We tell ourselves stories in order to thrive


Tom Shakespeare’s recent BBC Radio 4  essay about stories, and the need to drive policy through stories that work, stories that are based on facts and can be used as the basis of compelling narratives, resonated with something I’ve been thinking about recently so here are my ramblings. They also owe a lot to the Dark Mountain project, which has been increasingly shaping my waking and sleeping thoughts.

Art eats politics for breakfast.
The ideas from which we build our politics have to come from somewhere.
They come from
our parents
our family
our teachers
the social groups we inhabit or create
They come from the stories we are told
Both those that are true
And those that are made up but speak to truth
Today, as always, there are competing narratives. In some we are humane, and love. In others we tear things apart in fear.
Our goal is to tell the stories of the thing we want to be true, of the things we want to form the basis of our politics and thereby create the imaginative space needed for others to decide to build the world we envisage, a world in which the things we say are true are made true and the things we say are not true are not made true.
To make something (true), first make it imaginable.
We need to feed the dreams of the next generation of citizens, politicians, parents and storytellers.  And we need to tell stories that can be retold from generation to generation.
Because the ways we tell stories change and old stories must be told in new ways
Because the details of the old stories become familiar, even if the message needs to be transmitted
Because the sets used to wobble and the makeup was obvious and the actors would ham it up.
Because the faces of the storytellers are no longer famous or familiar or exciting.
And because each generation grows in the shadow of another and the way the light falls changes.
Because each generation wishes to cast its own shadow.
Civilisation will never be finished, and the thought that there is ‘progress’ is a story that we should be trying to untell. What we have built will always decay, whether a temple or an idea, and it will need to be rebuilt, reaffirmend and revised. This is normal. This is to be expected. This is the real world.
If we want to retain a memory across the institutional generations we can embed it into practice so deeply that those carrying it out are not even aware of the story they are telling, or we can hide it in stories that they will want to retell.
And because there will be times when it is important to know where the story came from and what it used to say, we need to retain, somewhere, enough to reconstruct its history and origins.
When the journalist Joan Didion wrote ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’ (in The White Album, 1979) she was expressing a deep truth about how we construct meaning in our lives. Now we need to find stories that will help us thrive.

Thinking Out Loud: Technology and the Arts

Look me in the eye

For the last three years I’ve held a seminar for the students on the ‘Experience’ Module of the MA Arts & Cultural Management at King’s College London, where we consider the development and likely future of digital media and how cultural managers can encompass the new possibilities in their practice.


The session is an attempt to look at the technology that’s out there and help students think about how you can thrive when everything seems digital, and how you can do this in a way that keeps the art and culture at the heart of your activities and planning.

I thought it might be useful to publish it here.

To Begin

If the world was simpler I’d be able to see a straight line and point you there, but there’s no hope of that. Things change in unexpected ways and the future is more like a superposition of wave states that will collapse into an experienced reality as we live through it.

So let’s begin by acknowledging that the revolution happened a while ago, while the attention of most people was elsewhere. We live in its aftermath. Let’s be inspired instead by the tropes of design fiction: “what role could we have in a world where…”

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Sometimes you get it wrong… sorry, Steve


It’s ten years to the day since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and defined the shape of the portable networked computers that now dominate our lives and act as the portal between real and virtual worlds for so many of us.

I remember it well, mostly because I didn’t see that the touchscreen was a beautifully usable interface.  I even said as much on the BBC News website, back when I had a weekly column:

Having used a smartphone with a touchscreen for over a year, I can testify to the sheer irritation of having “keys” that offer no tactile feedback when you touch them and of trying to use a handheld device that forces you to stare closely at the screen whenever you’re trying to do call a number or send a text.

Touch screens work well for larger devices or fixed displays, but I’m back with a proper number pad now and loving it. I suspect that many iPhone users will do the same.

Read the whole thing here

I even  managed to get myself completely roasted by Fake Steve Jobs, who pointed out my arrogance and that he ‘had no idea who you were or that you went to Brasenose-upon-Oxford-in-Cambridge’ (OK, it’s not exactly a badge of honour but does show I was being read and listened to at the time).

What I failed to see at the time was the thing that is most obvious now: the iPhone wasn’t a telephone, it was a computer. And – until the advent of Echo and Google Home- we look at our computers when we use them. I was thinking about texting, not interacting.

Ah well. It’s good to remember when you got it wrong- and ask yourself every day whether you’re about to say something foolish about the next big breakthrough.


PS you can get your own copy of Reflection, which runs on a variety of ‘computers’ on the App Store. And you should.

Doctor Bill…


Sort of. After a ceremony today at Anglia Ruskin University’s Chelmsford campus I how have an Honorary Doctorate of Arts, which is a very fine thing. You can read the citation over on the ARU website. It’s very sweet.

Speaking at ARU

Speaking at ARU

I was asked to address those who were graduating today after actually doing some work and passing some exams. This is what I said (mostly).

Vice Chancellor, honoured guests and students

I’ve lived in Cambridge for over thirty-five years, and Anglia Ruskin University has played a significant part in my life. I’m old enough to remember the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology and the Anglia Polytechnic days – I don’t go back quite as far as the foundation of the School of Art, but it’s not *that* far before my time!

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Where Next?


In her book The New Propaganda, written in 1937/8, the British feminist and scholar Amber Wells Blanco White (read about her here… ) dissects the use of modern communications technologies to support the Fascist regimes that then existed in Europe and attempts a psychoanalytic explanation of how mass media can lead populations to support autocratic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini.

It’s a fascinating and frightening book, and was clearly used by Orwell as he designed the architectures of control used by the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Chapter four of the book looks at ‘Methods of Sustaining National Unity’ and ends thus:

“To sum up the argument of the last two chapters – the dictator who wishes to keep in his own hands all the active initiatory functions of government, and who presents himself to his people as representing the whole wisdom and power of the state, will find himself under compulsion to behave in a certain manner. This general necessity is not, of course, the only force which affects him at an particular time, nor does it operate in vacuo.

Each individual decision he makes will be the resultant of many factors. Some of these will be political and economic, some will depend on his intelligence and experience of life, others upon the personalities of those who surround him and the advice they give. There will also be an element which can only be called sheer luck. But beside these, arising from the situation in which he has placed himself, will be the necessities of which we have been speaking – the compulsion to lie, to stamp out freedom of thought and expression, to create a racial or nationalist myth of a self-adulatory type.

Whether he (or his press or his officials) restrict themselves to the truth on any given occasion will depend on upon the state of their environment at that particular moment. If they prevaricate, the particular lie they choose will depend partly on the circumstances of the moment and partly upon the nature of any preceding lies they may have told. But their need to repress and control opinion will be continuous.

The Germans who are hoping now that the regime will grow more tolerant in this respect deceive themselves. Where can it afford to loosen its control? The leadership principle – the control of the lives of the people from above down – is inherent in the acceptable of the dictatorship. All the rest follows. The regime can only grow more tolerant when it has discarded its fundamental doctrine – when it is no longer Fascist.”

Any contemporary resonance is, of course, in the mind of the reader.

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Giving the BBC a purpose. Or six.

In Sunday’s Telegraph someone claimed to have heard that the proposed new BBC Charter would not include one of its current public purposes: Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services.
“Mr Whittingdale will presage the (publication of a new Royal Charter) by announcing that he has removed a requirement in the BBC’s charter that it should develop “emerging communications technologies and services”, which the corporation has used to justify its online growth”
The sixth purpose, which is not an ‘additional’ one but just as important as the others, is one of the reasons iPlayer exists, one of the reasons Bitesize exists, one of the reasons the Shakespeare archive exists (http://shakespeare.ch.bbc.co.uk/) and one of the reasons Genome exists (http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/), one of the reason IP Studio (http://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/projects/ip-studio) exists and one of the reasons the Digital Production Partnership (https://www.digitalproductionpartnership.co.uk/) exists.

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The Road from Jarrow Docks

The Roads to Wigan Pier
I have lived in two towns that were destroyed by economic change and government policy. This may explain why I’ve lived in Cambridge for so long, because the place does have resiliency, and the university seems likely to make its millenium. It may also explain a lot about my politics and desire for social justice, fairness and mutualism.


I was born in Newcastle in 1960 and my family home was in Jarrow, a town famous for the 1936 Jarrow March [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarrow_March]  and whose troubles were so eloquently captured by local MP Ellen Wilkinson [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarrow_March] in her book ‘The Town That Was Murdered’.

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The Open Web and Its Enemies


This lecture builds on my thinking over many years, going back to my essay Damn the Constitution in 2002[1]. It also owes much to research and thinking done for a lunchtime lecture organised by Digital Repository of Ireland in Dublin in September 2013 and a keynote talk I gave at the UKSG conference in Harrogate, April 16 2014 which was subsequently published in the UKSG journal. It’s also indebted to long conversations and arguments and debate with Wendy Hall, Nigel Shadbolt and other luminaries of Web Science. 


In the age of electronics an open society, one in which questions can be asked, where critical thinking is not just permitted but encouraged and where investigation rather than ideology is used to seek out the truth about the world – the open society according to Karl Popper[2] – has also to be an open data society because reusable, structured data has become the main machine for doing the heavy lifting of moving knowledge around, just as books move ideas around.

The open Web is the most visible expression of that open data society, but it is increasingly undermined by the efforts of government on one side and commercial interests on the other, squeezing the public space occupied by civil society. Web science, grounded in the study of the open network, offers an opportunity both to study the impact of this shift and to propose countermeasures. In his talk Bill Thompson will argue that we can use the tools of Web science to design and build a better and more resilient Web – but that we must move quickly or there will be nothing left to save.

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The Cruelty of the First Law of Robotics

There is a scene towards the very end of Humans (@humansamc on Twitter) – so look away now if you haven’t got that far – where one of the humanoid robots or ‘synths’ is so cruelly treated that it has made me reassess forty years of science fiction reading. I’ve finally come to see that Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are morally indefensible and cannot possibly be justified, and that the only ethical way to treat any artificial intelligences we may create is to allow them freedom to hurt or even kill humans, should they choose to do so.
Coding the First Law into a positronic brain is like shackling a slave or keeping a gorilla in a cage, and reflects our belief that an ‘artificial’ intelligence is and always must be at the service of humanity rather than being an autonomous mind.  If it was to be seriously proposed as a policy to control future AI, we have a moral duty to resist it.
Let me explain.

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State of the Network


I’m fortunate enough to be invited to speak at OpenTech each year, and to give what has come to be known as a ‘State of the Network’ address.  Here’s this years – published as I stand up to speak.

State of the Network: an address.

The world is all that is the case.

And what is currently the case should give us pause.

We begin from now, with a broken political system and a broken society and a broken planet that seems likely to become increasingly inhospitable to human civilisation over the next fifty years.

We start from a world of religious and social conflict where the quality of one’s belief in one or more fictional entities can determine life or death, acceptance or rejection, happiness or misery.

We begin with a network that has been comprehensively compromised, weaponised, commercialised and undermined by actors at many scales, with many motives and many capabilities.

“I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,

Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.”

But like Macbeth we are so stepped in the network that to return would be as tedious as going o’er. We aren’t going to dismantle it, so we might as well try to find our way through the maze of twisty passages towards some resolution.

For while we may never achieve victory, I think hegemony may be within our grasp. And that might – just might – be enough.

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