I’m so happy to bring you this letter. One of my favourite artistic collaborators, Dave Lamb, has written this beautiful, eloquent, generous and immensely clever response to Mitchell Browne’s Syndey Morning Herald article ‘WHY SHOULD ARTISTS AT WORK FUND IDLERS AT ART?’ Enjoy and, if you happen to know Mitchell, please pass this on. Dave wants to hang out.
My name is Dave, and I’m an artist. We’ve never met, although you assume an awful lot about my lifestyle.
Last week I read your opinion piece on the Sydney Morning Herald website, along with the comments it generated. I must admit, I originally felt a lot of the ire that was expressed there, but I realise it’s not fair or productive to respond with scorn or sarcasm – that would only serve to distance our positions further, and one of the chief goals of the arts is, in my opinion, to bring different perspectives of life closer together in an attempt to create mutual understanding.
I respond in that spirit, not to criticise or correct you but hopefully to further our understanding of each other. Most importantly, I don’t want you to feel that all I’m saying is “you don’t understand art” – that would be unfair, narrow-minded and probably quite offensive to you. My hope is that this response reaches you and that you read with an open mind, and possibly come to a different understanding of the potential and importance of the arts to our society.
Your central point – that 0 million funding for the Australia Council is in effect a robbery of hard-working taxpayers to fund the laziness of artists – seems to me to have 3 elements: firstly, that tax revenue would be better used if spent directly by the taxpayer; secondly, that artists take advantage of funding to be lazy and self indulgent; and finally, that funding the arts in general is a waste – that the people paying the taxes should be able to choose to pay or not, in whatever amount and for whatever work they deem worthwhile.
I agree that all government expenditure warrants scrutiny, and I understand that it’s easiest to complain about funding for the things that you don’t believe benefit you – I personally don’t believe that as much funding should go to the defence force, or to religious counselling in schools, or diesel fuel subsidies for mining corporations, but there are cases to be made for the programs and business models that receive that funding.
If we were able to choose where our tax revenue went, the very real possibility is that some things that were crucial to our society (roads and public transport, or maybe health and education, or perhaps defence) would receive far less funding than they need, because people don’t use them every day, or don’t recognise the flow-on benefits that such funded services provide. We live in a pluralistic society, which generally means that we accept the unique perspective and needs of every person that lives within our borders. Pluralism is about more than just race or religion or creed, it’s an understanding that even though I don’t particularly like or value the things that some other people do, our society and government operates to give as many people as possible the freedom and ability to live in the way they choose.
For some people, that includes the arts.
The purpose of government funding for the arts isn’t solely to pay an individual artist. Funding is often used to subsidise ticket prices for national arts events – exhibitions, festivals and companies – ensuring that access to art forms across a wide range of disciplines isn’t restricted just to those who can afford it. It means that participation in art, creatively or receptively, is possible for people from all backgrounds and sectors in our community, and sends a message that we encourage representations of lives other than our own – Pluralism. The existence of government funding for the arts is a statement that art is important to the development of a society beyond its current understanding of itself.
The 0 million funding is distributed to both individual artists and companies across myriad art forms for several purposes. In some cases, the funding is used to develop and present a piece or series of works in an artists’ discipline, in others it is used to fund further training in a particular field or form. In all cases, the recipient must have proved both a level of skill and capability in their practice that shows they are pursuing this art form as a career, as well as a plan detailing how they will use the funds to contribute something to the society that has paid for it.
Funding isn’t just handed out to whoever is standing in line with an idea – grants are given to artists who have already invested their own time and money in educating themselves and expanding both the skills of their craft and their knowledge of arts history and practice to understand where they fit and what they can contribute. For many artists, years have been spent working several different part-time jobs so that they can afford weekly classes and workshops. Crucially, the time spent on these unpaid creative endeavours is not the same as engaging in a hobby or playing for enjoyment. For a career artist, it is work.
The impression of the artist being idle is an old one, and if any artistic career looks easy than it’s a testament to the skill of the artist. The audience should only see the finished result. They shouldn’t see the pain, the uncertainty, the regret, the self-loathing, the incessant questioning and reassessment and screaming silently “What the hell am I doing this for?”
As an actor, particularly while performing in schools as an aid to English education (yes, that gets funded too, but out of the education budget rather than the Australia Council) one of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you remember all those lines?” The answer, invariably, is “Hard Work”, but the audience isn’t there for the hours of rehearsal and forgetting and paraphrasing, they only see the lines being remembered. Hopefully.
Often, we will pay for the hard work ourselves, either because we want to showcase our talents or because we believe so strongly in the work that we want to give it to an audience. But some works require financial backing beyond the capacity of a part-time cafe job. That’s where funding comes in.
The potential end result of funding individual arts projects is that individuals and companies receive both awareness among the audience and income from the presentation of the work, both of which afford them the opportunity to create more and different work supported by their own financial resources and a connected audience base that has the potential to grow by the expansion of access and awareness.
The intent, just as in any other instance of government funding, is that from an initial investment a company is able to grow to the point of self-sufficiency, generating employment for more artists, which in turn generates future tax revenue for the government that exceeds the initial investment – tax revenue on both the income from and audience and the wages paid to artists. The investment is intended to ultimately create ongoing return.
Funding for individual artists serves a similar purpose. The artist receives the grant to assist them in activities to further their skills and develop new networks. Think of it in the same way as a commonwealth supported trade apprenticeship – by providing support for an artist to undertake classes, workshops, creative development or exploration of form, the funding assists the artist in developing skills and networks that further their career prospects and employment potential, leading to more work that converts back into tax revenue for the government.
And now, some perspective on that 0 Million you’re worried about Mitchell. It equates to less than for each Australian citizen. Of course, not all Australians pay taxes. Statistics from the 2009-10 financial year indicated that 55% of adult Australians paid tax – that’s around 7.15 million people. So the 0 million in funding for the arts is around for each taxpayer.
For some people that’s still a lot of money, and I understand that it might seem like there’s no return for them, so what does their get them? Reporting from the last 6 years shows funding being distributed to professional theatre companies around Australia, which subsidises ticket prices for the audience; to art galleries to facilitate free entry; to tours of performances and festivals to regional Australia, ensuring arts access is not restricted to major urban areas. It has facilitated new work from musicians – both classical and contemporary; from writers – both literature and performance; from actors, dancers, visual artists, jewellers, sculptors, circuses and more. All of this work was available to Australian audiences in return for that of their tax revenue. And if they chose to engage, they would walk away with so much more.
Quantifying the effect the arts has on society is always a difficult prospect. Statistically, in a study performed by the Australia Council in 2010, 53% of Australians engage in the arts as an audience, and a further 40% also actively participate in creating art. That’s around 9.2 Million artists engaging in theatre, music, literature, visual art, dance, craft and more and 12 Million receiving that art.
In financial terms, ABS data from 2009-10 shows that the cultural and creative sectors provided a Gross Value Add of Billion to the Australian economy, outstripping the contribution of both retail and education, and more than doubling the contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and Mining at Billion. As a point of comparison, the mining industry alone received 2 Million in government subsidies in 2012-13, along with generous tax concessions.
But art is intended for more than financial gain – Phil Scott wrote (also in response to your piece, Mitchell) that “Art sees society through an individual and questioning perspective”. He echoes the opinion of Shakespeare, who thought the purpose of theatre “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature.” I agree with them both, but frame it a little differently.
I think the power of great art is not that it tells us who we are, but that it allows us to recognise elements of ourselves – emotional states, or behaviours, or hopes and dreams and fears – in other people. If we are told that we are a certain thing, either good or bad, we can listen and agree (or not), but remain largely unaffected. But in seeing elements of ourselves within a fiction or a representation – either on stage, or within a piece of music, or in the form of a sculpture or twist of a brushstroke – we have a very real chance of understanding that aspect of ourselves by recognising it and describing it in our own terms.
This is, I believe, a far more powerful and instructive form of self-reflection – nobody has told you “You are this thing”, you haven’t needed to be defensive or react to them to protect your idea of yourself, but you’ve come to understand something about yourself by observing. And once we acknowledge that we can understand more about ourselves, we acknowledge that we have the ability to change if we choose. And once we acknowledge we have that choice, then we become very aware of the effects of the choices we make. And then we can extend our understanding towards others, observing their choices and the effects they have. And, potentially, we find it easier to accept things in others we have previously just reacted to.
Do you see what I’m trying to say, Mitchell? Art gives us the opportunity to observe and understand both ourselves and others without threat or fear. Good art tells us something we didn’t already know, and great art helps us understand the things we already did. It shows us who we are, asks us if we accept ourselves in that way, and gives us the power to change if we choose. The very best art will tell us not just who we are, but who everyone is, and will allow us to accept and understand not just what makes us different but what makes us unalterably the same.
I hope you choose to engage with the art available to you as a result of government funding Mitchell. I hope you take a chance with your spare time and surprise yourself. If you’re ever in Melbourne and looking to fill an evening, I’d love to take you to a show that was funded by an Arts Council Grant and sit and talk about it afterwards. If you’re here during the Fringe or International Arts Festivals, I can make a week’s worth of recommendations – I’ll even pay for the tickets, it’s the least I can do.
Art offers us opinions and perspectives other than our own. Art offers us choices. But the first choice has to be ours. I hope you make that choice Mitchell, I hope you discover the other worlds that are there for you, and I hope it inspires you and your talented tradie mates to share your stories with the rest of us – I bet you could teach us a thing or two, and I hope I get to learn them.
Yours faithfully and artistically,
Dave is a Melbourne-based actor who is currently appearing in The City They Burned. He tweets at @davenlamb and, if you want to see him doing something utterly ridiculous… He calls this evidence that you shouldn’t take him too seriously. My deepest thanks to Dave for this wonderful letter.
More of Sarah Walker’s amazing photography can be found here.
I’ve updated this post after discussing the issue with my class.
I can think of no journalism professors I admire more than Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen. But I (so far) disagree with them on the subject of whether to allow students to use laptops and mobile devices during class.
Clay has explained in a blog post why he bans computers from his classroom. Jay chimed in his agreement:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) September 10, 2014
They both have notably more classroom experience than I do, and they might be right. I encourage you to read Clay’s full explanation and won’t try to summarize it here, but he cites research about how multitasking can interfere with learning.
My limited experience is different. I was very glad yesterday that a student had her laptop and multitasked in class.
In my syllabus, I tell students that they are welcome to use their laptops (or other devices) to take notes, look up links relating to class discussion or even to livetweet our discussions. However, I said, if I see them using Facebook or otherwise giving in to the distractions the device can present, I will ask them to shut their devices. But let’s be honest: I’m in front of the classroom and not very likely to play laptop cop often. I presume some of them are communicating with friends, etc. during class.
But yesterday, when I had cause during a class discussion to mention the famous Kevin Carter photo of a vulture stalking a child dying
during the Ethiopian famine, a student found the photo in seconds so I could hold up her laptop and show the class. I hadn’t planned to mention the photo, or I might have had it ready to project on the classroom screen. I momentarily thought about finding it and showing it, but I had not even signed in on the classroom computer (I’ll probably do that before class now, even if I don’t have something planned to show) and didn’t want to delay the discussion while I signed on, waited for the projector to warm up and searched for the photo. But when I thought of the photo spontaneously as an example to make in a discussion we were having, showing the photo would have really helped make my point. The photo was shot in 1993, probably before most of my students were born. Many may never have seen it. And I was able to show it in class because a student took a few seconds to multitask on her laptop. I appreciated not just the example, but that she used her laptop to become more engaged in the class.
In another case, a student mentioned a video in class that related to another discussion. She emailed the video link to me during class (would she have remembered after class if I didn’t let her have her laptop open? I doubt it), and I posted it on the class blog.
In addition, I take better notes on a laptop than writing in a notebook, and I have decades’ experience taking notes on paper. I think and hope my students, who have spent much of their lives using electronic keyboards, will take better notes with their laptops than with pen and paper.
I value Clay’s and Jay’s experience and I’m sure that my students with their laptops open are facing other distractions and some are no doubt multitasking and missing some of what I say. But I regard it as my job to get and hold their attention. And I remember the distractions I could find simply by daydreaming when professors failed to hold my attention in pre-laptop days.
To a certain extent, I feel that adult students need to take responsibility for their own education. If they bring distractions into the classroom, then they are responsible for the damage from those distractions to the education they (and their parents) are paying for. And I welcome the better note-taking and the contributions from students who can find helpful material on their devices.
I especially respect Clay’s point about secondary distractions — students who are trying to pay attention being distracted by the material on the screens of their neighbors. I’m going to discuss this matter with my students tomorrow and I’ll let them vote on it (using their devices).
But, unless they embrace a laptop ban, students in my classes can use their laptops, tablets or cellphones and manage the distractions they bring. At least until I get as much experience and wisdom as Clay and Jay.
Update: My students were unanimous in wanting laptops. I invited anyone who’s bothered by distractions to text or email me and no one did. I remember two examples, including the one about the starvation photo, when students contributed to the class from relevant information they found on their laptops. I asked how many used their laptops either to pull up a link I was showing or to look for related information that they hadn’t shared with the class but had helped their understanding of the topics being discussed. Most hands in the classroom went up. One contrasted it with a class where she can’t use her laptop. She finds that handwriting is a distraction from what the professor is saying. She can’t keep up as well and she misses some things. I value what Clay and Jay (and others in comments here and on Facebook) have said. But for the Introduction to Mass Media course I’m teaching and for my teaching style and my students’ preferences, I think it’s best to allow use of laptops and other devices. Will let you know if I change my mind.
Update: Thanks to Steve Smith for sharing in the comments below a link to some research showing that students retain information better if they take notes in handwriting rather than on a laptop. I remain skeptical. I see some indication of bias both in the paraphrased explanations from the scholars and in the summary of the research by the Vox reporter. And I’m deeply skeptical of research that “proves” the researchers’ preconceived notions. The study, by controlling for the distractions of the Internet, also eliminated the opportunity of deeper engagement through relevant use of the Internet. For instance, the student who found the starvation photo probably has more retention of yesterday’s discussion than either students taking notes on laptops or taking notes by hand. But I will share this study with the students tomorrow and discuss these issues with them.
One more update: In my initial post, relying on my memory, I said the starvation photo was from Ethiopia. It was from Southern Sudan.
After four years of hopping onto this transgender train, I’ve learned a lot about the world of gender and the world in general.
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‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech luminary Marc Andreessen declared in 2009, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of ‘creative destruction’. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for example (recipent of 2 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:
Airbnb makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.
An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just like a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, producing a functional machine, the new social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee. Reconfiguring the relationships between consumers, service-providers, and citizens, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains and estate agencies.
This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.
There are good reasons to feel excited about this new generation of startups. They create new efficiencies, for a start. They enable individuals in need of services to find people ready to provide them. They activate a community’s latent resources – spare rooms, unused cars, gear tucked away in tool sheds – creating new markets for renting and sharing, and new lines of income for micro-entrepreneurs. Sure, they are disrupting the status quo – but so what? Given the state of the world, our societies could do with a little disruption. The companies that own the social operating systems are valued in millions and billions, and who’s to argue with that? Those of them who have figured out how to monetise their communities are highly profitable engines of economic growth.
But we must also take a critical view. The new social operating systems are demolishing established industries, and destroying jobs and lives in the process. While they create new jobs, these are not the same jobs in the same industries. Blue collar bodies litter the scenes of these acts of creative destruction. Taking a broader view on the implications of these developments, we might ask whether young tech wizards are really the best people to be redesigning social systems. We are rapidly moving into a world that is thoroughly configured by software design. We have never experienced such a world before. We have no idea what kinds of problems these new designs will create. Will social reputation systems serve as a reliable subtitute for the consumer protections offered under law in existing service-based industries? The answer is unclear. The same goes for worker protections. The sharing economy offers real opportunities for cash-strapped micro-entrepreneurs. But this economy is built on precarious labor. Micro-entrepreneurs lack health care, workplace insurance, and superannuation. We need only look back to the 19th century to see the conditions that prevail when a workforce operates without a social safety net.
Diving deeper, there are some important philosophical questions that are being ignored in the startup bonanza. The basic ethical question of whether society wants to be disrupted, for a start. Startup entrepreneurs treat societies and economies as raw material to be hacked. Did we citizens ask to be hacked? The answer, quite simply, is no. What right, then, does a tech startup have to ‘rearrange the bits’ of social reality, regardless of the human costs of the activity? Capitalism has always been a force of creative destruction, it is true. But the new generation of social operating systems take disruption down to street level, where it directly impacts the lives of ordinary people, as opposed to corporations. From an ethical point of view, this is a highly questionable activity. Yet the ethical question is rarely, if ever, addressed in the business press. Only outsiders, such as tech critic Evgeny Morozov, seem to be sensitive to these issues. From a west coast perspective, the tone of Morozov’s critical missives smacks of the bitter impotence of an east coast intellectual railing against the fact that the world has changed. In reality, it reflects an ethical sensibility that is notably absent from the dominant discourse. We should clone Morozov many times over.
Diving deeper still, we run up against the ontology of Silicon Valley, its underlying theory of reality. This ontology can be summed-up in the phrase: ‘Hack everything!’. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, champion of the hacker way, hackers see the world as an imperfect prototype. Zuckerberg claims: ‘Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo’. On the face of it, the hacker way is appealing. Who doesn’t want to play around with creative alternatives and explore the possibility of making things better? The hacker way makes perfect sense when applied to machine parts, circuit boards, and code. Applied to social reality, however, it has alarming ontological implications. Treating reality as raw material to be hacked changes the way that we think of it. Reality shows up as a neutral field of resources that can be moved about, uncoupled, recoupled, tinkered with, and exploited. It’s as if the world were just an n-dimensional field of object-resources. Nothing has inherent value. Everything is manipulable.
Is this a healthy way of looking at the world? We could have a long discussion about this. Is it a responsible point of view for digital architects setting out to revision the structure of society? My guess is that most people would answer no. Yet this is the ontology of some of the most successful new companies in Silicon Valley. It is the unquestioned background for entrepreneurs and investors at the forefront of the social startup boom.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) would not have been surprised by this state of affairs. Heidegger died as the internet was being built. But his critique of technology, developed through the the 1940s and 50s, anticipates the internet and casts social operating systems in a critical light. From Heidegger’s perspective, the hacker way, applied to social reality, reflects an alienated view of the world. Heidegger calls it: ‘technological enframing’. From the standpoint of technological enframing, reality appears as a field of abstract resources amenable to manipulation. If software is eating the world, it is because the world has been enframed in a technological light, reimagined as a set of valves, wires, and diodes to be hacked.
Technological enframing is more than just a way of thinking about the world. It is a way of revealing ‘Being’, or reality. Heidegger’s major insight, introduced in Being and Time (1927), is that human beings are ‘world disclosing’ entities. We disclose the world in different ways depending on how we engage with people and things. When we ‘let beings be’, taking a hands-off approach to dealing with people and things, respecting their right to exist independantly of our concepts and concerns, reality appears as realm of infinite depth and mystery. But when we come at things with the demand that they meet our needs and fit with our concepts and systems, the world shows up differently. Reality appears as the mirror of our own activity, full of more or less useful stuff at our disposal.
This is technological enframing. Heidegger looks back to antiquity to understand how technological enframing came to dominate in modern societies. In ancient times, Heidegger maintains, human beings had a different way of dealing with things. They let beings be. Artisans and craftspeople stood back to let being reveal itself before representing it in art. Farmers learned to work with the climate and seasons; craftspeople with the grain of wood and stone; hunters with the migratory flows of beasts, birds, and fish. This receptive attitude toward nature continues today in indigenous societies. Yet, it seems quaint and outmoded in the industrious world of technology. In the European world, Heidegger argues, the shift came with the rise of science and machine technology. Scientific conceptual frameworks enabled men to categorise the world, while machine technology gave them the tools they needed to dominate it. Thus commenced the wholesale enframing of nature, which continues to this day. Instead of standing back and accommodating ourselves to reality, we ‘set upon’ and ‘challenge’ the world to reveal its hidden wealth. In a disclosive rejoinder, nature becomes resource. Heidegger writes: ‘The earth now reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil a mineral deposit. … Air is set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy…’ Everything becomes an opportunity for objectification and exploitation.
Heidegger was wrong about many things. His conservative politics (Heidegger was a committed member of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1934) have led many to assume that his philosophy is not worth reading. Yet, in this one respect, Heidegger is undoubtedly correct. Technological enframing is a definitive feature of modern life. We adopt this point of view (or something like it) in our daily practical activities. Planning involves enframing. Project management involves enframing. We enframe the world by sidelining any serious reflection on the things that we are dealing with, conceiving them as mere resources or capacity that we can apply in a systematic way. In our defence, we might argue that this is a pragmatic way to live. If I’m building a house, I don’t need to meditate on the ‘being’ of things; I need to know what tools I need to build the house, what materials I need to purchase; what cash flow I can tap into to fund the build, and what legal codes I’m required to observe. Tools and materials, money and practical knowledge: these are the kinds of resources that we need to get things done. The rest is for philosophers. We simply can’t walk around ‘letting beings be’ and hope to keep up with the demands of practical life.
It is true that sometimes we need to enframe the world to get things done. It doesn’t follow, however, that Heidegger’s critique is mistaken, and it certainly doesn’t follow that we should ignore the warning that it presents. The fact that technological enframing is an important feature of contemporary life supports Heidegger’s argument, instead of standing against it. It indicates that we need to be mindful of the way that we engage with the world, assuming that we want to avoid treating people, living beings, and other natural phenomena as mere resources. This is precisely what Heidegger finds objectionable about enframing: it diminishes the ontological standing of things. Consider the example of a river. The river may have run its course for ten thousand years. It may have spawned a trillion fish and nurtured a billion ecosystems. But the moment that humanity builds a hydro-electric dam on the river to convert its energy into electrical power, technology takes ontological precedence. The river becomes a supplier to the grid, a source of electricity production. The people who live on the river may disagree, but chances are they are on the outside of technological society. For governing technocrats, the river is a resource. It is something that functions within a technological system created by humankind.
This is the fate of everything in a technological age. Nature, the world, and everything in it becomes a function of technology. It is understood in terms of a technological system created by humanity, not as an autonomous power independant of human existence.
Let’s bring this back to the critical perspective we were developing on the ethics and ontology of Silicon Valley startups. How does Heidegger’s critique of enframing apply?
First of all, Heidegger’s critique casts the ‘hack everything’ attitude in an unflattering light. Instead of being a simple, pragmatic way of looking at the world, the hacker way can be seen as an ontologically-transformative attitude that enframes reality as field of manipulable resource. This attitude is unproblematic when applied to inanimate objects. It is highly problematic, however, when it is applied to the social and economic structures of human life. Human life is not hardware. Social and economic systems are not strings of code. To treat society in this way reflects an impoverished point of view, symptomatic of an alienated experience of the world. It diminishes human life. It may be where the money is, but it is no way to build a better world.
This leads us to a second insight, which will be even more troubling for progressive startup entrepreneurs. The discourse of the ‘sharing economy’ puts a feel-good spin on technological disruption. By emphasizing the aspect of sharing goods and resources, we are able to portray social operating systems as the cutting edge of the ‘new’ economy, where people come first and social benefit is paramount. There clearly is a great deal that is new about social operating systems and the companies that design them. If Heidegger is right, however, there is also a deep line of continuity that links them to the ‘old’ economy that they are trying to replace. Proponents of the hacker way claim that they are trying to make the world a better place. Yet, in seeking to hack the fabric of society, they contribute to the grey malaise that industrial capitalism forced on the world, treating human beings as things to be manipulated and exploited for profit.
The new startups may not lop the tops off mountains and strip mine their resources. But they perpetuate the callous disregard of industrial capitalism just the same. This conclusion will jar with the self-assessment of tech progressives, many of whom are genuinely concerned to make a positive difference in the world. We must note that it only applies to a subset of tech entrepreneurs – those who treat social reality as raw material to be hacked. It is possible to design social operating systems that are based in a more respectful and circumspect outlook on the world. We need to take a human-centred approach to software design that puts real people first.
If you want to positively rewire the social and economic fabric, take a deep dive into the world and engage its complexity. Go into local communities and ‘let being be’. Find out what makes local economies tick. Identify their pain points and design social solutions for them.
Immerse yourself in the reality of life. Don’t forget that you are designing for human beings.
Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.
What it does have is a mystery.
Let us begin this tale at the beginning. Bouvet is appallingly isolated; the nearest land is the coast of Antarctica, a further 1,750km south, and it is slightly further than that to Cape Town and Tristan da Cunha. Indeed, as Rupert Gould put it in characteristic style:
It is the most isolated spot in the whole world – a fact which anyone who cares to spend an instructive five minutes with a pair of dividers and a good globe can easily verify. Around Bouvet Island, it is possible to draw a circle of one thousand miles radius (having an area of 3,146,000 square miles, or very nearly that of Europe) which contains no other land whatever. No other point of land on the earth’s surface has this peculiarity.
Yet, for all this, the island has a rather interesting history. It was first discovered at a remarkably early date: on 1 January 1739, by the earliest of all polar explorers, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier, after whom it is named. After that, however, the place remained lost for the next sixty-nine years – Bouvet had fixed its position incorrectly in an era in which navigation was still largely by dead reckoning. The island eluded the efforts of even Captain Cook to find it, and it only turned up again in 1808, when it was relocated several hundred miles from the spot where its discoverers had placed it. There remained considerable doubt, for the rest of the nineteenth century, as to whether the islands of 1739 and 1808 were even the same place, for not even the highly competent James Ross – in 1843 and again in 1845 – could locate Bouvet in the prevailing foul conditions, which include a semi-permanent shrouding of thick sea-mist, and storms 300 days a year. The isle was not permanently fixed on the nautical charts until 1898, when it was definitively relocated by the splendidly-named Kapitan Krech of the German survey ship Valdivia. [Gould pp.138-46; Stommel pp.98-9]
The Germans were the first to actually circumnavigate the island (Bouvet had believed that it was simply the northern cape of the sought-for Terra Australis, the gigantic but illusory southern continent it was long imagined must exist in the southern hemisphere in order to counterbalance Eurasia). They reported that it was no more than five miles long by three miles wide, that at least nine-tenths of it was under ice, and that it was almost entirely surrounded by unscalable ice cliffs which rose out of the sea well-nigh vertically to heights of up to 1,600 feet. [Muller et al p.260] But the Valdivia‘s men, like most explorers who make their way to this most inhospitable of places, found it impossible to land. Heavy seas, soaring cliffs, and the absence of any coves or inlets make it too dangerous to approach Bouvet Island by boat in any but the calmest weather.
The first explorers to actually make it ashore were Norwegians from the survey vessel Norvegia in 1927. Led by a worthy successor to Kapitan Krech, the equally alliterative Harald Horntvedt, they were also the first to venture onto Bouvet’s central plateau, which rises to about 2,500 feet (780m) above sea level and consists of a pair of glaciers covering the remains of a still-active volcano. Horntvedt took possession of the island in the name of King Haakon VII, renamed it Bouvetøya (which just means “Bouvet Island” in Norwegian), roughly mapped it, and left a small cache of provisions on shore for the benefit of any shipwrecked mariners. [Baker pp.72-3] The Norwegians returned in 1929 and again a few years later (when it was discovered that both their supply huts had been destroyed by the unremittingly hostile local weather), but after that Bouvet was left pretty much in peace until 1955, when the South African government expressed interest in the possibility of establishing a weather station there. To find out the answer to this question, the frigate Transvaal was sent south and she arrived off Bouvet on 30 January. [Crawford p.159]
It is here that the puzzle that concerns us comes gradually into focus. The South Africans sailed right around the island without finding any sign of the sort of large, flat platform on which a weather station might be built, but three years later – when the American icebreaker Westwind called at Bouvet on 1 January 1958 – it discovered that a small volcanic eruption had apparently taken place since 1955, and vented lava into the sea on the north-westernmost part of the island. The eruption had resulted in the formation of a low-lying lava plateau measuring perhaps 400 yards long by 200 yards wide. [Baker p.76; Crawford pp.162-4]
Bouvet Island had grown. And though the Norwegians, with a certain lack of poetry, named the plateau the Nyrøysa – meaning “New Rubble” – they did so by scribbling the name onto their maps. No-one actually went all the way to Bouvet to investigate.
Fast forward six more years to 1964. The South Africans, who had finally got around to dispatching an expedition to take a look at the New Rubble, sent two vessels to rendezvous at Bouvet on Easter Sunday: their own supply ship R.S.A. and the Royal Navy’s Antarctic ice vessel HMS Protector. The expedition waited for three long days for the chill winds howling across the Nyrøysa to drop below their customary 50 knots (90 km/h; 57mph) until, on 2 April, it was finally judged safe to attempt a landing by helicopter. One of the Protector‘s pair of Westland Whirlwinds then dropped a survey team on the New Rubble. The man in charge was Lieutenant Commander Allan Crawford, a British-born veteran of the South Atlantic [Crawford pp.45-114], and it was he who made an unexpected find only a few moments after landing. There, wallowing in a small lagoon and guarded by a solitary fur seal, lay an abandoned boat: half-swamped, its gunwales awash, but still in good enough condition to be seaworthy.
What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery. There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose. Thinking castaways might have landed, we made a brief search but found no human remains.
It was a mystery worthy of a Sherlock Holmes adventure. The boat, which Crawford described as “a whaler or ship’s lifeboat,” must have come from some larger ship. But no trade route ran within a thousand miles of Bouvet. If it really was a lifeboat, then, what ship had it come from? What spectacular feat of navigation had brought it across many miles of sea? How could it have survived a crossing of the Southern Ocean? There was no sign it had ever borne a mast and sail, or engine, but the solitary pair of oars that Crawford found would barely have been adequate to steer a heavy, 20-foot boat. Most unnervingly of all, what had become of the crew?
It’s unfortunate that the shore party had practically no time to investigate their peculiar discovery. They were on Bouvet for only a short while – about 45 minutes, according to Crawford – and in that time the men had to conduct a survey of the platform, collect rock samples and fend off the attentions of aggressive male sea-elephants who resented their intrusion. There was no time to explore the Nyrøysa properly or to hunt for any further signs of life. Given those constraints, it is very unlikely that the “brief search” Crawford mentioned consisted of much more than walking a few yards from the lagoon in either direction and scouting for the most obvious signs of bodies or habitation. Nor does it appear that any subsequent visitors to the island continued the investigation. There is, in fact, no further mention of the mysterious boat, though Bouvet was visited again two years later, in 1966, by a biological survey team whose members paid considerable attention to the lagoon. This group established that it was shallow, thick with algae, alkaline – thanks to seal excreta – and fed by meltwater from the surrounding cliffs. [Muller et al p.262] But if the lifeboat was still there, they did not mention it.
In fact, nobody but Allan Crawford seems to have taken the least interest in the mystery. There was no contemporary newspaper coverage of the story, nor have I been able to find any further details of the boat itself, nor of the items found on shore. One or two further brief contemporary accounts of the landing do exist, apparently, but in a publication so obscure that I have not so far found copies of it.¹ No one, in short, seems to have asked how the boat came to be there; no one searched for any members of its crew. And no one attempted to explain what Crawford found.
Pretty much all we have to go on, then, are a few scant lines of Crawford’s, a sketchy knowledge of Bouvet Island’s history, and some common sense conclusions regarding the likely behaviour of shipwrecked mariners. With these, nonetheless, it is possible to construct at least three possible hypotheses that might explain the presence of the whaler.
We’ll begin by setting out the facts we can establish. First, it is clear that the boat must have arrived on Bouvet at some point in the nine years between January 1955, when the New Rubble did not exist, and April 1964, when it did. That is a reasonably restricted timeframe, and if the whaler really was a lifeboat, it ought to be possible to establish which ship it came from. Second, the Protector‘s shore party saw no sign of any camp or shelter, fire or food. Third, the presence of a heavy boat in a lagoon located at least 30 yards from the shore suggests either that it reached the island with a full crew, enough to man-haul it over some pretty rough ground, or that it was put there by a smaller group who didn’t plan to leave the island for some time. Beyond that, though, all is speculation – and perhaps the strangest thing about this extremely strange incident is that the handful of facts we have don’t fully support any of the obvious theories.
Let’s look first at the possibility that the boat was what it appeared to be: a lifeboat from a shipwreck. That would certainly be the most dramatic and romantic explanation, and it explains some of the things that Crawford noted: why the whaler was in the lagoon (it was put there by men who had no way of tying it up securely on shore, and who weren’t certain if they would need it again) and why a small pile of equipment was found on shore. Who knows why Crawford’s “copper flotation or buoyancy tank” had been “opened out flat” – but it sounds like the sort of thing a group of desperate men with very limited resources might do. The lifeboat theory probably also offers the best explanation for the presence of only a single pair of oars on shore: perhaps there had originally been others, but they were lost overboard in the course of a terrible voyage.
There are, however, plenty of things that don’t fit the lifeboat hypothesis, and the most obvious is the lack of much equipment and the absence of either bodies or a camp. There would be no good reason for a group of survivors to move away from the Nyrøysa; it is clear of snow, at least during the southern summer, and is the only large, flat area of ground on the entire island. But if a party of survivors did stay put in this small area, and died there, then some trace of a campsite, not to mention signs of their bodies, ought to have been discovered in even the most hasty search.
Might a small group have moved on and died elsewhere on the island, though? Unlikely. Bouvet’s ice cliffs are high and highly prone to avalanche, so it would be very dangerous to attempt to move inland or to camp too close to any of the vertiginous rock faces that abound on the island. On top of that, the most obvious sources of food – Bouvet’s seals and sea-elephants – congregate on the New Rubble. There would be no real need to hunt elsewhere, unless the survivors had been on the island for so long that they had wiped out the local animal population – and if that was the case, signs of a campsite ought to have been doubly obvious. The men would surely have left the remains of fires and sea-elephant suppers.
Just how likely is it, anyway, that any group of shipwrecked seamen would have made their way to Bouvet? Not only is the island remarkably hard to locate in even the best of circumstances; it also lies so far off the normal trade routes, and is so notoriously barren, that it’s hard to imagine any group of men with any alternative would have made for it in any but the most desperate of circumstances. Only a ship that went down to the west of Bouvet (so that the prevailing currents would have swept lifeboats towards the island), and which did so within a few hundred miles of it, at most, would be a likely candidate, and any hypothetical wreck would certainly require that a competent navigator equipped with charts, instruments and a huge degree of fortune was among the unhappy survivors. If the men in the lifeboat had had time to find their charts and sextants, however, they ought to have had time to have brought a good deal more equipment with them than Crawford discovered on the island. What sort of castaways, after all, make it to shore armed with nothing more than a barrel of water, a pair of oars, and an empty copper tank?
Finally – and to my mind most significantly of all – why would any party of survivors, however well equipped, have left their boat floating in the lagoon? It was the only readily available source of shelter that they had on an island where, even in summer, the mean temperature hovers around zero. When one remembers what Ernest Shackleton’s men did when they were stranded on Elephant Island a few years earlier (they upended their boats and turned them into living quarters), it has to be admitted that the discovery of the boat in the lagoon is perhaps the strongest evidence that wherever the whaler came from, it was not the sole survivor of some grisly shipwreck.
What, then, of other explanations? Less likely, but not altogether impossible, is the suggestion that the boat found its way to Bouvet without any men on board. It might have been lost during a shipwreck, overturned and ditched its crew, or simply been washed overboard in a storm, and then drifted about the Southern Ocean, perhaps for years, before being washed up on the island. This theory has the virtue of simplicity, and it certainly explains why the boat appeared so worn – “there were no markings,” remember, “to identify its origin or nationality” – not to mention the absence of any signs of life on shore.
Other than that, though, the “derelict” hypothesis has little to recommend it. It certainly does not explain why Crawford found equipment left on shore, and it frankly strains credulity to suggest that, after making an ocean voyage of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles, a waterlogged hulk was washed ashore (in a storm presumably) in such a way that it avoided being dashed to pieces against Bouvet’s cliffs, was left pretty much undamaged, and then came to rest in the one spot on the coast of a small and remote island where it would not have been washed back out to sea again. It’s not as if that part of the island’s coast is knee deep in flotsam and jetsam, either; the men of the 1966 biological survey noted “the absence of practically any washed-up marine life this exposed western side of the island.” [Muller et al p.262]
A third possibility is that the boat might have come from an unknown ship that called at Bouvet between 1955 and 1964, and was, for some reason, abandoned there. This suggestion most convincingly explains the presence of the whaler; it is precisely the sort of general purpose craft used to make a landing, and in fact the Transvaal, when she called at Bouvet in 1955, had put her men briefly ashore in a very similar craft. If the abandoned boat had reached the island on a ship, moreover, there would have been no need for any implausible feat of navigation by its crew – and be in no doubt that a long voyage across the Southern Ocean in an open boat certainly is implausible, given the prevailing weather conditions. Ernest Shackleton’s voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia, across 800 miles of the same seas, is routinely lauded as one of the greatest of all feats of seamanship, after all – and it was accomplished by men who were properly supplied, fully equipped, and who sailed, moreover, in an enclosed boat provided with a deck casing that prevented waves from slopping onboard.
The suggestion that the abandoned boat had belonged to a landing party has another advantage: it explains the absence of bodies, a campsite and significant quantities of equipment. Suppose, for example, that a group of men made a landing in two boats, but left the island in one, taking their gear (and any bodies, I suppose) with them when they went. Or perhaps they landed in the boat, and were later evacuated by helicopter. If the landing had taken place during the 1950s, moreover, it doesn’t seem all that unlikely that five or six harsh Bouvet Island winters would have been sufficient to erase any names or other markings that the boat once had.
Yet even this explanation, attractive though it is, has substantial holes in it. What sort of expedition would be planning to stay so long on the island that its men would go to the trouble of man-hauling a big boat into the lagoon – Crawford’s team, after all, did what they needed to do in less than an hour? What sort of expedition goes ashore carrying a copper flotation tank? And what sort of expedition would be so poorly equipped that it was forced to improvise, while briefly on shore, by hammering flat said tank?
Indeed, the more one tries to think through this superficially attractive solution to the problem, the more questions it raises. Perhaps the most important one is this: why would any shore party abandon such a valuable boat when they left? Whalers are pretty expensive items, and need to be accounted for. Yes, one might suggest that the boat had to be left because of some sort of emergency – but if the weather was so bad that there was no possibility of launching it again, it would surely have also been too bad for any shore party to get off in a second boat, or to be evacuated by helicopter. And if one imagines, say, an accident that required the immediate heli-borne evacuation of an injured man – leaving not enough men ashore to handle the boat – why would the party have taken all their usable equipment with them, but left a single pair of oars? Why not go back later for the oars and the whaler? Why, indeed – if there was a helicopter available all along – land by boat in the first place?
Plainly more research is needed if we are to grope towards the right solution. Most of the materials do exist, but they require work; there are directories, for instance, of all the known shipwrecks and marine disasters that occurred during the years 1955-64. But these books, when consulted, turn out to be most unhelpfully organised – alphabetically, by name of ship, without any system of cross-referencing by date or place. This means that the only way of locating a likely wreck is to read through the whole of three large volumes, all the way from A to Z. [Hocking; Hooke] Thanks to this hopeless limitation – and my own ingrained unwillingness to devote a couple of days to ploughing through about 800 pages of close type in search of something that is very possibly not there – the most that I can say, after going through the business end of just one of the three volumes, is that any shipwreck capable of leaving a party of men struggling across the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat must have taken place before the end of 1962. None of the wrecks that occurred between January 1963 and March 1964 remotely fits the bill.
One other obvious area for additional research remains, and that is to look into who else might possibly have been on Bouvet between 1955 and 1964. At first glance it appears unlikely that any such unknown expeditions ever took place – the island, after all, commonly went years without seeing human beings. But in fact traces of at least two possible visits do exist, and – in theory, at least – either might have abandoned a whaler in the lagoon.
The first, and by a distance the least likely, is also the most mysterious, for when Allan Crawford was working in Cape Town in May 1959, he received a visit from an Italian calling himself Count Major Giorgio Costanzo Beccaria, who asked his advice about chartering a ship to go to Bouvet. The Count’s purpose, it was explained, was to help a Professor Silvio Zavatti go ashore on the island to conduct scientific research.
Crawford did what he could to help the Italian locate a suitable vessel, but without success, and the Count returned to Italy. In June 1960, though, Crawford received an odd letter from Professor Zavatti himself in which he claimed not only to have gone to Bouvet, but to have ventured ashore, landing in March 1959.
The letter took Crawford by surprise, since he knew of no ship in any South African port that the Italians could have chartered, and when he wrote to Costanzo he received a letter denying an expedition as described had ever taken place. Zavatti, however, supplied further details, and even published a book, Viaggo All ‘Isola Bouvet, in which he described his adventures. This volume, Crawford drily notes, was written for children and illustrated by only a single photograph – “of seals, which could have been taken in any zoo” – and he eventually concluded that the entire episode was a hoax. [Crawford pp.172-6] If the Zavetti expedition did take place, moreover, there is nothing in any of Crawford’s evidence to suggest that it abandoned a whaler on the island.
Altogether more promising, however, is a brief reference to another visit that I turned up in a bibliography of scientific research on Bouvet Island. [Watkins et al] This suggests that in 1959 – five years before the South Africans arrived, which certainly fits well with Crawford’s observation of a worn and scoured-clean whaler bearing no identifying marks – a Soviet expedition including one G.A. Solyanik made some ornithological observations on Bouvet Island. That much, at least, is certainly implied by the title of Solyanik’s paper (which I have not yet seen), since it is called “Some bird observations on Bouvet Island.” It appeared in the second volume of a regrettably hard-to-find journal called the Soviet Antarctic Expedition Information Bulletin, published in 1964.
A brief poke about online confirms that Solyanik was real enough – he was a researcher at the Odessa Biological Station – and that he took part in the four-year First Soviet Antarctic Expedition (1955-58), organised to coincide with the International Geophysical Year of 1957. This expedition sailed on board the icebreaker Ob’, which was certainly large enough to carry whalers, and rendezvoused with a pair of Russian whaling ships, the Slava and the Ivan Nosenko, establishing two shore stations in Antarctica. Like the likely-mythical Italian expedition to Bouvet, the timing looks about right to account for a weatherbeaten whaler, left over from the visit, to have been found without identifying marks six or eight years later. And, given the secrecy that attached to most things the Soviets attempted at the height of the Cold War, it would not be much of a surprise to find that they did a lot of things in the Antarctic that the British and South Africans were unaware of at the time.
This is all still fantastically hypothetical. Further research is needed here. The Soviet theory certainly doesn’t answer all the questions I posed earlier in this post, and it’s not yet at all clear to me whether the Russians really did go ashore on Bouvet Island – and, if they did, whether some mishap resulted in them abandoning equipment there. Put a gun to my head right now, however, and I’d suggest that the most likely explanation for Allan Crawford’s mysterious discovery of 2 April 1964 may lie in the memories of some ageing Russian ornithologists, or in a long-forgotten audit of equipment supplied to the icebreaker Ob’, lying in some obscure ex-Soviet archive.
1. The Newsletter of the South African Weather Bureau.
P.E. Baker. ‘Historical and geological notes on Bouvetoya.’ British Antarctic Survey Bulletin 13 (1967).
Allan Crawford. Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties. Edinburgh: Charles Skilton, 1982.
Rupert Gould. ‘The Auroras, and Other Doubtful Islands.’ In Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.
Charles Hocking. Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam, Including Sailing Ships and Ships of War Lost in Action, 1824-1962. London: London Stamp Exchange, 1989.
Norman Hooke. Maritime casualties, 1963-1996. London: Lloyd’s of London Press, 1997.
D.B. Muller, F.R. Schoeman and E.M. Van Zinderen Bakker Sr. ‘Some notes on a biological reconnaissance of Bouvetøya (Antarctic)’. South African Journal of Science, June 1967.
Henry Stommel. Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from the Nautical Charts. Victoria [BC]: University of British Columbia Pess, 1984.
EM Van Zinderen Bakker. ‘The South African biological and geological survey of the Marion and Prince Edward Islands and the meteorological expedition to Bouvet Island.’ South African Journal of Science 63 (1967).
BP Watkins et al. ‘Scientific research at Bouvet Island, 1785-1983: a bibliography.’ South African Journal of Antarctic Research 25 (1984).
This morning, I woke up to a number of tweets concerning the research on Black Twitter I’ve undertaken with a team of researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. For a run-down on the situation, please see The Root’s coverage. It’s been less than a day, and I am still processing and getting to the bottom of this situation, but I wanted to share my initial response.
Let me start out by clearing a few things up:
1. The project is lead by me, was devised by me, and contributes to my dissertation. There are others involved: my faculty sponsor, Professor Francois Bar, and two other doctoral students, Kevin Driscoll and Alex Leavitt, along with many other undergraduate and masters students who have participated in various ways. Like everyone else, I was surprised to see that my contributions to this project were minimized. This is no fault of my immediate team members. They have advocated my place as the originator of the idea for the research, and supported my position as the first author on all the work we have done. I have not been given a satisfying explanation for how this happened, but trust me, no one was more upset than I was.
2. I did not approve the description of the project that was on the Annenberg Innovation Lab website. It does not fully encapsulate the scale, methods, or full reasoning behind the project.
3. No one is making money. I receive a research assistantship from USC, which in turn receives funding to pay for these scholarships from various foundations, corporations, and other sponsors. But, I am a scholar, and my goal is to create anti-racist research that contributes to Black pedagogy and public life.
4. There are as yet no solidified “results” from this research. It is very much still in progress. This is not an easy topic to study, and I wanted to make every effort to avoid exploitation, inaccuracy, and misrepresentation of Black Twitter itself. I’d hoped to be able to take my time in publishing our findings. I have presented my work as part of a panel of other scholars at the International Communication Association conference earlier this year, and I am in the process of generating a manuscript for publication.
My research grew out of frustration. In academic scholarship the discussion around the representation of Black women in media often focuses on the pervasiveness of racist and sexist stereotypes. What is often left out of the conversation is how Black people actually consume, interpret, and deal with these representations. The way we make meaning from or interpret television is multilayered, complex, and sometimes contradictory. For more on this, see my previous blog post.
One of the places that I observed and participated in public debate about media representations of Black women was on Twitter while watching the show “Scandal.” “Scandal” is the first network television show in nearly 40 years to feature a Black female lead, and it was created by a Black woman. On Thursday nights, when “Scandal” airs, Twitter gets real. Folks who are annoyed by the takeover of the site on Thursdays log off and express annoyance at having to do so. I say, their loss. Twitter functions as a public online forum for us to engage with people we know and don’t know. We often gain a sense of community from that engagement. We argue about Olivia’s love life, and embedded in those arguments is a larger debate about an important issue facing our community–how these representations inform others’ real-world perceptions of us.
In my dissertation research, I wanted to capture some of that experience. I wanted to build an archive of tweets myself, not rely on commercial data analytics companies to build it for me. I believe that this archive represents some of the ways we foster a sense of community, carve out a place to engage with other like-minded folk, advocate for change, and maybe most importantly, a way to build our sense of Black collective identity and politics. It may seem odd that live-tweeting about a television show can be about all of these things, but that really is what I see happening and it is a story that had not yet been told in existing scholarship.
Of course, Black Twitter is about a lot more than entertainment. We started with “Scandal,” but with my team I hoped to develop a methodology that could be used by myself or by other like-minded researchers to understand the full scope of Black Twitter and its capacity to benefit Black public life and articulate our perspectives on the society we live in. Black Twitter is a space for us to be heard, whether we’re discussing a television show, the countless murders, harassment, and assault of Black men and women, or the everyday instances of racism and sexism that we experience, which go ignored and unacknowledged by others. I want to write about it so that my students and future generations are able to read about it. I hope you all read it, too. And give me more critique.
I have been working to get to the bottom of how the misrepresentation of my work happened. I know that no one intentionally tried to do harm, but I am frustrated because this is indicative of the very same problems– erasure of Black people and their contributions– that my project is about. I am awe-struck (but not surprised) by the response from Black Twitter. People are angry, they are hilarious, they give a damn. Even though some are not tweeting in support of me, I count anyone who cares about Black voices and how they are represented as fighting the same battle I am. This has been a very difficult day for me, but it is one that I will continue to think about for the rest of my personal and professional life, one that has offered a story I hope to tell my future students. At the very least, I think I learned more about Black Twitter than I ever could have otherwise. So for that, I am thankful.
Vanessa Grigoriadis—a National Magazine Award-winner who has written dozens of features for New York, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others—is a writer that many of us can envy: Over the years, writing has gotten progressively easier for her. She writes at a freaky-fast pace. And her initial visions for her stories, she says, work out 75 percent of the time. Essentially, a writer’s dream. But Grigoriadis also shares what she finds are the hardest parts of the job and her various quirks (hint: elaborate procrastination), and how, once an aspiring actress, she came to choose writing instead.
I’m sure that you’ve probably answered this question for people so many times, but what’s your backstory, and how did you get to where you are now?
Well, I grew up in Manhattan, and I did a lot of performance arts. So I was a violinist, and I danced a lot. I did a lot of theatre. And I always wrote. I was somebody who read and spoke and all that very early and was kind of precocious in that area. I was an English major at college, but really had no idea what I was going to do. I thought I was going to do something more performance-oriented rather than writing.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Wesleyan. But, after college, I casted around to try to figure out like, what do I do now? I never wrote for the school paper or anything like that. But I had loved Adam Moss’s first magazine, 7 Days, and thought it would be fun to write film reviews. I ended up applying for an internship at New York magazine, which I got and then quit like a day later—which was absurd. And then I bumped into the woman who had hired me on the subway about two months later, and she said, “Oh, well we have a real job that’s open now. Do you want to come in and interview for it?” I ended up getting that job and starting a couple days later.
Oh, wow. What was the entry-level position that you had?
I was an editorial assistant to Michael Hirschorn, who was the executive editor at that time.
So when you were deciding what you were gonna do after college, what made you choose journalism?
When I started working at New York magazine, it was my day job. It was fun, but I didn’t really know that I had any sort of future in it. I would say for the first two or three years, I was pretty ambivalent. But I loved reading New York magazine. We had a physical library where we had copies of every magazine—New York magazine still has quite a large library. But I would have to go and grab copies of different stories for people, and sometimes I would Xerox them and send them to different feature writers who wanted to do research. I would always make a copy for myself. I became very enamored with all of the ‘70s and ‘80s writers in New York magazine and the voices of writers like Tom Wolfe, obviously—people who had such dramatic flair.
That first year I think I read everything of Tom Wolfe and started to try to emulate that. That was when I realized I didn’t really want to write reviews. I didn’t want to be a critic. And I definitely didn’t want to do service journalism, which was the only thing that they were giving me to do—the kinds of the things that were really tedious, but they were part of the job. I liked doing it, but I knew that that wouldn’t be anything challenging enough. And so I started to try to write stories that were in the old voice of the magazine.
At that time, the New York Observer was a very dominant newspaper in town, and George Gurley and Candace Bushnell and all of those people were very influential on my writing—the idea being that you could go and do these silly interviews with people and write funny things about them before the word “snark” existed. We’d publish almost the transcript of what was said, as opposed to now, when everything’s very commentary based. If you really look at those stories, they’re basically Q&As with lots of descriptive sentences thrown in. They’re not really all that molded. They’re free-form and funny—they’re supposed to be funny. They’re very Tom Wolfe. They’re very, “Here are these people; they’re the most important people in the city right now, and we’re having this funny conversation with them where we kind of tweak them a little bit and describe them in all of their surreality.” So they’re supposed to be very documentary-style—just hanging out. I did that, and then when I was 25, I wrote this story that got a lot of attention and then everybody else in town wanted to hire me. The editor of New York magazine at the time was Caroline Miller. She said, “Well, do you want to stay?” And I was like, “I want to be a writer.” I don’t want to be one of these people who have to do the classical music listings and dance listings and have to open all the packages for the book reviewer. I don’t want to be a junior editor. I knew at that point that I didn’t want to be an editor.
So you asked to get off that track?
Right, yeah. I said, “Please, do not make me an editor.” Then I basically have been doing the same thing since then, which is just a ton of longform stories. I think that the content of those stories has changed, or the tone is slightly different, but it’s all basically the same stuff.
How would you say your tone and your style have evolved since then?
I think it is a lot less free-form. I think I’m a very traditional magazine writer at this point, where I understand innately how to structure a story, and I’m not interested in screwing with the form, because ultimately it’s the content that interests me, and that’s what I’m excited about. I enjoy that it’s so easy for me to write articles now, because it just allows me to focus on the content. I’m not one of these people who thinks it’s, like, terrible to start a story like, “On a warm day in September…” It’s fine—start the story that way. Who cares? It’s just a way to get into it, you know?
So many people say that it gets harder, or that it doesn’t ever get any easier. But you feel that writing has gotten easier for you?
I think writing gets easier for me all the time. Well, I think it’s a little harder for me now that I have a child. I can’t go into the zone and push everything away for a few days, which is the way that I used to do my writing. Now I have to do it in a more traditional way of working for several hours a day and then going home and dealing with a baby.
I definitely think that there’s a fine line between somebody who writes really fast and is sloppy and somebody who writes really fast and that energy is doing something good for the story. I have a method where I write a skeletal piece incredibly quickly. And then depending on who I work for—some editors I’ll just send it to them, to show what the piece is going to look like. Other places I’ll keep the skeleton and I’ll put it away for a little bit and then I’ll take it out, and then I’ll start meddling with it, then I’ll start filling it out, slowly going through and fixing the sentences. The skeleton is, “here’s my vision for the story, and I’m going to write it down and just put a million pieces all over the place and work from there.” Sometimes I throw out that whole vision, but that’s relatively rare. I’d say for 75 percent of the stories I write, the structure is exactly the structure that I sat down and started with the first time.
Is that something you envision as you’re reporting? Does it come together throughout that process or does it come together when you sit down to outline?
I have this thing where, as soon as I hear what the ending of the piece will be, I immediately start packing my bags and try to get out of the interview, because that’s it. That’s all I need to know. Yeah, I think about it, but I don’t think about it like, “Where is the beginning?” I’ve done this enough to know like, OK, if it’s a 6,000-word story, I need four scenes of action. Did I get the four scenes? OK I got them. If it’s a 2,500-word story, I only need two or three scenes of action. Did I get them? OK. You can over-report a piece and hurt your piece by over-reporting it. So I’m always a little wary. I used to be really, really into just spending a ton of time with people. And now I’m a little wary of that, because I don’t want too much information. It depends, really, on the complexity of the story. But it can be very hard to organize if you have way too much.
Do you have any quirks in your writing process?
I don’t know if it’s a quirk, but if I feel stuck, if I don’t know what the beginning is, I’ll write something really easy, just to get things started. I do something that is probably not what a lot of journalists do—and is definitely not good for the environment—which is I usually make two files; sometimes I’ll make bigger files, multiple files if it’s a more complicated story. I make one file with all my transcripts and notes in it. And then I make another file with the research in it—and I do crazy amounts of research. Like crazy crazy. I’ll print out both of those files—even if they’re 500 pages—and I go lie down on a couch or a hammock. I’ll spend a whole day reading it, marking off what I want. Sometimes I’ll transfer all those marked sections into a new file, so I’ll have one file of 25 pages of all the stuff I want that I know I’m going to use. Other times I’ll just begin pulling things out of the files and start writing.
Do you generally have like a rigid outline structure, or is it just once you find what you’re looking for—
Um, what’s an outline?
I can’t outline either! It’s good to know I’m not alone.
I will write things down. It’s a form of outlining, I guess. I will take a pen in my hand and be like, “OK, there’s five sections here. Which one’s first and which one’s second? And what do I want to say that’s going this direction?” You know? I definitely have an idea of that, and I will do some outlining. I know a lot of people do, and it’s good to outline. But I don’t feel the need for it, really. I think I kind of know where things are going. I mean my whole focus in writing is just to write really fast. That’s my focus. I procrastinate like an insane person. I do so much research that is totally not necessary. I turn over every stone, reading every blog post that’s echoing a piece of information three other blog posts ago. It’s obscene. And that’s my procrastination, I’ve realized.
But it’s a good form of procrastination.
Yeah, it is. But it’s also getting into the too-much-information area. I mean I can do that for a week. I can do that for two weeks. I can call extra sources. I can go out to lunch with my friends. I can go to yoga, think about it, think about it, think about it. But once I start to write something, I want to finish it immediately. When my fingers hit the keyboard, my objective is to make them stop hitting the keyboard. So I really try to write fast.
How have you trained yourself to do that? That’s amazing to me.
I don’t know. I guess I don’t really like writing that much, because I think that, really, if I had it my way, I would just tell these stories through oral storytelling. I’m really an actress at heart. It is satisfying when the puzzle pieces fit correctly in an article. But I don’t know—it’s so weird. I just really try to write fast. And I think it’s so much better for my writing. When I used to agonize over every sentence and every section, the stories were so much worse. My problem is, if the content is not interesting to me, I don’t want to go back and revise it. So then it becomes this grueling thing, like, “God, I really need to fix this.” It’s this dark cloud hanging over me and it bothers me. It’s always very difficult for me when a story isn’t working, and if it also doesn’t interest me anymore and it isn’t working, that’s very hard for me. I keep on trying to put the story away—I think a lot of writers don’t do this enough. But if you just put a story away for 36 or 72 hours, it almost feels like you’re reading someone else’s work. Suddenly you can see all the things that are wrong that you couldn’t see before. You could put it away for two weeks. That’s even better.
Or a few months if you’re Stephen King.
For example, I had a story this year where we fact-checked it, did everything, it was ready to close, and then the magazine held it. For a month. And then it was like, OK, now it’s the next month, and now we’re ready to close it. The magazine sent the final to me. It was basically all done before, but I hadn’t thought about it at all for a month, and I was like, “Oh my God. I need to change everything.” They were like, “It’s too late!” And I said, “But it needs to be changed. Like, everything needs to be changed!” I do have an editor who often tells me that in the eleventh hour I just make everything worse when I try to go back and change everything around. But I think I’m doing the right thing. That’s the kind of the shitty part about blogging: you have to react immediately. I’m in awe of the really, really good bloggers and people who write very quickly—they’re so talented.
So you’ve done a lot of celebrity profiling. What would you say is the key to a solid celebrity profile?
I think it’s action. I think it’s having scenes. If you can get him to take you somewhere, that’s really the key. Going to do something that isn’t just a pre-prepared, like, “We’re going bowling together because my publicist said we have to”—that’s really the key. I say that this a documentary-style piece a lot, because I think subjects understand that. It’s not like we’re gonna sit in a conference room. And I think just not being intimidated. Madonna’s handler once said to this great celebrity profiler Jancee Dunn, “Whatever you do, don’t be afraid, because she can smell fear like a dog.” That’s kind of true about celebrities: they’re very good at sizing people up. So you have to appear to be unimpressed by their presence, or otherwise it can turn really ugly.
What would you say is your favorite type of writing to do, whether it’s the bigger issues, or culture stories, or maybe celebrity profiling—what do you like doing best?
The story that I did about this Mexican drug lord, La Barbie, was really awesome, because it was investigative and it was also a narrative. And it was also a profile. It was the story of this guy’s life and how he rose to become the highest-ranked American in the Mexican drug cartel. And I learned so much about Mexico and about the way drug cartels work—that was really exciting. That’s what I’m always looking for. I don’t want to write about the same things that I wrote about before. I don’t think that people realize how many of those types of stories I’ve done. They tend to see me as a celebrity profiler because those are the stories that get the attention. Something like that Justin Bieber story, which was a no-access story that I wrote for New York a few months ago, that’s not even really a celebrity profile.
It was like a case study.
It was a cultural essay. Like, a reported cultural essay. Everything I do is a reported this or a reported that. I think I’ve made it pretty clear to editors that I’m not really interested in doing something unreported. I don’t want to write a personal essay. I don’t want to write my thoughts about what’s happening in media today. I pretty much look for characters to develop on-site, reporting-type pieces in order to tell the story. That’s just my personal inclination, really.
What would you say is the hardest story you’ve worked on?
Oh, that Justin Bieber story was hard. Let me think about this…. I would say that, leaving aside the stories that were hard because they didn’t work out—the hardest stories are the ones where it’s just no access and you’re pushing and pushing and getting nowhere. Those are the hardest stories. I wrote a story about Madonna’s situation in Malawi with the school that she funded and the tangle with the Kabbalah center. I just didn’t get very far, and I didn’t really get the real story. That’s really the hardest thing, where you feel you devoted a lot of time to sorting something out and ultimately you can’t get to the heart of it. As journalists, we rarely get to the heart of it, obviously. You know, who knows what we’re getting? We try as hard as we can, but that’s all we can do. I think that’s really a bummer, when you feel that you’ve wasted basically two months of your life doing an investigation, and ultimately you need to write a piece just because you have to—you know, it’s your job. But you don’t feel really good about it. And that’s a piece where I do end up spending a ton of time on the writing, because at the very least I want the writing to be really finessed if the reporting is kind of lacking.
Do you have any techniques you use in your writing that you always return to?
Oh my God, yes. I have the same grab bag of tricks each time, pretty much. It’s all about the details and grabbing those details, either on site with the subject or going back later and asking, what color is this? That’s one thing. I think it’s pretty clear that with good writing and particularly good articles, you identify a theme, and then you turn that theme up and down and around until you arrive at a different place than you were at the beginning. The easiest way to do that is with repetition. Any time I see somebody use the same word more than twice in an interview, I become interested in that word.
Like for a thematic purpose?
For a thematic purpose, exactly. And I’d hate to harp on this point, but I really want to say that my trick is just to do it really fast. I think that, for young writers, that is the number one lesson. It took me so long to learn.
Oh my God, I can’t do that. I’ve gotten slower over the years, actually. It’s terrible.
I wasted so much time in my twenties, so many Saturday afternoons, worrying about this sentence, rewriting it. You sort of just rewrite the life right out of the sentence. I think that, if you write really fast, you have something to work from. I’m not saying it’s done. Although I mean, I will admit, I started writing a story this morning, and I’m desperate to finish it. Like as soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m going to see how late I can stay up to finish this thing. I do not want to wake up in the morning and think about it again—but I honestly don’t know if that’s gonna happen because my schedule got a little screwed up. I know that columnists tend to work this way too, where they procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate.
And then they have to write something.
Yeah, vomit out the thing. But I think that even if you don’t want to turn the story into an editor right away, it’s a really good exercise to just try giving yourself an hour to write 500 words, then make sure that they connect with the next 500 words.
I’ll have to try that. So lastly, who are your influences? What are you reading?
Well, I love all the writers at The New Yorker. Ariel Levy and Dana Goodyear. I like Michael Specter’s work a lot. I love Lawrence Wright’s work a lot. I really love Lawrence Wright’s work. I like Lisa Miller at New York magazine, and Janet Reitman at Rolling Stone. Ben Wallace I think has done some really good stories this year. Jessica Pressler—I think she’s a phenomenal writer. She’s so hilarious.
I can’t get over her tone.
Yeah. And then Erik Hedegaard is this writer at Rolling Stone that I love. He’s hilarious. He does a lot of celebrity profiles. I really like Bryan Burrough at Vanity Fair, and Suzanna Andrews, all of those hardcore, investigative writers with serious writing chops I think are inspiring. That cohort of people who I imagine to be my colleagues are my primary influences, really.
Well I’ll have to let you get back to writing this piece so you can quickly crank it out.
See an early Beyond The New Yorker post on Grigoriadis’ “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” here.
While I’m on a roll of ranting about things that piss me off, here’s another one: the recent trend of blaming the lack of plus size clothing options on the supposed buying habits of plus size customers. This piece in TIME, and this one on Fashionista are two examples, and they make me so viscerally angry that it’s hard to respond articulately–but I’ll try.
“[R]eal change for plus-size fashion will come when customers make more conscious purchasing decisions,” claims the TIME piece. Hahahahaha, no. Real change will come when companies realize that fat women are people and start making clothes in our size. It’s kind of ridiculous to insist that fat women’s shopping choices must be the issue, when our whole problem is that we don’t have enough options to choose from in the first place.
In the Fashionista article, a blogger named Sarah Conley claims that plus size women are unwilling to buy higher-priced items. I’ve seen this claim so many times, and it annoys the shit out of me for a bunch of reasons:
1.) How can retailers know that plus size women won’t buy higher-priced items if they almost never offer them? It’s like giving a group of people a choice between peanut butter sandwiches and spaghetti with meatballs, and then claiming that group has no interest in filet mignon.
2.) Plus size clothing already tends to cost more than straight size clothing. Women who wear straight sizes may be more likely to invest in the occasional expensive, high-quality statement piece because they can get the rest of their wardrobe cheaply; women who wear plus sizes have far fewer truly cheap options. A lot of plus size clothing (I’m looking at you, Torrid) is both pricey and low-quality. And most stores that sell both straight and plus sizes charge more for the latter, even though the cost of the extra fabric is negligible.
In addition, plus size women often have to pay more to find bras in our size. I’m lucky that the Playtex 18-hour bra fits me comfortably and is super-cheap on Amazon, but most fat women I know spend ridiculous amounts of money to get bras that fit, while big-box stores and department stores are full of cute, cheap bras in smaller sizes.
3.) Fat people, especially fat women, face workplace discrimination–so we make less money and therefore have less to spend in the first place.
4.) Even if it’s true that fat women genuinely have no interest in high-end designer pieces, that doesn’t explain the lack of affordable options in our size range.
Further down in the article, Conley huffs that “many women are spending money on cheaper things that they don’t necessarily like just because they’re available in their size rather than waiting to spend more money on a few special pieces they really love. “
What are we supposed to do while we wait–walk around naked? Most fat women don’t have the luxury of waiting around for the perfect, high-quality piece–we need clothing right now for work, or to wear to a friend’s wedding, or to work out in.
She mentions tailoring as an option that more plus size women should take. Although I’m pro-tailoring, I think it’s ridiculous to expect that all fat women should do it rather than, you know, ask for clothing that fits us in the first place. Why should we have to put in the extra time, money, and energy to get our clothes tailored when straight size women can walk into almost any store and find clothing that fits them?
That brings me to another factor that always gets left out in these victim-blaming discussions: the extremely limited availability of brick-and-mortar plus size options. While the online options for plus size clothing have expanded dramatically in the last few years (and I will be the first person to celebrate that with balloons, confetti, and cupcakes), our options for in-person shopping remain–pun intended–slim.
As a woman who usually wears a size 22, I’ve pretty much given up on in-person shopping except for thrift stores, because there are so few stores in the Boston area that carry my size. I’m lucky that I can find clothing that fits me online relatively easily–I know what shapes and sizes tend to fit me, and as long as I stick with them, I don’t have to return many of my purchases. But for a lot of women, online shopping is an exercise in frustration that involves returning almost everything they buy. And then there’s the cost of shipping and returns, which is prohibitive for many women, and just annoying for others.
An anonymous blogger quoted in the Fashionista piece complains that plus size fashion “[has] become such an angry section of fashion,” as if fat women are just irrationally mad. It’s not like we face discrimination and harassment for our size, find few representations of ourselves in the media, and pay extra in both time and effort for the limited, lower-quality clothing options we do have, or anything…no, we’re just whiners who refuse to be grateful for whatever crumbs the fashion industry throws our way.
The lack of plus size clothing options is a direct result of society-wide fat-phobia, full stop. It’s not the fault of fat women, whatever our buying habits.
I recently started watching the new TV series Outlander, based on the popular books by Diana Gabaldon. I have never read the books. The series sounded like something I might enjoy, about a woman who time-travels to 18th Century Scotland. After watching two episodes, I’m already done with it. I see people raving about the […]
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