Archive for October, 2004

Guardian Unlimited | US elections 2004 | The last post

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

We had an interesting discussion about globalization and cultural homogenization today (which also included a brief moment of self-doubt as I tried to figure out if those words were spelt with ‘s’ rather than ‘z’ so go figure). Students (from all nations) were very anti-American but, worryingly, seemed to equate government and people as the same thing – that’s never happened before and is somewhat telling.

At one point I stopped the discussion to say that, for all the complaints about America’s apparent aim to homogenise/ize us, we seemed to be doing exactly the same by assuming someone from Texas was the same as someone from New York.

It seems few people stop to consider the USA is 50 states (i.e. countries) or if I remember correctly 46 states and four commonwealths.

Anyway… The Guardian’s Operation Clark County project continues to gaain attention (follow the link to their follow up article from today’s edition). I’d be interested to know if it’s been widely reported in the USA and how it’s been seen. The Guardian’s G2 section, in which this started, is often quite ironic and the whole thing was slightly tongue in cheek. Rather than try to persuade people to vote for Kerry they were, like me, more concerned that people a) voted and b) realised that what happens there affects everyone around the world. That seems to have been lost on some people.

Reading some of the responses makes you glad there’s an Atlantic ocean between us but the problem is, every American I’ve ever had dealings with whether in person or via email – and I’ve ‘met’ lots recently – has been a pleasure to talk to (except one, someone working in an internet store who got my order one Saturday and sent me a bizzarre email telling me he was going to ignore it because it was Independence Day and… well, lots of anti-British invective followed. Irony is, it was July 2nd and even I know that’s not Independence Day. I saw the film, and I know these things 😉

Still, we have weirdos aplenty over here but thankfully few of them know how to write, never mind access the internet so you’re pretty much safe from them.


Guardian Unlimited | US elections 2004 | The last post: “Fox-viewing America was never going to embrace our modest sortie into US politics and we knew full well that any individual voter might take exception to the idea of a foreigner writing to offer some advice on how they should vote – our website explicitly urged participants to ‘imagine how you would feel if you received a letter from an American urging you to vote for Tony Blair … or Michael Howard.’ But you couldn’t fail to be a little shocked by the volume and pitch of the invective directed our way. Most of it was coordinated by a handful of resourceful bloggers – the ringleader of whom is fittingly published on a site called ‘spleenville’ – and much of it was eye-wateringly unpleasant. ‘I hope your earholes turn to arseholes and shit on your shoulders,’ was one, more repeatable example of the scatalogical genre. Another memorable mail asked:

‘How secure is your building that contains all you morons???

Do you have enough security??

ARE YOU SURE ??? Are you VERY sure ??’

Interestingly, one of the recurrent themes running through the onslaught was an ardent admiration for Tony Blair from the kind of people who might feel slightly out of place in even the biggest of New Labour big tents. Another was a curious obsession with the state of British dentistry: ‘MAY YOU HAVE TO HAVE A TOOTH CAPPED. I UNDERSTAND IT TAKES AT LEAST 18 MONTHS FOR YOUR GREAT MEDICAL SERVICES TO GET AROUND TO YOU.’ At times, it felt as though whole swathes of America had suffered an epidemic of Tourette syndrome.

So far, so bad. The email onslaught was pretty unpleasant and inconvenient for the 53 Guardian colleagues whose addresses were targeted by the rightwing spammers – several of us received more than 700 mails – but by and large they were the sort of missives that left you feeling relieved you were not on the same side of the argument (indeed, any argument) as the sender. The same could be said of the news this week that Rush Limbaugh had devoted virtually all of one of his three-hour shows to our Clark County project.”

Dear Limey Assholes

Wednesday, October 20th, 2004

Guardian Unlimited | US elections 2004 | Reaction from the US to the Guardian’s Clark County project: “Have you not noticed that Americans don’t give two shits what Europeans think of us? Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to NOT vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies … I don’t give a rat’s ass if our election is going to have an effect on your worthless little life. I really don’t. If you want to have a meaningful election in your crappy little island full of shitty food and yellow teeth, then maybe you should try not to sell your sovereignty out to Brussels and Berlin, dipshit. Oh, yeah – and brush your goddamned teeth, you filthy animals.

Wading River, NY”

Last week the Guardian in the UK offered readers the opportunity to get hold of the address of a voter in Clark County, Ohio and write to them encouraging them to vote in the upcoming election.

Here’s the article, and here are some of the responses from America…

Well I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When both candidates claim the election is for the leader of the free world (I heard Kerry say it last week in Maine – I was watching the whole thing here in the UK! – and I know Bush has said it several times) then I think it’s reasonable the rest of the free world has a say.

My preference is for Kerry, but really I just want a decisive result either way. So please, just vote… 🙂

New Doctor Who logo revealed – oh dear

Monday, October 18th, 2004

This will only make sense to those of you who care, but the BBC finally revealed the new logo for the relaunch of Doctor Who next year. Apparently about five people worked on this.

What can I say? I know the series is about time travel but this is a bit 1987 isn’t it? How it’ll work on books, DVDs, magazines and (sniff) badges and t-shirts I don’t know. Five minutes with Photoshop and a lens flare filter gone haywire.

There’s a bigger version available. Maybe it’ll grow on me but I find it difficult to read and a bit too ‘slick’. Maybe it’s a still from the title sequence and the words sit on their own in other uses?

Maybe I shouldn’t care… but I do.

Attack of the 60ft students!

Sunday, October 17th, 2004

Something is really worrying me about my new first year students. They are all much, much taller than me. I am ‘average’ height but the other day I got them all to stand up for a little experiement and I felt really, really insignificant. The year above them are about normal, and the current third years are all at eye level with me except for one or two.

So what’s going on? I’m wondering if the BSE scare a few years ago means this lot have all been fed on US beef complete with growth hormones, or is it because the ‘buy this soap powder get free art materials for your school’ promotions started around about the time this lot started getting interested in art at school? In which case they were obviously exposed to some sort of chemical onslaught that really needs investigating.

Nice group, though. Haven’t had anything thrown at me yet and they laugh at some of my jokes, so it looks good…

In Praise of dumbing Down

Sunday, October 17th, 2004

For the past few years the phrase ‘dumbing down’ has been applied liberally to just about every area of life. It is an insult, a quick and cheap way of shutting someone up by claiming they are oversimplifying something or don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’ve never been keen on the phrase myself – I think people who use it are lazy; dumbing down, in fact.

A regular columnist for The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Frank furedi, a professor of sociology, uses the term freely and implies it even more in his increasingly nonsensical articles and, just out, his latest book: Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism.

Furedi, and many like him, bemoan the rise of a world that pretends anyone can have access to knowledge and understanding. He unashamedly demands that universities be elitest, that the children of the working classes be left to be workers while people like him get on and think seriously all day about how best to increase the intellectual inequalities in society.

This whole dumbing down thing preoccupies me a lot at the moment. Since I started teaching I’ve been trying to find ways of taking subjects that traditionally turn people off and making them interesting. Unlike Mr Furedi I don’t think finding something uninteresting is the fault of the student, but of the subject and its champions. There is no subject in the world so complicated that it can’t be explained in plain English. It doesn’t stop it being complex to understand fully, but why should it be impossible to understand at all?

In the past few weeks I’ve been writing a book (due out next summer) about visual communication and I’ve been worrying a lot about it. The reason is that the book offers an opportunity for me to put something concrete on my CV under ‘publications’, something all academics need if they are to progress to the holy grail of a full-time post rather than, as I do at the moment, have to keep at least three or four jobs on the go just to make ends meet (which they don’t, incidentally). So on the one hand I have an audience in mind: my academic peers and masters. I need to produce a book that will help me gain entry into the ivory towers, so I need to make sure it is full of footnotes, brown-nosed cross references to the people who count, and essentially written in an impenetrable manner. The rule of thumb is that readability is inversely proportional to academic worth.

But my real audience is somewhat different: the book is aimed at first year undergraduates on practice-based design courses who traditionally view ‘theory’ as something to run away from as quickly as possible. Not because, as I say, the concepts are scary or impossible for them to follow, but generally because they are taught in such a way as to say ‘if you don’t understand this you’re thick’.

Let me tell you something. I’m a fan of Baudrillard, I find his theories bold and imaginative and not much different from my own ideas about the way the world works; but the man can’t write. I was reading some of his stuff last weekend and found myself having to re-read sentences several times. No wonder there’s such a market for ‘Baudrillard made easy’ books – and I admit to using them. If he could write like Douglas Adams we’d be living in a far, far better world.

So I’ve written this book in a way that those who’ve read drafts have said is clear and easy to understand. So I should be pleased about that, yes?

No. I’m actually worried about it because I know I’m effectively shooting my academic career not so much in the foot as the head – it’s terminal. The anti-dumbing down brigade is the equivalent of the intellectual mafia, shouting so loudly that they are in effect academic bullies determined to preserve ‘standards’ (rather than improve them) not by advancing their subjects but by making them impenetrable to all but the pre-vetted elite. That entry to this elite is determined by cultural and financial capital makes it even worse – how dare the self-taught son of a postman who never went to proper university dare publish a book that makes communication theory, cultural theory and even semiotics ‘easy to understand’?

I find the ‘dumbing down’ brigade reprehensible. The other day I gave a lecture on communication theory to nearly 80 first year students and did it in my usual way. I introduced Shannon and Weaver’s process model by running a game of Chinese Whispers, and prefaced semiotics by asking a student to draw things on the whiteboard while the rest shouted answers out Pictionary-style.

I suspect 80 students left with at least some understanding of basic semiotics and communication theory. Most will have left with a very good understanding and an enthusiasm for the subject that will lead them to read more on it and discuss it with their friends. But the ‘dumbing down’ brigade would have been turning in their graves if they had been dead. I really should have used a traditional lecture with slides, read from a paper and followed up with a pile of reading and an essay. Out of the 80 students I bet not one would have left with enthusiasm for anything except a stiff drink.

I have sat in lectures by leading authorities in their subject that have resulted in confusion and a determination never to darken that subject’s door again – and I mean by me, not by students. People with postgraduate qualifications prepare to talk to people with nothing more than an A-level (at best) without making any concessions. I went to one lecture on subcultures – an interesting topic that should really engage the fashion students in the audience, you’d think – that in the first sentence mentioned hegemony but never once explained what it was. When I suggested to a colleague that this was a problem I was told in no uncertain terms that this was ‘dumbing down’ and that if students don’t know something they should go off and find out. Ah, the GOFO teaching technique (or FOFO as I prefer to call it).

But this doesn’t help me. I want my book to be a CV enhancer and career resuscitator, not my suicide note.

Then one morning, it struck me. I was in the shower, where all the best ideas come, going over the book’s central argument (that all design is political but whether we consent to its commissioner’s worldview, negotiate our own response or engage in conflict is our decision) I realised that most of chapter one is given over to the idea that communication theory tells us the best way to communicate something complex is to make it easy to understand. My approach to writing the book is confirmed by the very subject matter, and it’s an argument that has been used not just by communications and cultural theorists but by sociologists like my old friend Mr Frank Furedi. Arguing against speaking plainly is a way of defending an ideological process whereby those who can talk the talk can impose their views on everyone else not because the views are right but because the situation keeps them where they are. The barbarians are at the gate, and people like me who advocate getting people interested in how the bloody locks work are a threat to their position.

If ‘dumbing down’ is a phrase that’s not going to go away then let’s change its meaning. If dumbing down helps people who otherwise were literally, but not intellectually, ignorant to understand the way the world works then let’s have more of it. And if I hear a critic describe my book as dumbing down I’ll take it as a compliment.

Christmas is coming…

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

I’ve just got back from one of those night-time trips to the local Co-Op for cat food that also resulted in me now sitting here eating a family pack of Haribo Star Mix, evil little buggers that lie just on the wrong side of moreishness (is that a real word?)

What really irritated me about the visit was I stumbled on the store workers stacking a whole wall’s-worth of Christmas confectionary and other stuff: selection boxes, sweet mince meat and advent calendars.

I had spotted the first little bits and bobs in another supermarket in late August but let it go because it wasn’t much, but this is the first overt Christmas theming I’ve seen this year and, quite frankly, I’m disgusted. Not so much because of the indecent haste with which summer has been consigned to the past, nor the clash of pagan Hallowe’en masks and Christian festival (since when did the British celebrate Hallowe’en anyway?).

No, what really pisses me off about this is that I’m thirty-four in three weeks’ time and my “Christmas gets earlier every year” mental tirade makes me feel really, really old.

Thirty years ago I would have started aching for Christmas round about now (after my birthday of course) and it would have seemed an age before it arrived, all the worse for the shops, the TV ads, the smell of bonfires on November 5th that seem to linger right through to the end of December, and the itch of glitter used in school to make cards and decorations but that somehow gets everywhere except on the paper and the glue.

But now I think “Bugger. I’m old”

I think I’m actually dreading this one because next year I reach the average age for marriage in this country, as well as the age where I become a member of various “at risk” groups – heart attack, stroke (these sweets are helping me on the way), several different types of cancer that – god fordbid I should offend here – see far more men off than breast cancer does women but go realtively ignored, and suicide. Presumably it’s all the cheery news about being “at risk” that leads to suicide if the others don’t get you.

So next year beckons already, thanks to the confectionary industry, and with it the prospect of premature death due to some ailment or by my own hand, or marriage. It’s not much to look forward to is it?