The History of Grime Music: A Bristol Perspective

Where does Grime come from? This question has been posed to Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, So-Solid or Heartless Crew and many others. DJ Target from Pay As You Go Cartel has recently begun an interview series on BBC One Xtra to address this very question. With UK artists such as Skepta and Stormzy breaking into American markets, and international newcomers introduced to the rawness of Grime Music, there has been an emergence of interest into the roots of this raw, underground sound. This blog will offer a Bristolian perspective on the roots of Grime – Bristol being an hour and a half drive away from London, and my hometown. This blog will discuss various, interrelated factors that caused Grime to emerge. The most significant include: cultural and musical influences, advancing technologies, tensions between social classes and the establishment, and shifts in levels of wealth and prosperity.

To understand how Grime Music evolved it is important to understand the social and political atmosphere within which Grime emerged. In most accounts of the emergence of Grime these factors are easily overlooked. The most crucial factor, I feel, was Nine-Eleven (9/11) terrorist attacks across America in 2001.  From the perspective of a young, working-class youngster, particularly young black youngsters, it seemed that 9/11 gave Tony Blair and George Bush a green light to conspire, declare an ‘Axis of Evil’ and send troops and bombs into the Middle East. The Global War on Terrorism also enabled national leaders to activate police forces against urban youths on the streets. Operation Trident, new stop and search laws handed to the police, and the introduction of Anti-Social Behavior laws, seemed to target and victimize urban youngsters of lower-income households, particularly of African, Muslim or Afro-Caribbean decent. In Bristol I remember a row of around ten police helicopters flying in a straight line over ‘ghetto’ districts of Bristol City. Residents were told that the police were scanning these city areas using infrared cameras to identify council houses where crops of marijuana were being grown. Rightly or wrongly, for those growing weed to earn an alternative income, the state-system was clamping down on any potential earnings.

Tighter government control, authoritarian at times, generated an atmosphere and feelings of tension at a street level. If Tony Blair and George Bush were prepared to lead the UK into an oil ‘War on Iraq’, considered by many demonstrators an act of daylight robbery, then at a street level, gang warfare, robberies, stabbings and even killings were somewhat justified – if the ruling powers are doing it, why shouldn’t we? Since the police are targeting us, criminalizing us, then what commitment do we owe to the state or acting according to ‘civilized’ or socially acceptable rules? The political and state-system was hypocritical every time it told gang members to back down or disarm. Different cultures of violence emerged: gang culture, knife culture and gun culture. There is a famous video online of a clash between Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch (Titch, later imprisoned for 30 years for murdering a ‘disrespectful’ MC with Mach 10 machine gun).

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The Dizzee vs. Titch clash is still a tense video to watch. Looking back it is easy to see how hostile things were at that time. Undeniably, this was a clash of egos; a fierce lyrical battle between competing MCs that got out of hand. At the same time, gang wars; international war and police hostility would have amplified tensions within this pirate radio studio in East London. For those living in deprived areas during this time, targeted by a hypocritical state system (‘Islamophobia’), then it did feel as if the UK was reduced to a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. This provided the background for the aggressive sound and violent content of Grime Music; ‘grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture’.

Another factor in the emergence of Grime was technological, a shift from analogue to digital media formats. Vinyl records, cassette tapes or Technics 1210 turntables were being slowly replaced by CDs, mini-disks and MP3s. Whereas pirate radio stations were once the main outlet for underground music, gradually digital cable channels such as Channel-U became another outlet for unsigned urban talent. Underground acts such as So-Solid Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel that who blew up on cable network channels, were signed and pushed into mainstream markets, eventually performing on BBC Radio or Top of the Pops. Later on, MySpace offered music producers and MCs a free forum for connecting with fans, promoting events and distributing music. Throughout this transition, no longer was an MC or group of MCs a host to the DJ as the main act, but MCs started to become musical artists and the main act over the DJs. Ravers would go to events to see Baseman, Skibadee or Shabba D as much, if not more, as the DJs they were performing with.

In the analogue era of decks and vinyl records, listeners and fans typically stuck to one genre of music, had a favorite music shop or a favorite radio station. Youth culture was separated into clicks of ‘Hip Hop Heads’, ‘Junglists’ or ‘R&B Fans’ with their own languages and fashions. Sound systems and DJs began to change this. From a Bristol perspective, London sound systems such as Boogie Bunch, Rampage Sound or Heartless Crew were more popular because they mixed of genres of urban music. I remember Boogie Bunch’s DJ Swing playing a Ragga track at an R&B night and considering that groundbreaking and revolutionary – normally dancehall music was played in the ghetto areas of the city alone. No longer did urban music fans need to go to a strictly R&B night but you could hear a sound system spin Jungle, Garage, R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall and Soca. Were the DJs becoming more selective, and setting new musical trends, or were the crowds becoming more picky, wanting more variety from DJs? As analogue culture slowly transformed into digital culture, it was more likely a mixture of the two (supply and demand).

In the digital era and the Internet, made music free and more accessible and merged cultures and sounds. Like music fans, MCs did not want to be restricted to one pirate radio station or one specific genre of music. MCs wanted to diversify and embrace a wider range of musical tastes, as well as tap into and make money from different musical markets. General Levi was an early example of a lyricist able to perform across genres, embracing Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga music. Multi-genre music went in two creative directions. On the one hand, MCs such as General Levi became mixed-genre artists, performing on Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga tracks. On the other hand Grime Music began to mix and amalgamate different genres into one distinct sound. As I remember, East Connection, Heartless Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel were some of the first distinguishable example of Grime Music to hit Bristol, Swindon or Cardiff. Later down the line, Nasty Crew or Roll Deep with DJ Slimzee, Dizzee Rascal and MC Wiley were to develop that raw and dark sound we know today as Grime Music.

The emergence and evolution of Garage Music played a fundamental role in setting the foundations for Grime Music. Deriving from Soulful House, borrowing baseline elements from Jungle and Drum & Bass music, Garage Music radically transformed the R&B, Dancehall and Hip Hop nightclub scene. The Garage Scene was all about wearing expensive designer shoes, dapper suits, looking intelligent, wearing crisply ironed shirts whilst drinking champagne (‘champagne bubbly’). What came with Garage Music was a real feeling of emancipation, liberation, freedom and joy. Night clubbers felt set free and empowered by this celebratory sounds of Garage. Any aggression associated with badman-Dancehall music (e.g. Bounty Killer’s “Anytime” or “Can’t Believe Me Eye” (1998)) or New York Hip Hop (e.g. The Lox ” We Are The Streets” (2000), DMX “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” (1998)), was momentarily suspended by the smooth vocals and skipping beats of UK Garage (e.g. Roy Davis Jr ft Peven Everett – Gabriel (1996), Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (1997), MJ Cole – Sincere (2000)). UK Garage or Speed Garage was a motivational music. People would work hard, save hard, dress up ‘stush’, travel long distances and spend hard-earned money in order to enjoy a Garage rave. The clientele was sophisticated, upbeat and intelligent, with less chance of outbreaks of trouble associated with Dancehall or D&B music scenes.

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Gradually UK Garage Music got darker as it evolved from its Soulful House roots to what has become Grime Music today. It merged a lot more with the darker elements of Drum & Bass music. MC Bushkin of Heartless crew recently made an interesting point of how Garage DJs began to reduce the vocals on garage tracks, and extend the break beats; amplify the baselines, to allow Ragga, Jungle and D&B MCs to spit vocals on over the tracks. This allowed a greater integration between D&B and Garage. But the mixing, merging and integration was as much social as cultural and musical. In several interviews Wiley or Dizzee, mention being that the tracksuit wearing, under-class, street-youth they represented were often barred from entering the black-middle-class Garage raves by nightclub bouncers. Essentially, in the eyes of the Garage Music scene these Drum & Bass MCs and their fan base represented trouble. Both Wiley and Dizzee would be the first to admit to that.

Gradually, Garage Music became darker, more aggressive, more troublesome, and later evolved into Grime Music. Wiley’s anthem “Wot U Call It?” (2004) is the most noticeable point in the transition from Garage (2-Step, UK Garage or Speed Garage) to Grime. With people speculating about names for the new genre, such as “Eski Music” or “Sub-Low”, it was eventually termed “Grime” by either music journalists or industry employees. Heartless Crews’ MC Bushkin mentioned that nigh clubbers would say to him: “Your music sounds Grimy!” That was a popular term at that time with N.O.R.E.’s thug-life anthem “Grimy” (2001) or Dillinja’s ultra-dark Drub & Bass anthem: “Grimey”.

Whereas UK Garage seemed to represent a cultural celebration of new wave of wealth and middle-class prosperity entering into black communities within the UK (from mid-1990s to 2001), post-9/11 Grime Music signified marginalization, despair, anger and rage against the establishment, as the title of Dizzee Rascal’s cornerstone LP “Boy in the Corner” suggests.

Grime can be considered a by-product of political and military Blairism. Grime has now become a sell-out scene, not as in watered-down, but sell-out as in commercially successful. Not only are Grime MCs making their mark around the world, but selling out huge stadiums within the UK – for example, Red Bull’s Culture Clash or Dizzee Rascal’s opening of the British Olympics. Any anger, rage and despair embedded within the sound has evolved into mainstream sound; a part of British national consciousness. The fury that Grime expressed, which stemmed from poverty, class and racial tensions, aimed at the corporate and social state-system, is paradoxically vented and celebrated at a national-level.

The views in this blog are mainly my own. Please a comment below if you see the emergence of Grime from another perspective. Thanks for reading.

Deconstruct the theory of Hyper-Normalisation in under 5 minutes, here’s how…

Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary “Hyper-Normilisation” was a virtual web of lies. In this blog I will show you how to deconstruct his theory by watching the first five minutes.

‘We live in a strange time’, Adam Curtis announces at the beginning of his documentary. Without watching the rest of the documentary, it is extremely easy to understand why. The reason everything is strange is because it is modern and new. Nobody throughout human history has been able to instantaniously communicate face-to-face with a stranger around the other side of the world. Never before, in the whole of human history, have groups of people been able to chase mythical characters down the street, as Pokémon-Go enables us to. Soldiers sat in offices at remote locations can fight wars and wipe out armies; this is new. The majority of us walk around these days carrying super-computers in our pocket, that’s new. These are some good reasons why everything is odd, weird, abnormal or extraordinary. It’s modern, it’s new! – read anything by Antony Giddens on the ambiguous nature of the modern world.

Curtis suggests ‘we all’ live in a Matrix-style reality. And that ‘all of us’ went along with the idea of living in a ‘carefully constructed fake world’ because ‘the simplicity was reassuring’. So, he offers us a really, really simple explanation about why.

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What caused this fake world to emerge – what is this story Curtis has to tell us? According to his theory, our fake world emerged in 1975. This was because of two historical events that took place ‘at the same moment’ in two cities of the world in 1975. Let stop here for a moment. Is it feasible that an event in New York and Damascus (Syria) provides the political and economic bedrock that constitutes your everyday reality? It only took two historical events to construct the hyper-reality that you live every day? What happened to forgotten empires, colonisation, world wars, the launch of Sputnik 1, the advent of the Internet, and so on? In fact, what happened to the whole of human history until now? Apparently, there is only one moment in time that actually counts.

Are you reassured by the simplicity of his theory? If you are, then by his own confession, what has drawn you in is his simplified narration of history (two events in two cities). Social theory, after all, reduces the complexity of the world into simplified thinking. The theory of hyper-normalisation is a simple theory about the over-siplified world of simplicity we all live in. Simple isn’t it?

A friend once told me that the key to a good lie is to weave elements of truth into it. Google search controversial or widely discussed news items. Take hot topics such as ‘Banks’, ‘waves of refugees’, ‘Brexit’, ‘Trump’, ‘Russia’ and ‘Syria’ and quickly whisk them up into a simple, all encompassing and easy to digest theory of everything. That is what you get when with Curtis’ theory of hyper-normalisation. These news stories are compelling, affect many modern lives, and they are purposely deployed by Curtis to pull you in. Did you take the bait?

The idea of individualism and self-governance, or the concept of a non-political, economically driven social system runs through the history of Western academic thought. According to Curtis these liberal ideas (economic liberalism) are new concepts, they emerged in New York one day when some bankers refused to turn up to a city-hall meeting. Rather than listen to Curtis, we could refer to cybernetic theory of Norbert Wiener – see J. Mitchell Johnson’s brilliant new documentary “Remaining Human” -, or trace cybernetic theory back to the Marxism, Adam Smith, Enlightenment thinkers, Renaissance thinkers, right back to the philosophies of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, society without political governance would constitute all societies before the city-stat, empires or nation-state systems.

What the documentary represents is a bit of intellectual foolery or mischievous intellectualism. What I find more interesting is the way in which, from time to time, media channels like the BBC and Channel 4 like to toss conspiracy theories out into the public domain. There are never books published following the broadcast, rarely any academic citations, but they manage to tell us ‘all’ how are lives are shaped by evil men on the inside.

To return to the point, all theory is over-simplifying. That is to say, all theory reduces the world into easy to understand concepts and ideas. Bad theory can ruin lives – note that Russell Brand has developed his own strand of hyper-normalisation theory. Deconstructionism, either via way of Jacques Derrida (1976) or Friedrich Nietzsche, searches for the escape routes from all-encompassing, totalitarian theories. These thinkers aimed to expose theorists’ underlying biases and attempts to gain power over others. In many ways this kind of BBC documentary draws people in and gets people thinking or talking about what is healthy or unhealthy about modern culture. It gets them on the theoretical journey, that could then lead viewers down the path to become academic readers. Those intrigued by the idea of hyper-normalisation might one day find themselves reading about ‘hyper-reality’ (Baudrillard, 1994) or Georg Simmel’s theory of ‘hyper-individuality’ (written in 1905). Although Adam Curtis’ documentary is an absolute web of lies, it is useful in these regards. Other than that, beware of false profits.

Read these:

Baudrillard J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, USA: The University of Michigan Press.Derrida J. (1976) Of Gramatology, America: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

Food intensification and world food shortages: World Food Day 2015

Constantly politicians, NGOs, agrichemical and agriequipment companies are urging farmers in England to sustainably intensify food production by investing into new technologies. The reason for food intensifications, they claim, is to meet growing demands caused by increasing future global populations. All eyes are set on 2030/50 as goalposts. Good reasons but what about the world today?

Ironically, while El Niño has been credited for good weather in the UK there are growing fears that the same weather fluxes could lead to famine in ‘developing’ countries.

This summer whilst research precision agriculture in rural England all the farmers I spoke to reported phenomenal, ‘bumper harvests’ but devastatingly poor market prices. There was one particular dairy farmer who had to close down his family’s 100-year-old milk business since prices had hit rock bottom. The same is also true for wheat, sugar and barley. These commodities are being sold by farmers in the UK under the cost of production. But the farmers are still being told to intensify production.

If the grain stores of the UK and Europe are becoming clogged up with surplus food then  redistribute the excess to the people in countries that need more food. Emptying the agri-food industries of excess stock would keep the system of production and consumption in circulation and commodity prices bubbling. Furthermore there would be more money in circulation for farmers to invest in agri-tech equipment such as precision farming technologies.

If our global goals and challenges are to feed global populations then why must they be future generations? What does it say about the global order we are living in, if millions of people are going hungry while the grain stores of wealthier nations are literally bursting at the seems. It says one thing, that sustainable intensification of agriculture will be unsustainable while food surpluses drive commodity prices down and farmers out of business. The redistribution of food surpluses is one means of getting the circulation of capital moving again. Lets get charitable, globally.

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#Ecomodernism, EMT, neo-Marxism; Some Key Problems with the Current Informatic “World View”

Not long after NATO’s declaration of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals a group calling themselves “ecopragmatists and ecomodernists” uploaded their future world vision and manifesto to the Internet.

What is noticeable from the outset of the manifesto is the absence of any reference to a European and mainly Dutch school of thought commonly know as ecological modernisation theory (“EMT” abbreviated). Key EMT thinkers would include Joseph Huber, Arthur P. Mol, Martin Jänicke or Gert Spaargaren and many others (see Wikipedia here). The integration of science and technologies and ecological systems and the general futurological worldview presented by the ecomodernists (“Eco-Mods”) is somewhat similar in places to EMT school of thought but differs drastically in others.

The Guardian blogger George Monbiot’s recent criticism of the ecomodernists’ manifesto really hits the mark. The public debate raises some of the main arguments within environmental sociology that exists between EMT theorists and neo-Marxists.The main point Monbiot picks the eco-mods up on, and the point that needs criticizing, is that: ‘The ecomodernists talk of “unproductive, small-scale farming” and claim that “urbanisation and agricultural intensification go hand in hand.” In other words, they appear to believe that smallholders, working the land in large numbers, produce lower yields than large farms.’ He corrects this mistake by stating: ‘But since Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work in 1962, hundreds of papers in the academic literature demonstrate the opposite: that there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the crops they produce. The smaller they are, on average, the greater the yield per hectare’.

While I remain somewhat reserved in using global stats to counteract global stats, to back Monbiot’s argument it should be pointed out that 80% of the world’s food comes from small, family farms. Of which 72% are under the size of one hectare (UN/FAO, 2014). Of course, smaller-scale farms are also part of the fabric of rural societies and cultures that exist in England and around the world too.

The current predicament that the English farmers that I am researching face is that they are continuously being told to intensify food production by groups like the Eco-Mods because of a “growing world population”. Currently within global markets the supply of milk, wheat and barley is in a state of overproduction and commodity prices reflect this since they are hitting rock bottom – £98 a ton for wheat which reflects market prices of the 1980s, a farmer told me the other day. Why then are farmers in England being pressured to produce more and more, invest into more chemicals, communication technologies, solutions or machines, when supply is higher than demands and growing more will only further push prices down? One can only begin to speculate that the push to intensify is to boost GDP or net-income by getting farmers to invest into more technologies, more chemicals, more machinery and to boost the growth of what is being called the “Agri-Tech” sector whilst spurring on the agri-food industry. This push for rapid-intensification is mainly coming from the agri-equipment and agrichemical companies, pro-modernisation political parties and pressure groups.

The more authentic EMT school offers more alternative, well-considered and potentially practical solutions than the Eco-Mods, (see for example: Mol, 2003; Mol, 2008). I would suggest this is the case since there has been a ‘fierce’ academic debate raging between the EMT theorists and ecological, neo-Marxists (and de-industrialists, post-modernists or eco-feminists). EMT’s general ‘optimism’ towards modern, environmental reform has been thoroughly and rigorously questioned, probed and debated – continuing without conclusion.

To summarise the debate in brief, the neo-Marxist’s main criticism is that EMT theorists’ social and ecological optimism or utopian idealism is being used as an ideological veil to mask issues of inequality and exploitation that are not being addressed in already-developed nations. The concept of ecological modernisation simply develops a rather handy, academically legitimised, marketing tool for a multi-billion dollar, global industry and home of the multinational seed and agrochemical companies (of which there are only six), the agri-equipment multinationals and boost GDP in developed nations. Furthermore, this line of thinking simply backs up the political parties that support a mainly American, neo-liberal agenda that seeks to expand and develop a system that not only further exploit natural environments but human beings too (see for example: Dickens, 2004).

While the academic criticisms of EMT are harsh, there are that there are some progressive gems to be found with EMT theory, such as Joseph Huber’s social and economic theory of TEIs which targets accumulation and processing of the raw materials that are used product life cycles (products such as food) in global, industrial, modern, capitalist societies and cultures (2004). These thoroughly thought-out and more intricate EMT ideas have not made it into the Eco-Mods’ rather exclusive manifesto, which offers lots of unreferenced global statistics, without citation to this long trail of academic research by the EMT theorists. This certainly makes the eco-mod’s manifesto look like an incredibly dumbed-down reiteration of a more complicated and well-researched EMT position.

Narrow-minded, Informatic Worldviews

‘Beware of simple solutions to complex problems’, Monbiot states. Although the Internet, transport networks and information communication technology shrinks space and time in such a way as the world, or “Spaceship Earth”, has become a “global village”, my concern is that it is leading to an incredibly narrow-minded worldview. We can click and see Samoa, for example. Infographics do the neat trick of condensing lengthy global reports into a sharable JEPGs. but this also makes sumerisable the complex dynamics that deliver people their food. This oversimplified worldview that technologies such as Google Earth offers might develop incredibly over-simplified, monolithic understanding of “The World”. Thereby encouraging certain cultural insensitivities and ethnocentric value judgments; cultivating morals and ethics that promote and unwarranted use of the word “We” and the development of ideal-type “World Goals” in economic and political policy designs.

As history has taught us, generalised goalposts tend to drastically overlook vast complexities of humans populations, human cultures, at national, regional or local levels – I agree with Monbiot. Marx and Engels’ theories of society and nature contributed to the starvation of 40-60 million people in China under Mao’s uncritical deployment of Marx’s theory of social and agricultural advancement (Dikötter, 2011). Any anthropologists, ethnographer, social scientist critically engaged in local-level research will tell you from local interactions that general, broad theories are quickly blown apart by the levels of complexity experienced first hand within local human populations. These needn’t be ethnographic observations of indigenous communities or “developing” nations. It could also be observations of peripheral, rural communities or impoverished urban communities held within these so called “developed” nations. These more local observations might well include issues of patriarchy, capital-labour relations, social power relations, police brutality, as well as more general and ineffable feelings of discontentment, ambiguity, frustration or confusion that seem to stem from modern globalisation, global market volatilities, mass production and mass consumption processes, and a growing metabolic rift between society and nature.

Whilst entering into global debates you get dragged into global debates, so I will conclude with a local insight. The other day I went to a farmers market in England on a village green. Trailers from the 1950s and tools from the 1930s were being bought and sold there with £10 or £20 paper notes. Not as ornaments or collectors items but to be put back into agricultural production systems that continue exist in “Modern England”. While people throw around ideas of “modernisation”, the problem is that people have to pay for these new technologies and if they money is not around while commodity prices are down. Smaller-scale farmers  are not only unable to purchase these technologies but the larger farmers on global markets who can afford them are benefiting more from intensification, thereby pushing small-scale further into smaller-scale production, and further into the depths of rural poverty. These smaller farmers, farm workers, farming sons and daughters or downshifting ecologists or “eco-freaks”, thrive on the countryside land and rural culture. It is entirely unfair that they should be forced to ecologically modernise or perish for the sake of unwarranted and futurological visions of progress, modernisation and development.

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Dickens P. (2004) Society & Nature, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Dikötter F. (2011) Mao’s Great Famine, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Pls.
Huber J. ( 2004) New Technologies and Environmental Innovation, Cheltnhman: Edware Elgar Publishing Limited.
Mol APJ. (2003) Globalization and Enviromental Reform: The Ecological Modernization of the Global Economy, London: The MIT Press.
Mol APj. (2008) Environmental Reform in the Information Age: The Contours of Informational Governance, New York: Cambridge University Press.
UN/FAO. (2014) Family Farmers: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth. http://www.fao.org/family-farming-2014: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Social Science, Big Data and Gut Instincts: The General Election 2015 in review

Reflections on the 2015 General Election
by James Addicott, 2015© 

During the 2015 elections in the UK, what I found quite baffling was that, even as a PhD student (without blowing my own trumpet), I really did not feel that I had enough knowledge or facts to make an educated decision about who to vote for. I don’t think anyone did. The peculiar thing here is that we are constantly being told that we live in an age of “big data”; an age of metrics and digital solutions; an age of “transparency”. If this is the case, then why did I feel that I was going on sheer gut instinct when ticking the boxes to elect our future government?

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Although I can read now – in hindsight – about the statistics of which parts of the population or general demographic voted for which parties, the stastistical facts prior to the election were simply not to hand. So many unanswered questions: which party invested the most into the military efforts in the Middle East, Conservatives or Labour? Which party made the most cutbacks on public expenditure overall? Which party reduced unemployment the most? What exactly were the statistics on immigration? Did gross domestic produce increase or decrease while Labour was in office or during the Conservative’s run?

The obvious answer is that all these facts are infinitely complex. They are therefore open to interpretation – and, perhaps it’s a cliché of our time to say “the facts are open to interpretation”?

The other odd thing is that I can download an analyse OECD, NATO, EU or UK Gov. statistics for myself. Anyone can.

Russell Brand seems able to commit himself to an acting career in the US while also managing to download statistics to support his own political arguments (which by the way, are crap). But are the facts that he cites actually valid? Who knows? The way that he presents them is as if these statics just simply “tell it all”, but we are never actually sure where he gets his information from, and how this data is being collected, and by whom, and to what end. I know for certain that Brand never cites from actual academic sources such as journal publications; whereas social scientists are forced to.

The point about Brand is that he is an example that demonstrates how it seems like a fore drawn conclusion that whichever party presents whatever “facts of the matter”, there will always be some degree of biasness behind those statistics, the way they have been compiled, or an even greater likelihood that an opposing party will contest that data with another data set, or an even more “credible” sources. It is pointless then to even compile factsheets or databases given this constant tussle between the “to-be-believed” and the “unbelievable”. The only solution seems to be to reside to voting on gut-instincts or blind-faith – or to play the “national lottery game” and close your eyes, tick a box and wish for the best of luck.

The facts are out the windows then? Well, clearly not because not only to scientific facts help to generate energy, make humans live longer, aid plant growth, or inform political policies around the world.

It seems that it is not only the civilians that are having problems with scientific data but the government too. Right until the night of the elections all media networks reported that the parties were literally “neck and neck”. However, the outcome was fairly unanimous. How was that so impossible to predict in this big data age of algorithms, social surveillance? To the conspiracy theorists, this might seem like a ploy to draw people to the voting booths. I am happy to accept that literally no one actually knew; not even the elites at GCHQ.

As part of my PhD I am currently studying and supervising students on the idea of “reflexive modernity”, put forwards by sociologist Antony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. According to these two, this is the current status of modern culture or modern societies of which we Brits are a part. The idea in short is that environmental degradation, media and communication networks, global markets and economic crises, cause modern people and modern societies to reflect upon their actions. Another aspect of their argument is that in this day and age people have become a lot more critical of scientific knowledge or the knowledge of the experts. For example, no-one is absolutely, 100% sure weather on not we are experiencing “climate change” (a natural change in weather conditions) or “global warming” (a change in weather patterns caused by aerosol cans or the burning of fossil fuels), even though the vast majority of sciences around the world confer that changing weather conditions are caused by industrial processes.

This idea of reflexive modernity also ties in quite neatly with what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1986) suspected and predicted about our contemporary age. For Lyotard “post-modernism” or “post-modern” societies and cultures were distinguishable by a breakdown in trust, or rising skepticism, towards ‘grand narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’. Such grand narratives are the overarching narratives to Life itself. They would include religious narratives (e.g. Christianity), politics (e.g. Marxism) or even scientific or philosophical thought (e.g. the Enlightenment). Again, the idea is that modern societies are loosing faith in scientific knowledge, and our sense of “Truth”, correctness or validity. For some people, that’s a good thing.

The other odd thing is that classical sociologists theorised that modern, scientific knowledge would eventually lead to an end of mythology and spiritualism – Max Weber or The Frankfurt School in particular. This would reduce the feeling of enchantment obtained from Life. This would lead to increased political disenchantment, of the sort expressed by non-voters such as Mr. Brand. Brand’s contempt for politics could therefore be rationalised or explained according to such theories. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the media-spin game; the celebrity-based campaigns, and the gut-feelings or impulses that lead me to tick the boxes I ticked in the general election of 2015, were only marginally informed by socially scientific research. My vote this year was based around a whole game of enchantment, mythology, and lots of new “soon-to-be-broken” promises. In this sense, I would have preferred to make a well-informed decision, but it seemed impossible to do so. It just falls down to a trust game; whom do you trust to lead your country?

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I would like to be able to make better decisions about which political parties to vote for. More than likely, this is an age-old observation and an age-old argument put forth by civilians voting in democratic states. We want “The Truth!” Again, the truth is so open to interpretation. Is this feeling of disenchantment, rising skepticism in scientific evidence really that new then? This really calls into question the whole idea of a “Big Data Society”. So what if we have big data? What does it tell us? What use is it to us is it won’t help us to answer the most simple of questions: “red, yellow, green or blue party?”

Lyotard J-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Precision Farming: Agri-Culture, Cybernetics and Civilisation

PhD Research Proposal
by James Addicott

Massey Furgeson Fuse

British history has seen several agricultural revolutions, such as the switch from hunter gathering, to land farming during the Bronze Age, or the 16-18C transfers from open field system to a system of enclosure. Along with various ideological and marketing forces; a push for increased profits; and in response to the threat of world population growth and the demand for a 70 percent increase in food production by the year 2050[1], the British farming industry is currently undergoing a new agricultural-revolution; its own emersion into ‘geo-space’ (understood here as ‘cyber-space’) as farmers increase the usage of I.C.T. (information-communication technology) and turn to satellite-guided ‘precision farming’[2]. This research project is concerned with what Jean-François Lyotard (1986) termed ‘The Computerisation of Society’ and the degrees to which human routine is being controlled or automated by cybernetics.

By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.
Farming First.org: By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.

Precision farming means satellites can now scan the surface of the globe capturing a range of information such as soil moisture levels, soil texture, levels of organic matter and photosynthesis (or leaf greenness). Farmers can process this data with a range of software applications and other data sets to help optimise seed distribution rates and fertiliser application levels in computer-enhanced farming equipment (tractors, fertiliser spreaders, drills, etc.). This information helps farmers to decrease expenditure and increase yield, output and to maximise profits. Furthermore, satellites capture and transmit geometric information that can enable farmers to drive their tractors within a ‘geo-refferenced’ space to a centimetre degree of accuracy to avoid wastage and optimise output. In such a system humans and nonhumans (e.g. soil, stones, crops, pests, trees, hedgerows, hills, technologies and clouds) can be understood or optimised in ways that increase overall productivity. Paul Conway, points out, ‘there can be little doubt that the transformation of ecosystem to agro-ecosystem produces well-defined systems of cybernetic nature’ (Conway in Bawden, 1991: 2370). How might the social sciences respond to this?

Cybernetics-Norbert-WienerSince its inception in World War II, cybernetics has both concerned and delighted the social sciences, polarising theorists into two camps that can be labelled as “cyber-optimists” and “cyber-sceptics”. When the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, discovered that cybernetic technologies blurred the former divisions that separated humans from their nonhuman environments, while governing human behavior by way of feedback and regulation, he began to worry about technological control, automation and domination. Peter Galison (1994) offers the reminder that: ‘Wiener repeatedly stressed the power of cybernetics to save, enslave, or destroy humanity’ (254). Lyotard stated that cybernetics: ‘has no way to correct in the course of it’s functioning’ and the ultimate goal of cybernetics revolves around ‘maximizing its own performance’, thus: ‘the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it’ (1986: 16). The real-time simulation in precision farming offers a working example of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyper-reality” since the fourth order of simulacra was ‘founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game’ with the ‘aim of total control’ (1994: 121). As cybernetically-inspired theories and technologies are deployed in genetics, computer-simulations, architecture, business and economics, agriculture and the social sciences itself, these concerns suggest that ethically-engaged research needs to be undertaken to understand how people are being affected by these communication-theories and technologies.

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However, cyber-optimists would reject some of the concerns detailed above. Bruno Latour claims that socio-technologies have always had agency and have always possessed a ‘delegated human character’ (1998: 300). Furthermore, he argues that networking technologies are simply exposing the ‘nature-culture’ networks that pre-existed the Modern Constitution’s attempts to purify society, politics and culture from natural networks (see Latour, 1993). Likewise, N. Katherine Hayles (1999) dismisses Wiener’s worries as the outdated ideas of liberal humanism and possessive individualism[3] and argues that because cybernetic feedback-loops ‘flow not only within the subject but also between the subject and the environment’ then cybernetics will help posthumans to ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (1999: 84-85; 290). Donna Haraway also supports the cybernetic breakdown of outdated ‘dualisms’ that ‘have been persistent in Western traditions’ and ‘systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, (and) animals’ put in place by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (Haraway, 1991: 117; 197). From this perspective, not only is the shift towards cybernetics helping to sustain nature-culture networks but cyber-culture may also allow humanity to go beyond the domination and dogmatism synonymous with modernity.

cyborg-love-addicottIn response to all of this, the social sciences have a duty to conduct a more ethically engaged investigation into the relationship between cybernetic technologies and human beings for several reasons. Firstly, to understand how societies are being transformed into “nature-culture hybrids” “posthumans”, “trans-humans”, “Humanity 2.0”[4] or “cyborgs” – if indeed this is the case. Secondly, by mapping the associative forces, or as Latour says: ‘the work, and the movement, and the flow, and the changes’ (2005: 143), we can begin to understand how nature-culture networks are either being exposed, or, how capital, nature, landscapes, technology and humans are becoming entwined, “entangled” (Callon, 1998), “mixed up” (Latour, 1998) or “mangled” (Pickering, 1995); causing debates within the social sciences such as “human exemptionalism” (see Murdoch, 2001). It will help us in defining “natural” and “artificial” nature-culture networks. More importantly, in response to Wiener’s utopian, dystopian or apocalyptic dreams and nightmares, the agricultural sector can be used as a site whereby an ethical model concerned with human and cybernetic interaction can be researched and conceived. To address these issues, the substantive question this project will address is: to what degree are cybernetic systems beginning to automate society? Beyond this overarching concern, I will address the following questions: why and how are farmers being driven towards precision farming? And, how do cybernetic technologies affect the role of the human agent(s)?

Researching this agricultural shift into cyber-space will be essential for contemporary and future generation’s understanding the role human beings play in cybernetically automated spaces or environments in which ‘distributed cognition’ provides us with a systems ‘whose total cognitive capacity exceeds our individual knowledge’ (Hayles: 1999: 290). Furthermore, if society becomes increasingly automated by such technologies, this information and the theories it develops will help to determine a critical and un-systematised stance towards information-communication society.

Note: (19th of November, 2013):

This is the working title of my current PhD research at the Department of Sociology, the University of Cambridge and supervised by Peter Dickens. It represents “work in progress”, literally. Research is currently underway but hopefully this brief synopsis will give you guys (the online blogging community) some idea of the issues that my research is aiming to address. And, admittedly, these are theoretical concerns and at times rather “abstract” or “arbitrary”. (Good!) My research will aim to “ground” the theory and learn from my research “fields” – “ground” and “fields” offering me two nice words to use in relation to researching farming!

I will be posting a much more reader-friendly version of this proposal at some point. Because this is an interdisciplinary research project it is easy to get bogged down with jargon and subject-specific languages taken from astrophysics, computer sciences, social and cultural theory, or agriculture itself. Keep up to date with my page or follow me on twitter for an announcement of when this will be posted.

Keep up to date with my research by following my blog or on twitter:
@james_addicott
https://jameseaddicott.wordpress.com/


[1] In The World Bank’s  (2011) report entitled ICT in Agriculture claims that: ‘The growing global population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, has heightened the demand for food and placed pres- sure on already-fragile resources. Feeding that population will require a 70 percent increase in food production’. ICT, that ‘includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, or, ‘satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, etc. is optimistically embraced as a potential ‘solution’ that could ‘improve agriculture in developing countries specifically’ (2011: 3).

[2] Farm machinery manufacturer John Deere states about their FarmSight wireless system that in the future, ‘FarmSight will connect equipment, owners, operators, dealers and agricultural consultants in order to enhance productivity and increase efficiency, by sharing information as well as sustainable practices to help reduce overall input costs’ (2011a). John Deere’s i-Solutions packages offered farmers the ability to purchase the rights to unscramble American satellite networks. Their website explains that, ‘Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation is a technique used in land survey and in automatic guidance (agriculture) based on the use of carrier phase measurements of the GPS signals where a single reference station provides the real-time corrections to a rover vehicle (tractor, combine etc.) to a level of accuracy down to a centimeter’ (2011b).

[3] Liberal humanism can be traced back to Aristotle’s ethics, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s social contract theory, and of more recent, C.B. Macpherson’s economic theory of “possessive individualism”. In essence, liberal humanism declares that: ‘what makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others’, and possessive individualism presents the idea that the individual is ‘essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society’ (1962: 263). These are the ideas of the Modern Constitution that Latour also rejects by stating We Have Never Been Modern.

[4] Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

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Callon, M. (1998), ‘Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in
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McNamara, K. Belden, C. Kelly, T. Pehu, E. Donovan, K.  (2011) ‘ICT in
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n/a. (2011) NEW JOHN DEERE STRATEGY FOR WIRELESS
TECHNOLOGY . Available: http://www.deere.com/wps/dcom/en_INT/our_company/news_and_media/press_releases/2011/jun/2011jun07_farmsight.page. Last accessed 25th Dec 2012.

n/a, (2011)  John Deere FarmSight (Online). Available at: http://www.deere.co.uk/common/media/images/product/equipment/agricultural_management_solutions/farmsight/r2/hero/farmsight.jpg. Last accessed 30th Nov 2012.

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