Back in the grey drizzle of a late March Friday morning in the UK, the three Podnosticators of the SmallDataForum convene to take another sideways look at ‘events, dear boy, events’ (something Harold Macmillan apparently never said).
During the Matrix Churchill affair – a conflict of interest and bit of political skulduggery so tepid compared with what’s happened in the intervening 20 years – the Tory MP Alan Clark conceded that he had been “economical with the actualité” in answer to Parliamentary questions.
Lying about arms export licences to Iraq seems almost innocent compared to the stodge we’re served up daily by our demagogic masters in the fibbing 2020s. Even if Clark was branded by his wife as a “total Ess-Aitch-One-Tee” in a puff-piece documentary in the 1990s, not least for his endless affairs that were satirised by Private Eye as “discussions about Uganda”.
We start our examination of the uses and abuses of data big and small with a focus on politics in the latest outing of the Small Data Forum podcast, episode 47.
Sam is inspired by the writing and the message in comedian Stewart Lee’s tragedy vehicle, his weekly Observer byline. In a recent column picking through the ashes of Labour’s shambolic performance in British local elections, Lee takes aim at Prime Minister Johnson’s record as one of the worst – and most transparent – liars in British political history.
“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” (Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, p. 64)
What would Monsieur le Professeur Le Bon make of the fact that his 1895 masterpiece The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind is as timely and relevant today as it was then?
Written under the influence of his experience of the Paris Commune, the civil war between Paris and the rest of France which killed thousands and saw the burning of Tuileries Palace on 25th May 1871, some 150 years before the storming of the Capitol on 6th January 2021 (see this remarkable report from the Guardian archive), he was wary of “our savage destructive instincts” and the “cowardly ferocity” of crowds.
He should have come and watched a match at the New Den pre-lockdown.
Of course, the first SDF convention of 2021 (the sixth year of our chatventure, no less) on Friday 15th – still a Zoom affair, plus ça change – had a lot to say about that Capitol offence from nine days earlier.
And about the latest zigzagging from the government of Plague Island (thanks Sam), about trust in general and the Trust Barometer in particular – with differing opinions, though less so than on the topic of whether and how, or not, The Platforms are publishers. More of that later.
On the matter of trust and the government, Sam sets the scene with a pop-cultural reference – though it’s neither The Kaiser Chiefs, nor The Communards, but rather his go-to repository for such matters, Marillion’s Fish, who in State of Mind proclaims “I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust alternatives. It’s not that I’m paranoid, it’s just that’s the way it is.”
Ah yes, fish. Happy fish. Again, more of that later.
“Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” asks Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula of her husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) in George Cukor’s 1944 film noir classic, Gaslight. To which he responds “Now, perhaps you will understand why I cannot let you meet people.”
It has also become something of a media buzzword, so it is no surprise to see it being liberally appropriated (to avoid for once the martial imagery of ‘weaponized’) for political purpose on all our favourite fronts, from Brexit (for and against) to COVID and Trump (in liberal propaganda outlet Stylist(!), as well as The Independent, Forbes , Washington Post, to name but a few).
The SmallDataForum’s fifth Xmas special was, of course, a socially responsible, zoomy affair – with the three of us in our respective WFH HQs, rather than sat around a table in our favourite Italian restaurant, Ristorante Olivelli by the Old Vic in South London, feasting on fine Italian foods and beverages, and recording to the clattering chattering sound of a busy lunchtime service (and afterwards testing Neville’s thankfully advanced audio editing skills).
By any reckoning, 2020 will go down as a year to be forgotten.
For the havoc and carnage wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, right across the globe. For the most divided and divisive U.S. presidential election in living memory. And for the cocksure cockups of the giant brain of Prime Minister Johnson’s martinet, Demonic Cummings, and the confederacy of dunces lined up to steer Britain through the double-whammy of COVID-19 and Brexit.
It’s enough to make a poor podcaster cry, but when the Small Data Forum triumvirate gathered to record episode 41 on – of course – Friday 13 November, there was almost a party mood of good news in the air.