Friday, 5 January 2018

The Office for Fuck's Sake

There are many reasons for criticising the odious Toby Young, but the crudity of his language (aka "caustic wit") is not one of them. He is, after all, a paid entertainer. If Frankie Boyle had got the gig with the new Office for Students, rightwing criticism of the Scottish comic's language would be equally beside the point. Likewise, Young's history of making derogatory comments about women or working class kids isn't a good look for someone who is supposed to further the interests of all students, but it isn't particularly germane to his role on a body that will be acting as a competition regulator for universities. As should be obvious from the makeup of the rest of the board, which has been successfully obscured by the focus on Young, this is a typical neoliberal agency intent on the further marketisation of higher education. There will be gender and class bias, but this will be structural rather than the result of Young's powers of persuasion. The reason why he is unsuitable for a position on the board of the OfS in its own terms is that he lacks any relevant experience of business or competition regulation. Being a journalist or setting up a free school are irrelevant achievements in this context.

Young is dim enough to perhaps not realise when is being played. The timing of the announcement of the appointment, one minute into the New Year, looks less like an attempt to bury bad news and more like a calculation that booze and the bank holiday would quickly drive the debate onto Twitter, which in turn meant that wider press coverage tended to be about the ensuing outrage rather than the remit of the OfS or the business-heavy composition of its board. If Young were to step down, this would be treated by many as a moral victory, while the OfS itself would get a free pass. The battle won, the war lost. You can see a similar dynamic at work when a Berkeley professor uses Twitter to explain how Donald Trump manipulates the media agenda through Twitter, thereby ignoring the more substantive damage being done in Congress. The Tories appear to have decided some months ago (I'm thinking specifically of the spat between Jeremy Hunt and Stephen Hawking) that they have little to lose in adopting an antagonistic media stance and much to gain in terms of distraction. The elevation of Toby Young is clearly part of a wider strategy.

The root problem here is liberal morality. A good example of this came on the same day as the OfS board announcement when John Harris penned a piece in the Guardian titled "Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul". Harris imagines that the tendency of tech titans to restrict their own childrens' exposure to social media is a telling admission of their product's toxicity, like a beer baron insisting that his kids be shielded from alcohol, but all it really indicates is a retreat from a public social network to a reserved space of privilege (I doubt the kids are sitting bored at home). That liberal critics emphasise the supposed addictive properties of social media (Harris wheels out the trusty "dopamine hit") is just the usual criticism of the mass as weak-willed and incapable of self-control and thus of a piece with articles on New Year resolutions and detoxing. Thirty years ago the same articles were being written about the malign effects of television and the need to restrict childrens' viewing time. A hundred years ago children were being criticised for always having their noses in books.

Having diagnosed the problem to his own satisfaction, Harris espies a solution: "There is a possible way out of this, of course. It resides not in some luddite fantasy of an army of people carrying old Nokia phones and writing each other letters, but the possibility of a culture that actually embraces the idea of navigating the internet with a discriminating sensibility and an emphasis on basic moderation". That last word is being used in a dual sense: as an act of self-censorship and as advocacy of a middle way. What Harris doesn't explain is how we are to acquire a "discriminating sensibility". Playing Snake on a Nokia 3310, perhaps. If Facebook is increasingly creating a walled garden that shuts out the world ("let us discriminate for you"), Twitter remains much more of a public space open to riotous assembly, but it is one in which propriety and judgement are becoming ever more prominent, hence the increasing number of users who feel the need to broadcast their decisions to block or report others. This performative curation of one's own filter bubble looks suspiciously like a bigger dopamine hit than making a sarky comment beneath a blue tick mark's tweet.

Eric Posner of the Chicago Law School published Twenty Theses About Twitter last July. He starts by suggesting that "People sign up for Twitter for two reasons: to obtain information and to exert influence", but then goes on to show why this is a false prospectus. There are better sources of information and Twitter is a poor medium for making a case sufficient to change someone's mind. Posner's central thesis is one of self-indulgence:

7. Twitter’s real function is to enable people to obtain validation for their beliefs.
8. People send tweets with a single overriding purpose: to get the tweet "liked" or retweeted.
9. When your tweet is liked or retweeted, you enjoy a dopamine surge.

This may sound like a reduction of humanity to the status of lab rats, but Posner is no behaviourist. What he is suggesting is that the risk/reward dynamic of Twitter is so different to the "real world" of calculating utility maximisers that the online persona can undermine the offline:

16. In the non-virtual world, successful people take care to keep up impressions, for example, they avoid making controversial statements to friends, colleagues, and strangers except when unavoidable, and even then do so in a carefully respectful way.
17. In Twitter, the same people act as if their audience consisted of a few like-minded friends and forget that it actually consists of a diverse group of people who may not agree with them in every particular on politics, religion, morality, metaphysics, and personal hygiene.
18. Without realizing it, people who use Twitter damage the image of themselves that they cultivate in the non-virtual world.

In effect, Twitter is a drug that corrodes human capital through the collateral damage it does to social relations, much like cocaine. Of course this theory only holds for those people whose Twitter ID reflects their public persona and whose real world human capital is significant. While economic liberals like Posner stress the dopamine hit, which is essentially a transactional model that leaves the idea of preference intact, cultural liberals are more likely to focus on the corrosive effect of anonymity, hence the lasting popularity of the Ring of Gyges as a trope in modern analyses of the disinhibition that the Internet enables. The one focuses on a lack of self-restraint, the other on the circumvention of social constraint. To put it another way, Posner thinks the reward (the hit) is too cheap in the short-term and the delayed cost (damage to reputation) is being excessively discounted, while cultural liberals see anonymity as a form of free-riding. What they share is a belief that the price of social media should be higher, even though its nature (the need for data at scale and the reliance on advertising) demands that the service be provided free. Twitter is a pure market because it enables the expression and ranking of almost any individual preference, but it is "irresponsible" because it does so by undermining the price mechanism.

The low cost of entry of social media is a leveller in the sense that a "speech-act" of a nobody has the same form as that of a celebrity or professional commentator. In the offline world this is rare outside of public meetings - i.e. heckles - which is why such events are carefully managed, if not avoided. But just as the speaker at a lectern or in a pulpit has a structural advantage, so Twitter creates a hierarchy of regard through the number of followers and likes. A consequence of this is that holding others up to ridicule becomes a powerful tool for the powerful, on a par with having a column in the Spectator, but as the case of Toby Young shows, Twitter still retains the potential to empower "the mob". While many "nobodies" have helped excavate Young's more objectionable tweets, the press coverage on the outrage has inevitably concentrated on disobliging comments by other "slebs" or credentialled experts. And so the game goes on. Toby Young is obviously a charlatan and a fool, but that makes him all the more suitable for the role of a patsy. He must by now have twigged that he is the sacrificial offering for the inauguration of the OfS, so presumably he has also secured a suitable pay-off. I expect him to feature in a future honours list.


  1. I wish I could share your confidence that Young is not long for the role but it seems clear that the Tories are gearing up for a culture war and the university sector is the chosen ground. Young is the ideal person to do so. They will want it to be as attenuated as possible to provide a permanent supply of red meat for their base.

    But I completely agree that the furore has allowed the scandal that is the existence of the OfS a free pass.

    1. I rest my case ...

  2. I'm the Dan Hodges of your comments section.

  3. I think picking someone who was both obnoxious AND totally unqualified was perhaps a step too far.

    They would probably have been better going for a controversial right-wing academic- someone like Ferguson or Starkey might have fit the bill.

    1. Yeah...unless the generated anger was the intent of the disguise the basic intent of the office...something which this govt is getting adept at. #trumpianpolitics

  4. Herbie Kills Children9 January 2018 at 17:34

    We already know that Theresa May represents the most hideous section of the wealthiest classes, I can easily imagine Theresa May feasting on dead babies, I can see the blood dripping from her mouth.

    “how Donald Trump manipulates the media agenda through Twitter, thereby ignoring the more substantive”

    This should have finished:

    ignoring the more substantive point that the media is the most corrupt and damaging institution in the whole of capitalism!

    Re liberal morality, I was reading the criticism of the sex schemes in Game of Thrones the other day and it was along the lines of, is this show produced by 13 year old boys! My point would be, what have these people got against 13 year old boys! If we have to put up with 13 year old girls shit taste in music the least they should allow if to indulge the odd teenage boy fantasy. Actually the sex scenes in game of Thrones are perfectly valid in the context of the show and do not need defending but that is another story!

    And to finish, join me in my Fuck off Oprah, we don’t need another overpaid celebrity thanks very much!