Back to the Future

When Rome teetered on the brink of democratic collapse in the first century BCE, as it prepared – unknowingly – to move from a form of notional democracy to imperial rule, three men came together to save the ever-expanding city state and advance their political careers.

Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus – the swashbuckler, the strategist, and the finance guy – effectively took power under emergency measures. Known collectively as the First Triumvirate, they made mistakes along the way, and were all – eventually – stabbed in either the front or the back.

And as we live today in extraordinary, turbulent times, I’m certain that the classicists’ classicist Mary Beard will be along with a BBC series to draw parallels soon.

There are two troubles with classical references and analogies, from both history and mythology.

The first is that two societies, 2,000 years apart, separated by the Dark Ages, Medieval Times, the Renaissance, and the four revolutions – from agricultural to industrial, technological to digital – are just quite literally incomparable.

The second is down to the current – at time of writing – incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister Cummings – sorry Johnson – has a long track record of using classical allusions to spice up but ultimately bamboozle his public with his application of erudition. Most recently, he compared himself to Prometheus, the demi-god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, but was punished for eternity by being lashed to a rock and having his liver pecked out by vultures.

That was Johnson’s recent analogy for Brexit, and while our Small Data Forum Podcast Triumvirate know how he feels – after all, we’ve been talking about issues raised by the Brexit for most of our 29 episodes, starting in those halcyon, pre-referendum days of May 2016 – we may have had enough of the classics already.

Before this new episode of the podcast, our last collective outing was back in June. And while we’re sorry that the busyness of business and life in general has prevented us from getting together since then, our unacceptable 15-week absence has had one upside. Our passionate and committed listenership has started to lose patience with our not publishing new episodes, getting in touch via email, social media, IRL – all the channels – to ask when on earth we’re coming back and have we all become Trappist monks.

Well, we collectively take that as a positive – an indication of demand – and while we pledge not to repeat such a prolonged silence in future, we thank you for your concern about our wellbeing, CP, CPR, GC and all.

You might have thought, nearly 30 episodes in, that we’d have mastered technology. Our recordings usually sound pretty crisp and clear, right? Even those recorded in and around our Christmas and Summer get-togethers at Olivelli Restaurant in Waterloo, South London, though they tend to have a little more background noise than usual.

Well, for episode 29 we may – for the first 17 minutes at least – sound like we’re trapped down a well. For despite the best efforts – and boy are they good – of podcast Mixmaster @jangles, one of the SDF Triumvirate neglected to hit record on his local machine, so Neville has had to work some magic that the other two of us don’t understand.

And while we have been away for an unacceptably long time, what – if anything – has really changed?

Sing Along As Before?

The past three-plus months have been a periods of incredible turmoil and disruption, in the UK and the US, in politics, business, and public life, in data big and small. Facebook’s been in trouble again. It is under pressure from the world’s most powerful Governments NOT to encrypt content and communication on its Messenger and Instagram platforms for fear this action may make it harder to stop and catch both terrorists and paedophiles.

Britain has a new Prime Minister and a new strategy on Brexit, directed by LeaveEU’s Dominic Cummings, dubbed #ClassicDom by The Guardian’s John Crace; #ClassicCrace.

Despite the intervention of Parliament passing new laws to make a no-deal Brexit illegal, despite the Johnson regime being deemed to have acted illegally in proroguing Parliament and hoodwinking the Queen by the UK Supreme Court (Johnson lost 11-0), the PM repeatedly pledges that Britain will leave the EU by Hallowe’en, “Do or die”.

Cummings is many things, but one thing he’s exceptionally good at is distilling complex issues into simple, three-word soundbites and then having his front men repeat them ad nauseum. “Do or die”, “Take back control”, “£350m to NHS”, “Get Brexit Done”.

Meanwhile, the threat of impeachment hangs heavy over the U.S. Presidency, with @POTUS45’s behaviour increasingly erratic. Witness his using a press conference with the Finnish Prime Minister last week to appeal to the Chinese Government to investigate the business affairs of the son of Joe Biden, his rival for the White House in 2020. Here’s a synopsis, though do bear in mind it comes from “fake news” outlet CNN.

So has anything changed, or are we stuck on a permanent loop of Thomas’ favourite Del Amitri song and its refrain: “The needle returns to the start of the song, and we all sing along like before”?

For Neville, we are living in what the tech industry calls FUD: Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, what Thomas – and others – call VUCA times, characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.


Some of that complexity and ambiguity has been untangled recently by the excellent Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, with a starring role for former Cambridge Analytica consultant, Brittany Kaiser. We agree that Kaiser – clearly under significant historical and recent psychological distress – gave the impression of a social media gun for hire who’d have been just as happy working on the Fyre Festival as she would Leave EU.

The Great Hack’s data visualisations – of data peeling off people and floating into the aether, to be captured by businesses and monetised – is beautifully visualised in the film – if perhaps rather too often. The producers clearly invested a lot in the technology and got their money’s worth.

Some of the motivations for the proponents and supporters of Brexit – making billions (up to £8bn) by hedging bets if Britain does crash out with no deal – have been highlighted in a recent article in the Byline Times. And from a perhaps unlikely source, Neville recommends all those feeling FUDed and VUCAed within an inch of their lives to read Buzz Feed’s trenchant and incisive analysis, headlined “Just the latest Brexit shenanigans, explained for people who need to know”.

Thomas finds enlightenment from three sources: (1) An interview with Dr José van Dijck, author of an important new book The Platform Society on the Social Media Politics podcast, (2) The 2019 Salzburg Media Academy, in which he participated, and (3) German YouTuber and music producer Rezo, whose hour-long, blistering attack on the harm done by the country’s conservative alliance, which caught fire and garnered millions of unexpected views, comments, and support. Where is the UK’s Rezo, Thomas wonders?

The Watchword is Trust

The fundamental issue of the uses and abuses of data big and small – in politics, business, and public life – is trust. Sam reports the findings of a 20-market, cross-cultural study from Ipsos MORI on trust in professions. It found that advertising executives were even less trusted that Government ministers and “politicians generally”, with fewer than one in ten trusting modern-day madmen and women.

This means that the industry charged with enhancing the reputation and esteem of the world’s brands has the lowest reputation and esteem of all the world’s businesses. Delicious irony.

This can’t just be because of campaigns like the UK Government’s “Get ready for Brexit”, notwithstanding the shot in the arm for advertising and guerrilla marketing being made by the crowd-funded Led by Donkeys.

The lack of trust is surely also down to the uses and abuses of data made by the data, media, platform, and advertising businesses who have helped to turn the internet from an ideas engine into an advertising-first medium. For another new survey by Dentsu Aegis shows that: just 45% of consumers trust organisations to protect the data they share with them, 80% would stop doing business with organisations that misuse their data, and 84% believe their personal data is insecure. Neville highlights related findings from a separate MORI poll on attitudes to the internet of things.

But perhaps there is space for one more classical reference. After all, a third of the Small Data Forum Triumvirate was – at least in the last millennium – a classicist himself (something, incidentally, that Johnson never was).

With Neville feeling a great sense of flux – as we head towards either a brick wall, a cliff edge, or some utopian uplands maybe – Sam reminds us of two of philosopher Heraclitus’ enduring observations on the world. The first is that you can never step into the same river twice. And the second that everything is always in flux – “everything flows, and nothing remains the same”: τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.

Neville wonders whether the flux might be the flux in the flux capacitor, and Sam observes we do appear to have Biff as President, which makes us all wonder whether we have, in the past 15 weeks, simply returned Back to the Future.

We’ll be back once more – recording at least – on 1 November, the first day according to Johnson that Britain will have left the European Union. We’ll see, Biros, we’ll see.

Listen to Episode 29

One Reply to “Back to the Future”

  1. A lovely episode once again! Shortly after you recorded it, the Shell Youth Study 2019 came out and, if you will, seems to confirm a lot of what you are talking about. Our youngers are less optimistic than they were in 2015, thus, stalling the trend of increasing optimism observed since 2006. Noteworthy that young people from the socially weakest strata have become more optimistic about their own future, while those of the upper and middle class are less optimistic. Let´s see which associations you guys will draw with the study´s findings with regards to young people´s political interest etc.
    Meanwhile, here in Germany, we try to find some distraction from these untrustworthy politicians and their nasty games. One of the things the public engages in lively discussions on is whether Mr. Altmeir´s motion for a space hub on German ground is a good idea or not. I am clearly pro. We are not going to build one in less than ten years, so we´ll still need Baikunur to send Nigel Farrage to the moon, but we might be on time to offer one-way tickets to a bunch of emerging idiots. Maybe that helps to restore optimism among our politically interested youth.

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