Friday, 14 July 2017

Public Poverty

Needing to fix a shelf to the wall, I dug out my cordless drill from the toolbox, only to find that the battery would no longer take a charge. The drill is so old that replacement parts are not available but, even if they were, I would have been unable to resist buying the nifty new drill I already had my eye on. At the almost disposable price of twenty quid, it comes complete with a little LED spotlight and a tiny, lithium-ion battery – the same technology as is deployed by Elon Musk in his electric cars and (on a much larger scale) the back-up system he is about to build for the South Australia power grid. Elon Musk appears to belong to a rare breed of billionaires who want to save the planet.
I am so pleased with the new drill that, with the zeal of a demented hobbyist, I have been seeking more home-improvement projects. Meanwhile, I had to dispose of the old drill and, although I felt guilty about the eco-ethics of throwing it in the bin, where else was it to go? The bin-store is in the narrow street behind our block where, three weeks ago, a cavity opened in the Victorian-era road. The Council came and put a plastic fence around it but have not been back since. I was inspecting the cavity to gauge whether it had deepened, when a scruffy-looking old bloke shambled up to me and we had a brief exchange. When I told him the Council had informed me that they were short of funds for road repairs, he launched into a ranting exposé of Council corruption, which included allegations of the misappropriation of £50 million of National Lottery funds, the Tory conspiracy to impoverish us all and a lot of other stuff that was, frankly, unintelligible. Perhaps he had evidence to back up his case, however I was not inclined to engage him for fear of being stuck there for hours in the company of someone who might have been an erudite but eccentric specialist on the subject, but looked more like a fanatical conspiracy theorist with a grudge. I uttered a polite platitude and he shuffled off, scanning the pavement for cigarette butts. Later, however, I had cause to ponder his point of view.
I was at the Town Hall, a Grade 1 listed building in the “fabulously gothic” style. I went there to listen to a piece of recorded music, one of several site-specific compositions commissioned as part of the Manchester International Festival. The music is ambient and plays throughout the vaulted, lavishly-ornamented corridors. It’s a short piece, but atmospheric and long enough to cause the listener to linger and marvel at the architecture, the like of which will never be built again. I got aesthetic pleasure from the experience, but the man I had encountered earlier would surely have objected to the allocation of public funds to such frivolity and pointed out that The Council has a statutory duty to repair roads, not fund art installations.
Actually, the shortage of funding in local government is affecting much more than minor road maintenance: environmental degradation on a larger scale looms with the neglect and in some cases selling-off of parks. Extrapolated to a global scale, there is news that the Brazilian Government has withdrawn so much funding for the agency that protects its rainforest that deforestation is again in full swing. Whereas the USA’s Republicans have publicly trashed the notion of ecological responsibility in their determination to transpose democracy into plutocracy, the Brazilian Government is not so brazen: apparently, it pays lip service to conservation while favouring the big business lobby.
It remains to be seen whether the band of billionaires who benefit from such politics will act philanthropically to save the planet; or whether developing technology can or will be deployed to the same end. Meanwhile Elon Musk appears to be hedging his bets: he has a plan to colonise Mars as a retreat from ruined Earth and is already selling places to those who can afford them.


  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Disrupting Classes

This year’s opening event of the Manchester International Festival was one in which professional performers played no part. Instead, the spotlight was on a selection of citizens from various walks of life, strutting their stuff, one-by-one, along a raised catwalk, while information about them was projected onto huge screens. It was an open-air event, free to view and therefore socially inclusive in all respects. The participants – whether established, public figures or homeless individuals struggling to put a life together – all got a cheer from the crowd, simply for being who they were. The genius of the event lay in its egalitarian intention: nobody was presented as more special than anyone else.
When they all left that stage, however, the reality of social inequality would surely re-establish itself. The homeless man would still be homeless, the recovering addict would revert to spending her days seeking support from diminished social services and the well-paid professional would still be well-paid and professional. So was this a performance, or was it another of those political expressions for which the city has been notorious ever since Queen Victoria declared it a hotbed of troublesome anti-establishment activists? I hope it was the latter. For, despite the earnest wish harboured by so many for integration, society persists as a collection of bubbles bumping in to one another.
It was interesting to see this in another context: the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, which features the works of Otto Dix and the photographer August Sander, both of whom made images of their contemporaries in the various social strata. Sander’s approach took was to show his subjects in the specific context of their social standing and occupations. There were, for example, tradesmen standing proudly in their work-wear and doctors, sombre-looking, moustachioed gents, trussed up in three-piece tweed suits to indicate their gravitas and high standing in the middle classes. Sander’s body of work reveals a Western European social model that still exists, in essence.
However, as the mighty Bob revealed as far back as 1968, “the times they are a’changing” and a project such as Sander’s, if it were to be attempted today, would turn up some very different images. At the local Health Centre last week, the doctor who saw me was a very young woman of African descent, friendly, personable, and impeccably middle-class-English in her manner. (I assume she is also a capable doctor, though her skills were not stretched on this occasion.) In encountering her, I was delighted to see some evidence of social mobility that was perhaps unthinkable a generation ago.
Nevertheless, those who aspire to upward social mobility face challenges that they may not have factored in to their plans: the profession of doctor is just one of many that are losing ground in terms of prestige and consequent earning-power because of the rise of computing power and the development of robotics. Anecdotally, a friend told me that a surgeon had advised him to postpone proposed knee surgery for a few years until the procedure has been programmed in to a robot. The outcome of such a delicate operation should not be entrusted to an unreliable human unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, the writing is on the wall for GPs in respect of their diagnostic function: an individual doctor will have a limited amount of knowledge at their disposal, whereas a robot could, theoretically, have all of human knowledge available within seconds, thereby making diagnosis more of a science and less of a guessing game.
As artificial intelligence becomes more widely available, the currency of knowledge, as banked by specialists, will devalue, while qualities such as humanity and compassion will attract a premium: perhaps that is when we will see big pay rises for nurses and carers.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Photographic Memory

This past week has been tinged with nostalgia (an insinuatingly pervasive condition), though I’m not sure it was that or fear-of-missing-out that induced me to tune in to Glastonbury on the TV. It certainly wasn’t the acts themselves, none of which is on my list of favourites, past or present. I sampled the Foo Fighters, but ten minutes of the singer’s unintelligible screaming was all I could endure. I tried again, with Ed Sheeran and, although he accomplished a lot more with a lot less, even his talent turned tedious after half an hour. Maybe you have to be there to get it. In any case, the music belongs to a younger generation – and one that likes to capture everything on phones.
Shunning the TV I went to a live gig more attuned to my vintage – the Steely Dan copy-band called Nearly Dan, which is pleasingly faithful to the original, especially when you close your eyes. The audience comprised enthusiastic, mature fans, most of whom were able to remain standing, at least until the interval. However, a younger chap immediately in front of me hoisted a phone above his head and proceeded to film the act. After a while, I objected that he was blocking my view and distracting me from the performance. He desisted without protest and, soon afterwards, slunk off elsewhere, but what had he hoped to gain by recording thus?
Now that everyone has a video recorder in their pocket, filming is no longer the exclusive realm of professionals: the next day, at the cinema, I watched a ‘film’ which, apart from one short sequence, was shot entirely on phones – and not very well, at that. It was Andrew Kotting’s Edith Walks, an unscripted, unstructured video-journal of him and a few friends walking, in fancy dress, from Waltham Abbey, where some of King Harold’s body-parts are said to be interred, to St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a statue of Harold dying in the embrace of his wife/lover, Edith Swan-Neck. I could have done that, I thought, (except that I didn’t) and if Kotting can persuade people to pay to see his videos in cinemas, as opposed to airing them on YouTube, perhaps there are commercial opportunities awaiting swathes of hibernating content embedded in billions of SD cards around the world. Maybe there will be a release soon of Nearly Dan Live: Uncut and Rudely Interrupted.
I tried once more with Glastonbury but the music interested me much less than the presence of contemporaries – celebrities such as John Snow and Jeremy Corbyn – men who might be expected not to share the musical taste of their children and grandchildren. But they may have attended for other reasons: Glastonbury is not an exclusively musical event whereas (cue nostalgia) Woodstock and the Isle of Wight most certainly were. It was at the end of August 1969 that I took the ferry from Portsmouth to join 150,000 other music fans on the IOW. A major draw, for me, was Bob Dylan who, until then, had been missing-rumoured-dead following a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, he re-surfaced and chose to play IOW rather than Woodstock. (I know all this now because of the internet: at the time I was clueless.) I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix and Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well but, thanks again to the internet, I know that they weren’t there until the following year – which is strange because I don’t recall going then.
My presence in 1969, however, is not in doubt. I was the only one of my crew who possessed a camera and, among the few shots I took (they were expensive, remember), there is one of the distant stage and, with the aid of a magnifying glass, you can make out 2nd Isle of Wight Festival of Music 1969 written on the proscenium arch. I must have run out of film at the 1970 Festival.