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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England’s Depressing Agricultural Downturn

In a meeting with leading sociologist Manuel Castells last year, I explained the topic of my research to him. His immediate response was: “you are studying a very depressing subject!”

Today in a small discussion between local farmers and a Conservative politician, an elderly farmer whose family had been in the dairy business for 100 years announced the terrible news that they had been forced to close the dairy business. The younger farmer next to him welled up with emotions and spouted: “I’ve got to intervene here; this farmer is the admiration of our district. He is by far the most efficient farmer we know and we all look up to him”. The elderly farmer expressed his thanks to the younger. He continued on to detail his fears about large-scale, indoor, robot-automated dairy parlours dominating the industry, consequently ridding the English landscape from herds of cows grazing in the sunshine.
The politician expressed his deepest sympathy. Within the next half an hour the politician made his political position very clear. He believed in the idea of “free markets” and fully supported the idea that “efficiency should lead the way forwards”.

I thought to myself: “…Castells was right”.

#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.

BBC News’ Anti-Corbyn Propaganda

There are certain moments when the BBC News network reveals itself as a national propaganda channel. Today was a fine example. Tonight’s headlines:

1. Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet includes an IRA sympathiser and a “vegan” as environmental secretary.
2. There will be no end to War in Syria.
3. David Cameron is in Syria talking refugees.

Cameron’s visit was purposely staged with soft lighting in the nursery school, surrounded by sparkly eyed children. Black shirt, sleeves rolled, top button undone, hair swept back, “talking to the people on the ground”. Of course this falls in line with the the slanderous media war the Conservatives have launched against Labour Party today. It would seem the run up to the general election of 2020 has already begun.

My point? The BBC is a public broadcasting service funded by tax payers money. The news coverage should remain objective and unbiased and should not fold to political sway or corruption. If there are people in positions of power at the BBC that are using their influence to support the interests of private companies they the should be reminded that they are being paid with public money.

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Why Labour needs Corbyn

by James Addicott © 2015

In what you are about to read I will attempt to shred Tony Blare into pieces, support David Cameron’s authenticity, but argue that the Labour Party and democracy in England needs Jeremy Corbyn to revitalise democratic debate and leadership.

Although he wore red, lets not forget that Tony Blare was a supreme, neo-liberal capitalist and a blood-thisry, imperialist warlord. I cringe now to think that I was one of the gullible suckers that voted Blare’s “New Labour Party” into power. Partnering up with George Bush, cheating the UK into an religious oil war in Iraq, aligning Britain on one side of Bush’s “axis of Evil”, subsequently attracting terrorists attacks in London, and then topping it all off with a neo-liberal financial crisis that ripped through the world economy with an epicenter in Bush’s “free” or underregulated economy, I defiantly felt by that time that we needed another leader to take power. Blair’s leadership was so extreme that it made the Conservative party begin to feel more like the socially orientated, left wing alternative.

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Of course the younger generation in England “lost faith in democracy” and voting numbers have declined in recent years. The reason for this is that the left-wing of English politics not only mimicked but outdid the right-wing to such an extent that people began to talk of a “two-party state”. Democracy began to look like an ideological veil that masked the inner workings of a secretly-formed union of capitalists and politicians – David Ike did well in books sells during this period I would imagine. There would be no escape from and capitalist competition would destroy the UK and leave a huge, scorched hole in the middle of the channel – which would have dried up by then anyway because of capitalism’s exploitation of water.

Blare announced that the last thing the labour party wants to do is “move more to the left” as the toss up between new leaders entered into party debate. What I have never quite understood is why Blare did not just join the Conservative Party in the first place, rather than trying to develop some kind of wishy-washy, Third Way alternative?

Anyway, in the last election I voted for Cameron. And, I’m proud of that since I thought he was doing a fairly good job and had a fairly robust plan of action. Consider me a utilitarian voter in so far as I will back the party that looks as if they will do the best good for a democratic society at that given moment in time. Political ideologies make me cringe too. More importantly I voted Blue because I did not want the country to fall back into the hands of another Blare-like, “red-capitalist”.

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What we need now, more than ever, is for the Labour Party to resort to some of its traditional values: support the workers, support those on low-incomes or no-incomes, free healthcare and education, support society with publically subsidised transportation services. But more than this, we also need a left-wing option that will help support local small-scale farmers, local trade and family businesses; a party that is opposed to imperialistic rule or neo-colonisation; economic or religious wars; and supports local identities and local economies in the face of turbulent global markets. Not all of these ideas may turn out to be the best options for society in the UK, of course not, but we do need a party that will support them and attempt to push them forwards at least. Corbyn speaks intellectually about such needs, and embodies more of a traditional labour identity than the squeaky-clean, corporate types that have over recent years been leaders of the Labour Party.

A socially-orientated left politics could well appeal to business. Not all business owners fit into the Wallstreet-capitalist, “Loadsa Money” Dell-Boy stereotypes afterall all . Social Corporate Responsibility or ecological clean businesses draw our attention to the fact that core business values are as important to some businesspeople as economic competition or making more money. I would hazard a guess that if the Conservatives push on too far with attempts to liberalise economic markets, cutting back on public expenditure into healthcare or education, encouraging businesses enterprises that treat employees unfairly (e.g. zero-hour contracts), then naturally a more authentic left-wing party leader will over time become more appealing – especially one with a white beard who looks like a all-round, friendly chap who actually cares about people.

A more socially orientated, left wing alternative would be great for English democracy. What we need back is the Thatcher verses Kinnock debates, rather that a stalemate situation in which two powerful parties take turns in achieving the same end goals. Bottom line, I hope Corbyn makes the vote.

Is the Internet losing its imagination?

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For those who remember the eighties and nighties and the introduction of dial-up modems, unlimited data transfer, AOL and Netscape, they will remember it as an era of new potentials and liberal freedoms. The world of the Internet and computing tech, often inspired by semi-reformed LSD hippies of the US, was a platform for bizarre and abnormal happenings. Your average webpage was a strange mishmash of fonts, garish background images, animated GIFs of stars and unicorns. Nevertheless the “Information Superhighway” came with the strange and sometimes eerie promises of fragmented identities, global connections with other nerdy weirdoes, and websites were simply these blanks HTML sheets which held the potential to do absolutely anything you could imagine and possibly more. In retrospect the online world of Second Life was the epitome of these kinds of shared liberties, hopes and ambitions. In the “Golden Age of the Internet” you were free to

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Since the turn of the millennium however we have seen a slow nearly twenty year reform of this online world. These days I look at my Internet usage and I find my friends and colleagues posting the most formal photographs of themselves onto C.V. websites such as Academia.eu or Linkedin. Facebook no longer likes users fabricating their identities and requires from users a real name for safety measures. Free music downloads are – it seems – being steadily replaced by monthly subscription services such as Jay Z’s Tidal. Websites check you spelling mistakes, blog templates are standardised and professional, apps monitor how much food you eat or exercise you do, and horrible private companies and government bureaus monitor your online usage. It just feels as if slowly all the wacky, bizarre and crazy stuff that could be done is being replaced by regular and monotonous “real world” or work-related activities. Where’s all the fun and spirit of freedom and imagination going?

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We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this. Classical sociologist Max Weber theorised about how social change can take place when charismatic leaders set new trends for societies. Steve Jobs springs to mind. Weber theorised that in the absence of the charismatic leaders then the new patterns and trends of social activity would slowly be commandeered by bureaucrats or formal, rational reformists. What was once a freedom and escape from routine would overtime be reduced to everyday routine, monotony and complete absence of charisma. As I observe the Internet slowly being commandeered by the traditional news networks (BBC, Guardian, Fox News, etc.) and free services transforming into subscription services, or individuals taking their online identities seriously while public agencies oversee social interactions and guaranteeing financial interactions, I wonder if Weber was right?

G7 outcome and playing the “Climate-Change, Blame Game”

I was delighted to discover that plans had been made at the G7 summit to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. Oliver Burkeman’s article on the Guardian Website, “We’re all climate change deniers at heart”, brought home a lot of personal truths about my relationship with nature. It also raised concerned about how much responsibility “I” (or, “We”) should personally take onboard for causing environmental damage.

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There seems to be an environmental blame game going on here that forces some of us to become climate change deniers. Very few of members of advanced societies are willing to take onboard the civil responsibility for walking further (rather than driving) to purchase organic ingredients, or digging deeper into our pockets to support local producers, or turning taps off in between brushing our teeth and washing our faces, or approaching politicians or supermarkets with demands for more environmentally friendly produce. Quite simply because someone else, somewhere else, is doing more damage to the environment than us. Climate-change, and all environmental issues, are mixed up in this general, ecological or environmental contandrum. Call it “Nature” if you will.

Environmental sociologist Raymond Murphy (1994) raises the issue of environmental accountability. On the one hand, more accounts (as in calculations or metrics) are being taken about environmental resources, waste outputs and environmental destruction by those in higher positions of power (experts, researchers, academics). On the other hand, accountability for environmental destruction is being distributed out. This accountability for environmental degradation is dispersed between developed nations and “undeveloped” nations (or, “under-developed” nations), multinational corporations and local businesses, urban and rural communities, celebrities and non-celibrities, and so on. How accountable are you for environmental degradation?

The term and concept of “collective actions”, or the ‘slow workings of complex impersonal systems’ that Burkeman refers to , denotes a disproportionate assignment or blame, in so far as some collective actions cause more damage than others.

– Let’s just make it clear that what are often refereed to as “undeveloped” nations are often the most advanced and developed nations in terms of environmental and ecological sustainability. –

I think the most import and fascinating issue is that of the distribution of environmental accountability between individual consumers, or “Us”, and multinational corporations, or the ‘industrial elite’. While environmental damage can be considered the result of “collective action”, some should be held more accountable than others; some have profited financially more than others; some have accumulated more power than others. The exploitation of nature has always been an integral part of wealth and power accumulation.

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Why should I feel accountable for environmental destruction by not separating my plastics from my food waste? Especially when there is a huge cloud of industrial pollution hovering over cities in Latin America or China, or bombs being dropped in Bagdad? What personal responsibilities should “we”, as members of advanced nations, take onboard in light of the environmental degradation caused in the international trade of agrochemicals? What personal sense of responsibility should I feel in light of the ecological footprint that the launching of a remote sensing, satellite into outer space? Why should I cycle out of town to visit the farmer’s market – and pay extra for the produce – when the supermarkets in my city profit more from selling mass-produced, non-organic food?

Each of us seems to shift the blame from one source to another. Either our next door neighbours is using their hosepipe during a summer’s drought and hosepipe ban, which tempts us into using our own; or, we are constantly in an uproar about how weapons of mass destruction – damaging to human populations and to natural environments – are being deployed around the world without our democratic consent.

– Fu*k it then, I will use water my garden, why care if no one else cares?

Q: Why should I fly less or have less children if Jeremy Clarkson and collogues get paid to test-drive supercars to their absolute limits?

These political or military elites, the ruling classes or company owners, also have a much different worldview than your average citizen of the global economy. The environmental damage viewed from above – from satellites and drones – paints a much different picture of the earth than the general public can observe stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. We need these elites to gather scientific information about climate change, implement economic goals or policies, inform citizens about dangers, stand up and make changes. It is beyond the capacity of the average consumer to inspect each product in their shopping basket as to determine its environmental footprint. We need to trust the future in the hands of trust-worthy, uncorrupt, leaders.

We can theorise collective action and accumulative results, but quite clearly some have more power and wealth to action social change, social or economic reformation than others. The G7 goal to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century matters because the ideas of the experts and ruling elite are being put into action. These ideas can bring about a more fundamental change than any one, everyday individual can achieve on their own. This is not to abdicate each individual of industrial society from their environmental responsibility, but hopeful this move (followed by lots of other movements) will lead advanced nations into the right direction, at least.

In this light, our “moral licensing” will be much more valid if we believe that our actions are legitimate to those of a greater society, and the ruling ideas of the time. This is a step towards changing the environmentally unfriendly narrative, or metanarrative, of our current epoch. However, we need to get the accountability balance right, between agency (what we individuals can personally do) and structure (what the politicians, scientific experts, corporate and military elites) can do.

Murphy R. (1994) Rationality & Nature: A Sociological Inquiry into a Changing Relationship, Oxford: Westview Press.

Russell Brand’s universalism and “The Truth”

If Jesus did actually exist but was not the son of God, as many Christians around the world believe, then what kind of person was he? Many would say delusional or possibly even mad. One thing is for sure; he was defiantly egotistical. Imagine considering and believing that You and only you have been given authority by God to walk around the planet Earth making universal declarations to people about how they should or should not live their lives.

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English stand up comedian and actor Russell Brand has recently diversified his career into three directions: (1) an apolitical politician (paradoxically), (2) an unqualified academic slash cultural theorist, slash sociologist, slash social physiologist, slash, neo-Marxist, slash critical theorist or perhaps even an all round academic don of the arts and humanities without a masters degree or doctorate in philosophy (?!?), and finally (3) he has also become a spiritual guru and claims to espouse universal truths that many of us are being held back from by a marginal, 1% ruling class of capitalists around the world. While I enjoy Brand’s sense of humour sometimes and sympathise with many of the social issues he comments on (he does pick out evocative topics after all), I consider that this combination of points one, two and three are not just slightly worrying but bloody dangerous.

For starters, I do not believe that the Church or any form of religion or spiritualism should have any direct influence on democracy, politics or the general running or a national society or nation state. I am a disestablishmentarian then. Many have pointed out the paradoxical position that Brand has features in all types of political debates while attempting to be as “apolitical” as possible.

For someone who has studied “media and culture studies” for an undergraduate degree and attended advanced lectures on discourse theory, deconstructionism, ideology, mass media, etc. then listening to Brand’s off the cuff analyses of the FOX News Network in the US is just painful. This is the most bigoted and atrocious news network in the world so I would fully support anyone’s criticisms. Sometimes he does manage to extract some general “truth” from FOX’s propaganda through his analyses for his “True News” network. However, by and large the word “Truth” is something all social scientists are skeptical about these days. After all, different types of Truth have been used by dogmatic leaders throughout the past to legitimist the most heinous crimes. Because Brand wants the general public to become more critical of bias news channels – which he or anyone else should – then why should we not also be critical about his version of the news, or the Truth?

What legitimizes Brand’s version of the Truth? This for me is the scariest part. It all boils down his personal, subjective or “spiritual” experience of life and the universe. At the end of almost every Trews report he makes appeals to the universal, collectivised source of energy and love, which apparently we have all become disconnected from through the division of labour, capitalism, consumerism, the mass media, and so on. The universe, as in every solar system, planet, person, molecule, cell, atom, etc. legitimizes his own thoughts, his own arguments, and his opinions and converts it into a “Truth statement” which is entirely and universally valid. How can anyone argue against such universal Truth? Well, quite simply no one can. There is no arguing with someone who honestly believes that her or his opinion is universally absolute.

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Throughout history there have been rulers of civilizations that have had access to the universal truth; Egyptian Kings, Chinese Emperors, religious leaders, and even cult leaders. The whole idea of the Enlightenment movement was that through science and philosophy, rational critical debate, then we could overcome blind faith and dogmatism to create a more just and fair society that is no led by rulers who blindly believe that whatever they say is universally true, forever. Russell Brand seems to overlook this point. Not only should spiritual faith re-enter politics and science, but we should accept that his spiritualism and universality is the only true, valid or reliable source of knowledge.

To sum up then, according to the universal logic of Brand then at the very core or epicenter of politics, science and education, and religion, is Russell Brand. His understanding of the universe goes beyond all worldviews (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) and binds them together in a universal “Force”. This force, energy and ‘collective universal consciousness’ is used to legitimise every argument he presents to us on the topics of religion, politics, critical theory, and so on. I am of the opinion that this force and this universal energy is simply his own universally inflated ego, which appeals for followers (people he calls “Trusers”) like all forms of religion or cult leaders have throughout the past. If critical media theories are to teach us one thing, then that is to remain critical to the media and not be easily led by universal appeals.

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.

Nicole Scherzinger: Natural Life on the Screen

“Hawaiian Sunset in the evening”, superstar Nicole Scherzinger described the photo she posted of herself onto Facebook. Next to that was the exclamation: “no filter”. What this implies is that this photo is entirely “au natural” and no digital effects have been used to enhance this remarkable photo of a sunset in Hawaii. However, this is not a photograph of a sunset in Hawaii is it? This is, first and foremost, a photograph of superstar Scherzinger, set against a beautiful Hawaiian Sunset in the evening. The sunset fades in significance; the human dominates nature.

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Assuming Scherzinger posted the photograph herself, and not her publicity team, she then commented on her photograph: “God’s beauty”. Now my question in response to this is: is she referring to herself? since her face and hair takes up almost seventy five percent of the photograph?, or the Hawaiian Sunset? As a matter of personal taste, if I did believe in God or intelligent universal design then I would be happy to consider that Scherzinger is, indeed, stunning. However, to post a photograph of your own self and exclaim “God’s beauty!” would strike me, as the sort of thing an entirely self-obsessed narcissist would do, wouldn’t it? Not the most attractive personality trait.

The other hashtag comment that niggles me is the claim: “simple life”. I can only consider that this is a reference to the au natural appearance of a celebrity who has decided to post a photograph of her self without makeup, whilst enjoying the great outdoors. One of the big problems is that by uploading a photograph to a digital social network of eight million followers (nearly the population of London) on Facebook then we can hardly consider this the “simple life”. Rather, the by-product of the digital, social networking age, which is densely complicated in both a technological and social sense.

Many evolutionists rather than creationists tend to consider that humans are natural, a part of nature, and therefore the technological products of human culture are also natural products. Personally I think it stands to reason that we should attempt to make some distinction between “natural” and “artificial”, certainly it would help in defining and labeling “Green” or “organic” food for legal purposes. Scherzinger is clearly happy to make the distinction between a natural photography and an artificially enhanced photograph, without however acknowledging the digital media technologies and network that mediate her to her followers. (There are layer upon layer of digital processes involved here). This is a digital photograph; digital effects have been used.

I am not entirely happy to accept that this is a photograph of a Hawaiian sunset, nor is it a photo of a human enjoying a simple life, rather this is another “boast-post” put about on social networking media to establish a presence within a network of online, digital socialites. These are a new generation of web-surfers who use social networking media to promote themselves to audiences: “Life on the Screen” as Sherry Turkle once termed the physiological condition and dawning era.

Some degree of critical analysis needs to take place here. Why on earth would anyone consider this a statement of simplicity, naturality or God’s intent? To my mind this exposes a problem with social networking media. It transforms us into full-time workers, constantly generating content within our personal leisure lives as well as our work lives. What could have been a break from work becomes a part of work; the boundaries that separate work life from private life have eroded. The natural world, and our appreciation of it, has faded into insignificance in light of the human ego. Nature becomes another resource, “nature capital”, for self-promotion.

Lastly, digital media and the ability for users to generate their own media content calls into question the idea of “ideology”. Given that users can now create their own ideology, then by doing so we should gather some idea of how ideology works, given the kinds of responses we get from the other users we present our ideologies to. This is new for humans to some extent in so far as mediated ideology was part of a “top-down” media industry used by power elites for propagating war, cultivating needs to sell commodities or generating support for political parties. There has always been some degree of “lying” in ideologies that critical theories have attempted to highlight. Given that greater amounts of social media users can now generate their own ideologies, and see the affects on other users, and gather an understanding of how ideologies work, then I find it strange that humans find it necessary to present an ideological “natural” self (even without filters) rather than a real representation of the natural self. I would guess that the natural self is extinct. The only natural self we have is that one that dominates nature and circulates on real and virtual social networks. We should distinguish between the two.