Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 31.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Government of Spain, the UK and the USA
  • As you'll all know, Spain has a written constitution, written in the late 1970s. Stimulated by the Catalan crisis, some think this is already unfit for purpose and needs early revision. Well, we'll see. Written constitutions – and more so specific articles – tend to become sacred cows. In contrast, the UK has no written constitution but relies on 'conventions'. (Incidentally, I well recall the first essay I had to write at university: Conventions presuppose the law). As it hapens, Tony Blair showed how easy it is for a British prime minister to ride roughshod over 'immutable' long-standing conventions with total impunity. And Donald Fart has now shown that this is true of the USA as well. As a Guardian columnist puts it: The first year of the Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the US model. The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president. Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest – but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldn’t, so he did. More on this for US-watchers here.
  • One of the UK papers naturally features today a list of 20 places one just has to visit in 2018. No great surprise to see that Spain has a nomination among these – Los Picos de Europa. These come in at 6th and are described as: The perfect adventure playground of shark’s-teeth limestone peaks, stretching over a 250 sq mile(647 sq km) chunk of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León. Where you can go canyoning, canoeing, mountain-biking, and even good old-fashioned walking, in the form of one of the great day hikes in Europe, the Garganta del Cares, which follows the course of a hydroelectric pipeline through some of the most dramatic scenery that will ever hit your eyes. The writer stresses that you can drive 12 miles(19km) north of the park boundaries to the Asturian coast for your sea-kayaking, paddle-boarding, or lounging-around-on-the-beach fix. I can vouch for all that.
The EU
  • There’s a growing sense that Brexit is an issue that’s manageable. The far bigger issue in the EU is that, if they try to come down too hard on Poland, existing cracks may come to a head in 2018, not because of migration, or even elections, but because of EU spending plans.
  • A couple of positive views:-
  1. There is nothing intrinsically extreme about being pro-Brexit. If there were, it is highly unlikely that 17.4 million people would have voted for it. The same applies, by the way, to the Remain position. Both sides contain extremists – Brexiteers who want to pull up the drawbridge on all foreigners; Remainers who despise Britishness – but neither is dominated by these. The divide, though often emotional, is not between maniacs and moderates, but between reasonable people who – often after much hesitation - have plumped for different visions of how our future is best assured.
  2. Every stage of the coming Brexit negotiations will look as if it is collapsing into chaos and recrimination – until five minutes to midnight when, in an incomprehensible (because largely unexplained) miraculous transmutation it will be resolved. Everybody engaged in the process will instantly switch from reciprocal insults and bloodcurdling threats to universal approbation and proclamations of mutual regard. This pattern will be repeated at least half a dozen times, always with the same formula – because economic reality must prevail over political vanity – but the ending will always come as a “surprise” to most of the media. On the first few occasions, the happy denouement will create euphoric relief in the country at large. Then everybody will get the hang of it and become bored.
The UK
  • In the above-cited list, I was pleased – if a tad surprised – to see Liverpool rank just behind Los Picos, at 7th. Don't all rush.
Social Media
  • The calls for something to be done are increasingly strident. If only if it's for imposing more taxes on the companies which 'publish' – though not in their opinion – the abuse which forms most of the internet. Below is an article from a dissenting voice.
  • Happy New Year to all and sundry.
Today's Cartoon


The internet is a jungle that can’t be tamed: Matthew Parris

It would be impossible to censor social media so we might as well embrace fake news and learn to ignore the insults

But what that impact will be, how society will respond to it, how it may change us and how it will (as it will) finally bed down in our culture is impossible to predict. How we end up regulating the internet is at this stage equally impossible to anticipate.

Pause, please, at that word “impossible”. It’s at the heart of this column’s argument. By “impossible” I don’t mean problematical: I mean impossible. Pointless, hopeless, a waste of time. We’re no more able to peer even a couple of decades into a future world’s relationship with the internet than in 1440 Johannes Gutenberg could have guessed how, how fast and how completely his printing press would shape the world to come. Did he know where his invention would lead? Of course not. Any contemporary speculation on the future impact of the printing press would have been futile. As futile as our guesses, now, about where the internet will take us.

But though our journey into the unknown must be facing backwards, precedent is useful. In the end, all we’re talking about is human communication. Based on the history of communications so far, there are two imperatives I hope this column might impress on you.

First is the need for scepticism whenever someone starts burbling about the “new situation” that social media and internet communication presents us with. Ask yourself what genuinely new ethical or legal dilemma we face and what genuinely new principle is involved. I’ve yet to see either.
So criminals and terrorists can communicate with greater ease using the internet? But all communication opens up opportunities for criminality. The easier the communication, the easier the conspiracy. The railways, the motor car, post and telegraphy, radio, the telephone, television, the mobile phone — each was greeted with the same anxieties, for each enlarged the scope not only for good but evil too. And we learnt this truth fast enough. So each was followed by tweaks in the law, in regulation and in policing, to enable society to monitor new theatres for the same old vices, and pursue and track down the wicked in new places. But the principles remained the same.

And now a new generation will do this too, as the internet develops. In cyberspace I (reluctantly) conclude that for serious crimes like child abuse or terrorism, greater use must be made of undercover sleuthing and the use of online agents provocateurs. Is the structure, calibre and culture of Britain’s numerous geographically based local constabularies capable of adapting to these needs? A new, national body, differently recruited and trained, with an IT-led culture of its own, may be needed. A prototype for such a body already exists but only covers child abuse. Similarly specialist treatment is given to online anti-terrorism work. Internet-centred policing should be brought beneath a single roof as we do with transport policing. A breed of officer who never expects to meet a criminal or experience a car chase may evolve.

Which leads me to the second imperative: never to forget that humans can evolve very fast to adapt to new circumstances. Neither you nor I nor even the present younger generation are looking at Twitter, Facebook or the swirl of new platforms for report and commentary in the way the next generation will.

It’s possible they will learn to dismiss trolling (or the pile-in where a flash-mob of vituperative critics sets upon a single individual) just as the first consumers of newspapers learnt, after an initial shock, to shrug at the coarsened politics and bare-knuckled attacks for which the public prints offered platforms. I certainly learnt quickly to take no notice of personal abuse in the online readers’ commentary beneath columns like this; just as I opted to discard venomous letters arriving in the post. I was stalked for ages by telephone and survived. I could equally survive being stalked online.

I believe the immediate response of my generation — that such things must somehow be stopped by “regulation” — is wrong: first because this is in practice impossible if we’re to maintain platforms on which people can express opinions; the sheer volume of cybertraffic makes mediating (censoring) social media impossible except after the horse has bolted. And second because, perversely, protecting people from nastiness makes them more vulnerable: it impairs the production of the ultimate antibody against abuse, which is learning to take no notice.

None of this is to deny the importance of law. We can prosecute those who incite illegal acts or racist behaviour; we can sue those who libel. We can prosecute those who conspire to pervert elections or referendums. There may well be scope for international action to force social media giants to disclose the identities of those who post potentially criminal or actionable material. But vulgar abuse? Bring it on. Let’s learn to treat it with contempt, not umbrage.

There’s a great truth to be learnt about an essentially open-access, unmediated social media platform, and it’s one the next generation may learn better than mine has. Cyberspace is not like a big, democratic newspaper. It’s a chaos, an infinite tip, much of it rubbish, much of it wrong. For the discerning there’s plenty that’s useful; but you must pick your way through oceans of nonsense, mountains of trivia and a good deal of poison. Unless this could be filtered, cleansed, pre-viewed and regulated — and it cannot — we make people more vulnerable, not less, by feeble attempts to render an inherently dangerous space safer for them.

So bring on the fake news; bring on the slosh of sentiment; bring on the wildfires of anger and accusation. They are windows into the interior worlds of other human beings. Let us learn to see what lives there and make our own judgments. Let us learn to navigate, as we do in the spoken word, in the printed word and in our own lives. Let us learn to discriminate.

More than anything, let us learn who we can trust to separate fact from opinion and truth from lies. Let us get to know our sources and choose our guides. That is what a paper like this can try to offer: and why I am proud to write for The Times.


Scrooge said...

Feliz Ano Nuevo.
And thank you for an interesting "blog".

Colin Davies said...

Thanks. Much appreciated.

Maria said...

Yesterday's article on the English language was very informative, thank you! Given its history, English is messier than a dog's breakfast! Happy New Year!

Colin Davies said...

And to you, Maria.

I now have increased affection for the Scandis.

Both the Scandi languages and German are, of course, descended from the same source. So it's nicely ironic that the former have softened the effect of the latter on their bastard child, English, and rendered it 'easier'. Albeit by a later invasion and settlement.

The Germanic languages are traditionally subdivided into three branches:

1. North Germanic: The first of these branches survives in modern Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese, and Icelandic, all of which are descended from Old Norse.

2. The East Germanic languages are now extinct, and the only historical member of this branch from which written texts survive is Gothic.

3. The West Germanic languages, however, have undergone extensive dialectal subdivision and are now represented in modern languages such as English, German, Dutch, Yiddish, Afrikaans, and others.

jan frank said...

Personally, I think there IS a new situation "that social media and internet communication presents us with", and this applies especially to so-called "fake news". Whenever I read some opinion or report that purports to tell me what is really going on, I start looking around at the same opinion or report on other web pages. Then I start looking at background information, start looking at "usually reliable" sources as well as articles written by "the enemy".

None of the articles is 100% true or 100% false, but by being able to look at a dozen different sources of information quickly (much quicker than walking down to the reference section of our local library as in the olden days) I can come to a conclusion that is probably reasonably well informed.

To me it's a real luxury to be able to read US and UK, Spanish, Dutch and German newspapers as well as look up dozens and dozens articles. That, I think, is the NEW situation.

Colin Davies said...

Yes, Jan, it's a joy as well as a luxury, even in only 2 languages as in my case.