Thursday, December 31, 2009

Electric Dreams

I’ve been watching Electric Dreams over the past three evenings. This fascinating BBC4 series has been presented as a story of how an ordinary family lives with the technology of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but it was really about a lot more than that. As well as receiving a constant stream of nostalgia-inducing or mystifying gadgets (depending on your age), the family home was altered to reflect living conditions of the time, and an authentic car and vintage clothing procured.

To represent the 1970s, the production team actually blocked off part of the family’s house, to leave them with one living room and one bathroom between five. And, of course, that was what it was like. Comments on the introduction of the shower and the en suite to domestic life weren’t included, but surely that was a change right up there with colour TV, the freezer, computers, mobile phones and the internet.

By the 1980s, the family had been given a formal dining room, in which to hold a dinner party at the end of the ‘decade’. The garish brown and orange patterns of the 1970s were replaced with Laura Ashley chintz and fake 18th century dining suite, which looked even worse than I remember and which, in retrospect, summed up the petit bourgeois pretentiousness of the Thatcher era. The 1990s was back to simplicity and bright colours, and with a bigger kitchen, transformed from isolated workspace in the 1970s to social hub twenty years later.

The technological changes over thirty years were stunning. At the beginning of the 1970s, only half of UK households had a telephone and only 25% had central heating; the programme began with the heating turned off. Televisions were expensive and kept breaking down, so many people rented. Colour TV arrived halfway through the decade, and of course the ‘music centre’ (one per household) on which both vinyl discs and cassette tapes could be played was the height of sophistication. The new ability to record from discs to cassette tapes led to the first debates on breach of copyright, which are still with us today.

By the mid-1980s, such innovations as the microwave oven, telephone extension lines, the answering machine and early computers had appeared, along with video recorders which were no more reliable than TVs had been in the 1970s. It was interesting to be reminded that early computers required programming, which the boy of the family took to instantly. I was surprised that little said about the very popular Amstrad PC which appeared towards the end of the decade, at the same time as the CD player and the video camera. The constant complaint from the family was that 1980s technology didn’t work very well, and indeed it was recommended that video recorders should be serviced every six months to prevent breakdowns. Increased reliability has cost jobs but made life simpler.

However, it was the 1990s which was labelled ‘the decade of the gadget’, and strangely enough was the least interesting episode. Boxes of stuff arrived thick and fast, often to be replaced quickly by later models, especially in the case of computers. A fax machine, computer games, satellite TV (with only five extra channels), pagers, huge and very expensive mobile phones, a digital camera which could only take eight photos, a laptop, a breadmaker and other superfluous kitchen items, the Playstation – and, for the ‘millennium’ party, a karaoke machine. Not all contributed to quality of life, but all made a profit for someone.

The biggest event of the 1990s, and arguably of the whole series, was the arrival of the internet. Watching the family struggle with dial-up, remembering that modem noise, and watching them put together a family web page on a slow connection, highlighted the restrictions of the early days and how far we’ve come with broadband, social networking sites, blogging, and connectivity on the move including through phones and netbooks. But it didn’t recapture the magic of the transition: the sense of having access to so much information and being able to send e-mail rather than write a letter was, I would say, the biggest transformation in communications since the invention of the telephone.

There were many thought-provoking aspects to the series. It was useful in reminding us of the chronology of gadgets, especially for most of us who acquired them late or not at all, and in reminding us how expensive they were: a colour TV cost the equivalent of £3,000 today when first released, and a mobile phone £1,400. It also showed the importance of electronic devices to young people. This was a comfortably off middle class family, but not once did I see any of the children reading a book and in the 1970s programme they complained that there was nothing to do in the evenings.

But the most remarkable point was seeing how the enforced togetherness of the 1970s, with the whole family in the one living room watching the one TV, was gradually replaced by the fragmentation of the family, with children in their bedrooms watching TV and using their computers, and adults downstairs doing the same. And to see the rebellion from the children at the end of the series - they demanded a common space so that the family could spend more time together.

The lessons for the 21st century are to use technology selectively, as sustainably as possible, to enhance quality of life, and to enhance communication rather than to replace it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ditch CSI now

I was too busy to have a look at the two draft ‘good relations’ policies issued by Sinn Féin and the DUP back in September. The drafts were released in response to complaints from other political parties about the lack of progress on an agreed Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) policy to replace the abandoned 2005 Shared Future document. I thought I’d missed my chance to comment, but every now and then the subject pops up again, with Alliance and the SDLP particularly keen to highlight the continuing delay.

Well, they are making a mistake, because both documents are awful and in my opinion beyond redemption. The Sinn Féin version is slightly better, but the one issued by the DUP, which is the official draft from OFMDFM, is shockingly bad. Both versions have the same poor structure, and suffer from repetition, platitudes and lack of logic; in particular, the seemingly random addition of references to racial harassment and racism, no doubt when the authors were reminded at various meetings that the strategy was to include racial discrimination as well as sectarianism (although , confusingly, the existing Racial Equality Strategy will also remain in force).

The most striking similarity between the two CSI documents is the mutual acknowledgement of the connection between equality and good relations, which is surprising given that this is usually a debating point between the DUP and SF. The relevant quotes are:

OFMDFM (DUP): It is essential to emphasise the mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing nature of equality and good relations: good relations cannot be built on inequality (para. 1.6) ; and

SF: The promotion of Equality is the foundation of good relations, good relations cannot be built on inequality (para. 1.3).

A second point of agreement is the importance of political leadership, ironic when the two main parties cannot even agree a policy. Thirdly, both drafts acknowledge the need to look outwards and place NI’s community divisions within the wider context of these islands and a diversifying population. The emphasis on learning, research and partnerships is interesting, because the old Shared Future policy was grounded in an extensive consultation process and several commissioned pieces of research, whereas CSI has very little grounding in previous work.

There are three key differences. First, Sinn Féin’s document states that the promotion of rights and respect is at the heart of this strategy (para. 1.1.) and is based on the position that division and polarisation within our society has been grounded in a failure to fully promote rights and respect for all (para. 1.9). The DUP’s parallel statement is that division and polarisation within our society has contributed to prejudice (para. 1.9). SF regard CSI as part of a more fundamental shift in social and cultural values than do the DUP.

Second, there is a different approach to new arrivals. Compare:

OFMDFM (DUP): Integration is a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all minority ethnic communities and local community (sic) (para. 8.2); and:

SF: Intercultural exchange is a dynamic and rewarding two-way process (para. 8.2).

There follow two extra paragraphs in the OFMDFM (DUP) version, which are worth setting out in full:

8.3 Integration also implies respect for the shared values of our society. Basic knowledge of the host society’s language, history, and institutions is indispensable to integration; enabling immigrants to acquire this basic knowledge is a key element to successful cohesion and integration.

8.4 The recent and ongoing arrival of new citizens and communities offers an extra potential to change the context within which the divisions have been maintained. It provides the opportunity to develop a set of policy measures which can change the future for our ‘traditional’ communities and can help to integrate new communities into a more cohesive society.

These paragraphs reveal a different perspective on how newcomers might fit into a still divided society, with the DUP more prescriptive about the need for immigrants to ‘fit in’, in line with the current UK approach.

Finally, there is an interesting difference about implementation. Both SF and the DUP want the policy to be led by a Ministerial group, in the case of SF to be chaired jointly by the First and Deputy First Ministers, and the DUP suggest junior Ministers taking on this role. Both also intend much of the work to be carried out by the new local councils. However, the OFMDFM/ DUP draft envisages a continuing monitoring and support role for the Community Relations Council for the District Council Community Relations Programme, which will be expanded to include racial equality initiatives. Sinn Féin makes no mention of the CRC at all, with the implication that OFMDFM will manage the programme directly. Would SF abolish the CRC? Is that one of the sticking points?

So is there a way to resolve the stalemate? Northern Ireland would not benefit from either draft as they stand. Instead, the Executive needs start again, under the direction of a civil servant or outside consultant who can be firm enough with the politicians to ensure that a coherent new policy is produced. Alternatively, the old Shared Future document was very good. Why not get over the fact that it was agreed under Direct Rule, add racial equality, and sign it off for the New Year?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Economy etiquette

Just back from another few days away, this time in Toronto, feeling rested and full of ideas. But as I emerge from the fog of jet lag, the most immediate memory is the hell of the economy cabin.

I still like airports – even when I leave my netbook at security at Toronto Pearson and have to run back for it and endure a good telling off from the security guard, whose job I would not do for any money. Even when I have to queue for 45 minutes for transfer security screening at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 on the way out, and another 45 to drop my bag at Toronto on the way home. And, most seriously, even when I am underwhelmed with my local airport’s new makeover.

Those of you who don’t travel cattle class will already be thinking that’s not your experience. The segmentation of air travel by price began with the ‘no frills’ airlines, but pricing mechanisms are now moving further up the scale. Premium Economy gives you more legroom but no other extras, and then of course Business Class and First Class allow passengers to avoid the baggage and boarding queues, and to use airport executive lounges, as well as all the pampering on board. As economy travel becomes increasingly unpleasant, it's tempting to splash out on an upgrade and travel less frequently.

But some of us remain stuck at the back of the plane, gritting our teeth and thinking about what we’ll do with the money we’ve saved, unless DVT or food poisoning carry us off first. So I offer a guide to how to behave, especially on longer flights, based on the general philosophy: ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’.

1. You are entitled to carry on a bag that will barely fit into the overhead locker, which you will determinedly shove into the remaining small space with no regard for anyone else’s more modest and perhaps fragile possessions. On some airlines you will congratulate yourself on having saved a few quid in baggage charges. But in an emergency (or even when disembarking), your fellow passengers will take great delight in elbowing you out of the way in the stampede for the exit.

2. After take-off, you are also entitled to very suddenly push your seat back to the maximum reclining position, giving the person behind no warning, and keep it there until preparation for landing. Although some cabin crew may ask you to return your seat to the upright position when food is served, most will not. But if you do this, don’t be surprised if the passenger behind you feels the need to push rather hard, and repeatedly, against your seat if they need to get up during the flight, which they may need to do several times (it feels great...). Personally I never recline in economy, it’s just too anti-social.

3. Please have consideration for the personal space of the person next to you, and I would argue you should do this even if it is not reciprocated. Life’s too short to be competing for the middle arm rest; if you have the window seat then move over and rest on that one. Do not elbow your fellow passenger while trying to eat, select your movie, call the cabin crew or for any other reason short of a heart attack. Men should think about that wide leg thing they do. It’s annoying enough on the bus, let alone on a transatlantic flight.

4. If you have bladder issues (or worse), learn how to select an aisle seat at self check-in.

5. Do not talk to the people on either side of you if you don’t know them – and perhaps even if you do. Stick to the in-flight entertainment system, your iPod, or even a book. For all the tales of meeting fascinating people on the plane, you’re more likely to get someone who is boring, obsessive, depressed, scared of flying, sexist, or drunk. Which leads me to....

6. Alcohol makes jet lag worse, so drink in moderation, if at all.

I’ve left out the difficult question of travelling with small children. Airlines have got better at accommodating the needs of families, which may be why I’ve noticed fewer screaming children on board recently – although I wasn’t surprised to see a small child obviously very distressed at Heathrow security as the parents sipped their way through five or six pre-prepared bottles and then struggled to remove their shoes while trying to keep hold of bags, buggy and child. So my conduct list doesn’t include ‘don’t travel with children under, say, eighteen’, which it might have a few years ago. However, as air travel becomes more and more a matter of being prepared to squash up or pay up, many of us will be thinking about flying less often, and not just for environmental reasons.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Critical mass

Just back from a few days in London, to read that the Tube is severely overcrowded. I seem to remember that it always was, in the rush hour, and my experience of the numbers using it last week was no better or worse than ten years ago.

No, the shocking thing about the London’s transport system, and how it’s really changed, is the extent to which it’s now almost exclusively geared up to the needs of regular users. There’s a flat rate cash fare of £4 for anywhere in zones 1 – 6, which meant my single from Paddington to King’s Cross cost, yes, £4. If I’d had an Oyster card it would have cost £1.60. I kept thinking I should get a card, but wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing for most of my stay. However, next time I visit, I’ll buy one online and use it from the moment I arrive. Another irritation is the long queues if for some reason you need to buy a ticket from a real person rather than a machine. Londoners would no doubt argue that they subsidize the transport system through their council tax precept. London’s politicians would probably add that the interests of the workforce must come first. But I’ve not noticed such a difference in other cities that seem to work quite well such as Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and even Glasgow.

This experience started me thinking about critical mass in cities, and how people deal with it. Big cities are wonderful. The constant energy and bustle; the world class arts and culture, which can be sustained due to both large numbers for mainstream events and every niche interest you could imagine; the employment and business opportunities; the diversity; all the shopping you could ever want; and of course the politics – it’s often overlooked that national (and regional, devolved and federal) governance takes place in cities, as do most political protests.

But if you live in a big city, you also experience the downsides. Expense, crowds, long journeys to work or to be entertained, perhaps crime or harassment. Every city resident adapts, and the sum total of this adaptive behaviour shapes the city and the individual, and for all of us determines ultimately where and how we choose to live.

An example: on Sunday, we thought of going to the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. That’s quite a trek from Hounslow, especially with some tube lines not working, and one overground train an hour. We didn’t want to make all this effort if there would be a problem with admission. So we get on the magic interweb, to find it’s possible to book tickets, but it appears there are none left. A phone call confirms this. There are no tickets left for the day, and none for many other days too. So one of my old London pleasures is no more – deciding on impulse to go to an exhibition. Instead, tickets must be booked, routes must be planned, Oyster cards must be topped up. We had a pub lunch instead.

But I did manage to get to the new V&A ceramics galleries earlier in the week, which were wonderful. Swings, roundabouts and adaptive behaviour in a world city.