Efficiency and legitimacy

Any political system is a compromise between efficiency and legitimacy, balancing a government’s ability to act against the certainty that its citizens support the government’s actions. So says Against Elections: The Case for Democracy*, a book I first read a few years ago but which I have been reminded of ahead of the UK elections on the 12th December.

The UK selects its Parliamentary representatives through a First Past The Post electoral system which errs on the side of efficiency (it reliably produces governmental majorities, recent history excepted), but perhaps with a loss of legitimacy (there hasn’t been a party winning more than 50% of overall votes since 1935).

Meanwhile a key factor in the election is the Brexit referendum. We can all agree that referendums aren’t an efficient way to govern a country, but the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum is in the eye of the beholder. Some argue that it is the UK’s most legitimate political result in living memory, voted for by 17.4 million people (more than have ever voted for a single political party in a General Election). While others question its legitimacy on grounds of misinformation (based on what we know now) or technicality (it’s not legally binding). One thing which is clear is that our Parliamentary system is not designed to deliver on the outcome of referendums if there is ambiguity involved, and I don’t know if this election will change that.

Regardless, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are currently living in a rarefied period of time:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

That seems a little drastic to me. But either way please remember to vote on December 12th.

* More broadly the book talks about the mistaken conflation of elections and democracy, proposing a deliberative democracy alternative, but that’s not for now.

Dog days of summer

A lot is made of the Like button, of the societal impact of the dopamine-inducing blue thumbs-up. But as a generally reserved social-media poster, and only sporadic “liker”, I am relatively indifferent.

Far more sinister, in my mind, is the infinite scroll, and its auto-play video cousin – on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and friends.

Not because of the clear connection with the culprits’ business models – where eyeballs and time spent drive ad impressions, which drive revenue. That much is understandable – these are publicly listed companies.

I think the problem I have is that it is playing on a particularly human vulnerability, evolving as we did in a world of scarcity, rather than abundance. Where evolutionary pressures favoured repetitive behaviours, as in general things would run out. Make hay while the sun shines, because at some point autumn will come.

But on the endless tracts of social media the sun is always shining, without respite. And instead of introducing patches of shade, where travellers might rest, or step away from their smartphones, our social media overlords have built a desert, where users stagger towards an imagined oasis that never comes.

Meanwhile the new demi-gods of TikTok have learned their predecessors’ worst habits, as video after snack-size video plays off into the distance.

We are in the dog days of the digital summer. The onus is on us as users to find shelter, or to escape the desert altogether.

Elephants

In February this year I read an article about Elephants. Not about the large mammals, but about a system of the same name, concocted by four friends ten years ago or so, and articulated by one of them in a blog post in 2013. It’s a collective system for planning, reviewing and improving one’s life. It piqued my interest, I shared it with a couple of friends, and we actually got round to giving it a try.

After struggling initially to find time to do the required kick-off (The Start), we are now three months in, and so I have had a bit of room for reflection.

The Start, where you spend quite a concentrated period of time with your fellow Elephants talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future, is worth doing regardless of whether you are interested in the long haul process. We spent a couple of days together, during which we were much more candid, vulnerable and open than we had been in the ten or more years we have known one another. And it has been a one-way door – we have been more open and honest ever since. It is funny that it took some random blog post on the internet to let us make that step. But whatever works.

The Start also includes a process of goal-setting, over quite hard to imagine timeframes (up to ten years!) Planning on that timescale isn’t something that I do naturally, so I found it quite difficult. But it was useful to see what I eventually came up with, and to highlight things I should maybe think a little more about.

With our (iterative) goals in hand, we are now in business-as-usual Elephants.

The Weekly Reporting was something which we didn’t necessarily commit to, but which I have managed to keep up. It is now part of my weekly ritual, and I am happy for it. It gives me an opportunity to check in with myself, to reflect back on the week that was, and how I felt about it. I am not sure it always makes interesting reading for my fellow Elephants, but it is always interesting writing for me.

And we have also had our first Quarterly Review, which first and foremost was a great excuse to see my friends after a busy summer. It also highlighted how long ago The Start felt, how much can happen in three months of time. Which is helpful as we look ahead to the next three months or so, as we continue with our Elephants into 2020. We’re not necessarily following the system to the letter, but we have made it work for us so far, and I am glad we are doing it.

Punchlines

I’ve been reading a bit more fiction lately (Asimov’s Foundation and A Confederacy of Dunces are the most recent). I am finding it very engaging, after a period of reading quite a lot of quite earnest non-fiction.

Two things I have have particularly enjoyed. Firstly, the lightness and humour woven through the stories I have been reading, even while dealing with quite complicated or difficult things. This contrasts with the often endless seriousness of non-fiction. An (obvious) reminder that jokes are good.

Secondly, all too often non-fiction books consist of a compelling first 60 pages, followed by 200 or so pages of reiteration and exemplification. By contrast, (good) fiction builds throughout, so the final pages turn themselves. I’m not sure if the lesson there is that non-fiction should be more confidently succinct, or that writers should hold a little more back for the end, if they can.

Either way, if you haven’t done so recently, I recommend that you pick up a novel. And if you have any fiction recommendations, I would love to hear them.

Swimming in public

If you have encountered me in person in the last 12 months (almost exactly), there is a high chance I have bored you on the topic of outdoor swimming. If you haven’t, then today is your unlucky day.

But fortunately for you I’ll keep it brief: I have done quite a lot of swimming outdoors in unheated pools and rivers, and I have enjoyed it.

The reason that I bring it up isn’t to wax lyrical on the restorative nature of cold water (stop it — Ed.). I bring it up because that very act of (endless) broadcasting has (I think) played an important role in making me stick with it for the last year, to the point where it’s a habit rather than just a few frigid dips. Because if I’ve told so many people, it makes it that much harder to stop, past the point where it’s now just something I do.

The impact of feeling watched is significant, whether or not anyone is actually looking. This blog is another example for me. An impetus, that precious habit-forming gift.

I should use it more often.

Old notes

I found a nice notebook the other day, in amongst a cupboard of papers. I thought it was unused, but when I opened it I found a couple of pages of notes clearly written in one sitting, entitled “What I’d like to be in 2012”. A personal historical document, presumably written at or near the start of the new year, when I was approaching my final two terms of university and recovering after an ankle operation.

It is interesting to see what I was focused on. An ambition to be better read, perhaps natural for a young person about to strike out into the world of work. Music and languages were two things I wanted to do more of, the former has waxed and waned in my life, while the latter has fallen mostly by the wayside. Then vaguer interest in being “better prepared” and “more focused”.

The latter point of focus is given a bit more detail. I worried about the time I was spending on “Facebook and blogs”, or even “sitting doing nothing”, the latter of which has now become de rigueur with the rise of mindfulness. Oh to remember that time before smartphones (I had a Blackberry for my sins).

I am uplifted by a few sketched notes about “using the ankle injury as an opportunity… you will never have this opportunity again”. The primary manifestation of this was becoming Sports Editor of the student newspaper for a term, a first foray into writing, an activity which brings me joy to this day.

I finally entreated myself not to “spend your time writing things like this”. On this point, I must most heartily disagree.

You are what you read

PG Wodehouse has always been literary comfort food to me. I read the books when I was younger, and I would say that they are some of the few that I have re-read, often in times when I have felt I needed something warm and sustaining. When recovering from illness or jet-lag or otherwise. The language is crisp and clean, almost musical, always with a wry smile. The stories themselves are predictable, yet still they catch you off guard. It is timeless, yet so very of its time.

But I am getting off topic. To return to the subject, the thing that often strikes me when I have binged on Jeeves and Wooster is how PG’s turn of phrase and sentence structure begins to crop up in my own thoughts. How I find myself mimicking his abbreviations and metaphor (artlessly I might add). Some mixture of him infecting my mind, and me commandeering his voice. It doesn’t last forever of course, but for a while I am a little more Wodehouse.

You are what you read.

I have spent some time on Twitter lately, what with all this news that keeps happening. I found myself wondering how that very different type of reading was permeating my way of thinking. Obviously Twitter as a whole doesn’t have the consistent author’s voice to clearly spot influencing one’s internal narrative. But there is maybe something of the context switching, the pithiness and irreverence, the anxious tenor, that I perhaps can increasingly identify.

Where I take pleasure in noticing a spot of Wooster, I enjoy these Twitter tics rather less, which is probably a sign.

I can only assume that other people observe a similar influence on their thinking, depending on what content they have been consuming lately*. Whose voice do you enjoy borrowing, and whose do you like less?

*Of course it might just be me.