediate friends and family where we learn and practice our social skills, including our empathy for people we might not fully agree with, or even strongly disagree with.

However, I wonder if the increasing pervasiveness and amplification of conflict with and indifference to the feelings of the other person, monetised by the larger social and media companies, is causing social harms at the micro level as well as at the macro level. This micro level includes most community, neighbourhood and voluntary groups, societies and associations.

Any one group can only cope with a certain amount of a lack of empathy within it before it must disintegrate and collapse as a social group. Good community development skills can mitigate this to an extent, but everything has its limits.

“We have more in common than divides us” is not just a morally good statement, it is an instruction, a commandment, we give to ourselves to protect our empathy skills against the structures that seek to undermine them for their own gain, both political and commercial.

I feel that the textbook of skills for community development needs a new chapter for the 21st century – something like – Rebuilding Empathy in Communities in the face of Social and Media Amplifications of Conflict.


Research Notes, June 2021

Somewhat Lame

I was recently encouraged to look at a computer app, Grammarly, which is popular with students looking to improve their writing skills. So, ever curious, I gave it some of my notes of a meeting to see what it might say about my style. It came back with four errors, three of which were style choices (and it was clearly wrong!) and, fair enough, one was an improvement. The software also gives the writing some overall scores, and I was given a good for style and clarity (of course!).

But the kicker was the overall judgement that my writing was “somewhat lame”. Hold my coat, we’re taking this outside chum!

I could bleat on about how committee minutes are maybe not the same as a paperback thriller story. But no, instead I’ve decided to try and up the tempo of my writing. Kerpow!

Ear to the Ground

I’m pleased to say that Anne Plumb’s book on the catalogue of her lifetime archive collection of the voices of mental health service users and survivors is working its way steadily through the drafting stage, aiming for publication in the late summer.

I continue to be struck by the humour of service users, survivors, and indeed inmates. One group of patients in a locked ward at a “special hospital” organised a sponsored bed-push as a fundraiser, and wonderfully called it, “The Great Escape”. Ker-boom!

Hulme Hippodrome

One of the nice features of being involved this year with the Save Hulme Hippodrome campaign is that there are so many very capable heritage and archive researchers already involved. And they are far better at this research lark than I am, so I’m learning lots from them. My role is more on the legal and property side, which makes a change. Splat!

Not Dead Yet UK

It seems that every five years or so some misguided politician, usually in the House of Lords, decides to take a punt and try to get Assisted Suicide (aka Assisted Dying) made legal in the UK. So, here we are again with a private members bill in the Lords doing just that. I’m doing some work in the background here. For all the campaign details please see the NDYUK website, and it’s all hands to the pumps. Wham!

What’s your app of choice?

Apparently once we reach 36 years of age we stop listening to new music. I wonder if there is something similar happening with tech. I come across younger people in various campaigns who these days use apps like Trello to help them in project management. Maybe when they too reach 36 years old they will stick with the same app they started out using? I have done so mostly, and apart from the occasional project spreadsheet I find my app of choice remains Filofax. Zap!

Keep safe, and keep campaigning,