The Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield is hiring! Due to recent departures and a forthcoming expansion we have 6 academic posts to fill, for lecturers, senior lecturers/readers and chairs. Perhaps you, or someone you know, is looking for a job or a change – here’s why you should apply to work with us:
The Department: One of the very best Psychology departments in the UK for research, consistently rated ‘excellent’ (i.e. the top score) in the Research Assessment Exercises over the last 20 years. In the last RAE the department ranked 6th in the UK in terms of Research Power (i.e., quality × quantity of research activity). We have a strong tradition of interdisciplinary research and you’d be joining at a great time to renew that tradition of cognitive science. We have smart and enthusiastic Undergraduate students, 80% of whom have AAA at a-level (ie the top grades). We have one of the largest number of postgraduate students for any UK psychology department, which includes taught masters courses (I teach on this one) and PhD students. The academic faculty are dedicated and collegiate, small enough in numbers to be friendly, large enough to be a resource for you in your research. We have one of the best staff-student ratios of any UK psychology department…All this, and you get me as a colleague
The University: Times Higher Education University of the Year 2011, and globally one of the best universities in the world. The University of Sheffield has academic departments covering all major disciplines and is a ‘research intensive University‘, meaning you wouldn’t spend all your time teaching.
The City of Sheffield. Ah, Sheffield! More parkland within the city limits than any other UK city. 7 trees for every person. The so called “largest village in England”, a city renowned for its friendliness, for its sporting links, creative industries and generally too many good things to list here. And it’s in the middle of the country, so you can get about easily – two hours from the capital, three from Bristol, four Edinburgh. And cheap – I live in a house which makes my London friends who can’t afford a flat sick with jealousy. I can walk to work, or round to friend’s houses. I’m talking quality of life here people.
So, please pass the word around that we’re looking for psychologists of all types to apply for these positions. If you want to get in touch I’m happy to talk informally to anyone who is thinking about applying. Not that I have any significant power over the hiring decision, but I’m happy to spill the beans over what we’re looking for and what the department is like. You can contact me by phone or email.
(In sad, but unrelated news, we lost our Professor of Development Psychology earlier this week. These job adverts are obviously quite separate from this sudden gap we have in Developmental Psychology and about which no plans have yet been made).
I really enjoyed the ideas discussed in Susan Hurley’s 2006 article “Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech“. The basic argument is that if we realised that we tend to automatically and unconsciously absorb and imitate patterns of behaviour that we observe, then our views of freedom of expression would be quite different from what they are. Although the presentation of the empirical psychology is sophisticated, the language does tend to slip into conceding that there is a domain of unconscious, automatic influences on behaviour and a separate realm of conscious, deliberative, choice. This is a failure to recognise, in my opinion, that for all behaviour it is causation all the way down (or all the way through, perhaps). But this quibble aside, the article gives evidential and philosophical reasons for us to be more concerned than we appear to be about the mental environment our culture promotes.
I was sad to find out that we won’t be hearing any more from Prof Hurley: Obituary by Andy Clark.
Susan L. Hurley (2006). Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech. In S. Pockett, W. Banks & S. Gallagher (eds.), Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? MIT Press.
Facebook have announced their first share offer. There was a fairly nuanced discussion on the BBC’s Today programme, which contained the useful maxim: if the service is free then you are the product. We pour personal information about ourselves – our locations, likes, friends and activities – into Facebook and Facebook sells that bit of us to advertisers. John Humphrys managed a grumble about whether we could trust a corporation with all that personal information, but nobody in the discussion seems to be able to raise much by way of concrete reasons not to give Facebook that information about yourself, they just had vague worries. Elsewhere, Cory has talked about the privacy bargain we make with corporations, and the dangers of making that bargain unknowingly or carelessly, but I want to leave that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where everyone was aware of exactly what Facebook were doing – ie selling information about our desires to advertiser. In this case, the vague worry about Facebook crystalises around a psychological question – can we be manipulated by corporations that know our desires? Imagine, if you will, that Facebook is the equivalent of the malevolent demon of Cartesian philosophy, still absolutely evil in intent, but different in that it can only control you through precisely targeted marketing messages, not through direct control of yours senses. Would you still sign up for a Facebook account? Say the Facebook Demon finds out you like lemons. Lemon Products Inc advertise you Lemon Perfume, LemonTech advertise you a lemon squeezer and Just Lemons Inc. offer you 10% off the price of lemons in their stores. Is this a bad world? The answer is only yes if you believe in the power of advertisers to make us do things we don’t want.
Whether in schools or in other public spheres, public intellectuals must struggle to create the conditions that enable students and others to become cultural producers who can rewrite their own experiences and perceptions by engaging with various texts, ideological positions, and theories. They must construct pedagogical relations in which students learn from each other, learn to theorize rather than simply ingest theories, and begin to address how to decenter the authoritarian power of the classroom. Students must also be given the opportunity to challenge disciplinary borders, create pluralized spaces from which hybridised identities might emerge, take up critically the relationship between language and experience, and appropriate knowledge as part of a broader effort at self-definition and ethical responsibility. What I am suggesting here is that public intellectuals move away from the rigid, ideological parameters of the debate about the curriculum or canon. What is needed is a new language for discussing knowledge and authority and the possibility of giving the students a role in deciding what is taught and how it is taught under specific circumstances. The question is not merely, who speaks and under what conditions? It is also about how to see universities (and public schools) as important sites of struggle over what is taught and for control of the conditions of knowledge production itself.
Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: a critical reader. WestviewPress (Boulder, Colo.), p263.
Previously I blogged about an experiment which used the time it takes people to make decisions to try and elucidate something about the underlying mechanisms of information processing (Stafford, Ingram & Gurney, 2011) . This post is about the companion paper to that experiment, reporting some computational modelling inspired by the experiment (Stafford & Gurney, 2011).
The experiment contained a surprising result, or at least a result that I claim should surprise some decision theorists. We has asked people to make a simple judgement – to name out loud the ink colour of a word stimulus, the famous Stroop Task (Stroop, 1935). We found that two factors which affected the decision time had independent effects – the size of the effect of each factors was not effected by the other factor. (The factors were the strength of the colour, in terms of how pale vs deep it was, and how the word was related to the colour, matching it, contradicting it or being irrelevant). This type of result is known as “additive factors” (because they add independently of each other. On a graph of results this looks like parallel lines).
There’s a long tradition in psychology of making an inference from this pattern of experimental results to saying something about the underlying information processing that must be going on. Known as the additive factors methodology (Donders, 1868–1869/1969; Sternberg, 1998), the logic is this: if we systematically vary two things about a decision and they have independent effects on response times, then the two things are operating on separate loci in the decision making architecture – thus proving that there are separate loci in the decision making architecture. Therefore, we can use experiments which measure only outcomes – the time it takes to respond – to ask questions about cognitive architecture; i.e. questions about how information is transformed and combined as it travels between input and output.
The problem with this approach is that it commits a logical fallacy. True separate information processing modules can produce additive factors in response data (A -> B), but that doesn’t mean that additive factors in response time data imply separate information processing modules (B -> A). My work involved taking a widely used model of information processing in the Stroop task (Cohen et al, 1990) and altering it so it contained discrete processing stages, or not. This allowed me to simulate response times in a situation where I knew for certain the architecture – because I’d built the information processing system. The result was surprising. Yes, a system of discrete stages could generate the pattern of data I’d observed experimentally and reported in Stafford, Ingram & Gurney (2011), but so could a single stage system in which all information was continuously processed in parallel, with no discrete information processing modules. Even stranger, both of these kind of systems could be made to produce either additive or non-additive factors without changing their underlying architecture.
The conclusion is straightforward. Although inferring different processing stages (or ‘modules’) from additive factors in data is a venerable tradition in psychology, and one that remains popular (Sternberg, 2011), it is a mistake. As Henson (2011) points out, there’s too much non-linearity in cognitive processing, so that you need additional constraints if you want to make inferences about cognitive modules.
Thanks to Jon Simons for spotting the Sternberg and Henson papers, and so inadvertantly promting this bit of research blogging
Cohen, J. D., Dunbar, K., and McClelland, J. L. (1990). On the control of automatic processes – a parallel distributed-processing account of the Stroop effect. Psychol. Rev. 97, 332–361.
Donders, F. (1868–1869/1969). “Over de snelheid van psychische processen. onderzoekingen gedann in het physiologish laboratorium der utrechtsche hoogeshool,” in Attention and Performance, Vol. II, ed. W. G. Koster (Amsterdam: North-Holland).
Henson, R. N. (2011). How to discover modules in mind and brain: The curse of nonlinearity, and blessing of neuroimaging. A comment on Sternberg (2011). Cognitive Neuropsychology, 28(3-4), 209-223. doi:10.1080/02643294.2011.561305
Stafford, T. and Gurney, K. N.(2011), Additive factors do not imply discrete processing stages: a worked example using models of the Stroop task, Frontiers in Psychology, 2:287.
Stafford, T., Ingram, L., and Gurney, K. N. (2011), Pieron’s Law holds during Stroop conflict: insights into the architecture of decision making, Cognitive Science 35, 1553–1566.
Sternberg, S. (1998). “Discovering mental processing stages: the method of additive factors,” in An Invitation to Cognitive Science: Methods, Models, and Conceptual Issues, 2nd Edn, eds D. Scarborough, and S. Sternberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 702–863.
Sternberg, S. (2011). Modular processes in mind and brain. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 28(3-4), 156-208. doi:10.1080/02643294.2011.557231
Stroop, J. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. J. Exp. Psychol. 18, 643–662.
I’ve been wondering if it would be remotely possible to measure the amount of eccentricity in a culture. In particular, I’m wondering about the historical trend in number of people who are “characters” – ie the distinctly usual. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that 60 years ago there were more people who marched to the beat of a different drum, and it isn’t hard to imagine a story about the homogenising influence of modern and commercial culture. It also isn’t hard to imagine that all sorts of selection biases and preconceptions are at work, so that there really hasn’t been any change in this over recent history. So – could it be measured?
I was doing some research the other day, on what questions people ask about psychology. This tends to overlap, but not by much, with the questions that we as professional psychology researchers invesitgate. If you’re interested you can look for yourself:
Very common, it seems, is the question “Am I normal?” or “is this normal?”. Did people always ask this question, or is it particularly modern? If you do a google ngram search for the words “strange” and “normal” you get an interesting pattern:
More normal (in red), and less strange (in blue) over the last two centuries. They even appear inversely related at points – notice the damping of ‘strangeness’ around WWI and WWII and a surge in ‘normality’.
I’ve had a pair of papers published recently and I thought I’d have a go at putting simply what the research reported in them shows.
The first is called ‘Pieron’s Law holds during Stroop conflict: insights into the architecture of decision making‘. It reports a variation on the famous Stroop task. The Stroop task involves naming the ink colour of various words, words which can themselves be the name of colours. So you find yourself looking at the word GREEN in red ink and your job is to say “red”. If the word matches the ink colour people respond faster and more accurately; if the word doesn’t match, they are slower and less accurate. What we did was vary the strength of the colour component of the stimilus – e.g. we used more and less intense red ‘ink’ (actually we presented the stimuli on a computer screen, so the ink was pixel values). There’s a well established relationship between stimulus strength and responding – the ‘Pieron’s Law’ of the title – showing how response speed decreases with increasing stimulus strength.
So our experiment simply took two well know psychological findings and combined them in a single experiment. The result is interesting because it can help us arbitrate between different theories of how decisions are made. One popular theory of decision making is that all the information relevant to the decision is optimally combined to produce the swiftest and most accuracte response (Bogacz, 2007). There’s lots of support for this theory, including evidence from looking at responses of humans making simple judgements, recordings from the brain cells of monkeys and deep connections to statistical theory. It’s without doubt that the brain can and does integrate information optimally in some circumstances. What is interesting to me is that this optimal information integration perspective is completely at odds with the most successful research programme in post-war psychology: the heuristics and biases approach. This body of evidence suggest that human decision making is very non-optimal, with all sorts of systemmatic errors creeping into the way people combine information to make a decision. The explanation for these errors is that we process information using heuristics, mental shortcuts which give a good answer most of the time and cut down on the amount of effort which have to expend in deciding (“do what you did last time” is probably the most common decision heuristic).
My experiment connects to these ideas because it asked people to make a simple judgement (the colour of the ink), like the experiments supporting an optimal information integration perspective on decision making, but the judgement requested was just marginally more complex because we manipulate both Stroop condition (whether the word and ink matched) and colour strength. If you are a straight-down-the-line optimal information decision theorists then you must believe that evidence about the decision based on the word is combined with evidence about the decision based on the colour to make a single ‘amount of evidence’ variable which drives the decision. In the paper I call this the ‘common metric’ hypothesis. The logic is a bit involved (see the paper), but a consequence of this hypothesis is that the size of the effect of the word condition should vary across the colour strength condition, and vice versa. In other words, you should see an interaction. Visually, the lines on the graph of results would be non-parallel.
Here’s what we found:
What you’re looking at is a graph of response times (the y-axis) for different colour strengths (the x-axis). The three lines are the three Stroop conditions: when the word matches the colour (‘congruent’), when it doesn’t match (‘conflict’) and when there is no word (‘control’). The result: there is no interaction between these two factors – the lines are parallel.
The implication is that you don’t need to move very far from simple perceptual decision making before human decision making starts to look non-optimal – or at least non optimal in the sense of combining information from different sources. This is important because of the widespread celebration of decision making as informationally optimal. Reconciling this research programme with the wider heuristics and biases approach is important work, and fits more generally with an honourable tradition in science of finding “boundary conditions” where one way the world works gives way to another way.
Coming up next: Infering from behavioural results to underlying cognitive architecture – its not as simple as we were told (Stafford & Gurney, 2011).
Bogacz, R. (2007). Optimal decision-making theories: linking neurobiology with behaviour. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(3), 118–125.
Stafford, T., Ingram, L. and Gurney, K.N.(2011), Pieron’s Law holds during Stroop conflict: insights into the architecture of decision making, Cognitive Science 35, 1553–1566.
Tom Stafford and Kevin N. Gurney (2011), Additive factors do not imply discrete processing stages: a worked example using models of the Stroop task, Frontiers in Psychology, 2:287.
(Local news warning: just details of a talk I’m giving)
Psychology in the Pub is a Sheffield event which happens in the Showroom Cinema Bar. I’m giving a talk there on the 15th of March and I’ve just written the blurb. Here it is for your enjoyment
Thinking Meat: Understanding brain and mind
You’re brain weighs the same as half a brick and has the consistency of warm butter. Yet such a mundane object allows you to have every thought you’ve ever had, every feeling, dream or hope. This talk will be an introduction to what I view as the central puzzle of psychology: how the brain creates the mind. I’ll discuss fundamental insights from the study of perception and action and suggest how these provide important clues for understanding all of human psychology. The talk will feature: Lego Robots! ‘Subliminal messages’! Britney Spears! Pirates! And a no-holds-bared personal revelation from the speaker
The content will be similar to the talk I gave in Manchester recently, which you can hear here
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.
The Savage to Mustapha Mond, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), p187
Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.
Matsuo Basho (attrib.)
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
Master Chuang (c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)
Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.
I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).
“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).
(Cross-posted at mindhacks.com)
In which Cohen argues that lack of money is a lack of political freedom, and that the issue of private property (which is axiomatic to libertarians) cannot be determined independently of issues of political freedom. In other words, you can’t reasonably set aside the issue of distribution of property (i.e. wealth) from your consideration of freedom. This pervasive confusion, Cohen argues, arises because of a misperception of the nature of money, which appears as a real thing, like rocks or even like physical strength, but is actually “social power in the form of a thing” (Marx).
Anyway, it is a great read, lucid and mind expanding, and a great example of political philosophy . I can’t find a journal reference for it, but it is – apparently – reprinted in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy (2011)
Link to PDF (thanks Josie!)
Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be
Ophelia, in Hamlet,Act 4, Scene 5, by William Shakespeare (1599-1602 ish)
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.
From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available. Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so.
George Orwell, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’,
At the base of the modern state there is the professor, not the executioner… for the monopoly of legitimate education is more important than the monopoly of legitimate violence.
Nurit Peled-Elhanan, reported here
Yesterday was my research group’s first hackday. It’s a concept I borrowed from the software geeks, but which I thought we could use a bit of in psychological science. The plan was for the whole lab to get together and spend the day working on the same dataset, to see what we could come up with after a day of intense work.
Inspiration was provided by visiting data wizard Mike Dewar, who works with the link shortening service bit.ly. Mike was able to give us a slice of bit.ly data – all the shared links which the people of Sheffield had clicked on in a week. The leap from tech/internet business to psychology department isn’t so weird when you think about it. We’re both interested in taking high volume measurements of behaviour and trying to understand what is really going on (for us, inside the mind, for bit.ly, with the users behind the clicks).
We got together in one room and Mike guided us though some of the nuances of analysing the data. After a few busy hours, and along with those essential hackday accompaniments – takeaway food and cola (open source of course) – we had a snapshot of the kind of sites that people in Sheffield shared with each other.
This plot shows the trend of the weeks’ clicks for the top ten shared sites for Sheffield (with total click rate on the y-axis, and time on the x-axis). The scale is a bit small (click to expand), so here in a list is Sheffield’s top ten shared links for the analysed week:
Perhaps not a surprise, but we can see that people are sharing information on facebook, on news sites and about celebrities and football. And I note that the Owls win the Sheffield link-sharing derby! You can also see the daily peaks in click activity (at lunchtime? Or just after lunch perhaps!). With a bit more time we could delve into what times people preferred to click on different types of links (news vs business vs gossip would be an interesting comparison), and how the activity of a particular links changes over time, as it spreads out along social networks, passing from person to person, and a thousand other things. So think of this as a work in progress report. I’ll come back to you if we generate anything else.
Thanks to Mike and bit.ly for allowing us to play with their data, and to C, Maria, Donny, Tom, Martin and Stu for taking part.
There’s a nice paragraph in Camilla Power’s book review in the time Times Higher Ed:
While there are interesting ideas here in a random scatter of cases and anecdotes, the trouble is that it makes the reader feel equally random: scatterbrained, as if you’ve been doing idle searches on Google or browsing Wikipedia all day. The kind of theoretical coherence found in the elegant, simple propositions of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Amotz and Avishag Zahavi’s The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle – books that made you feel like a genius, armed with a new perspective on the world – is not evident.
Power has captured what is wrong with so much popular science writing, and what is right with those books I really value
Procedural thinking may be the 21st century’s most essential yet endangered way of thinking. Of course the best way of teaching it to your kids is to live in the 1980s and buy them a BBC Micro, but that is getting harder and harder in these days of touchscreens and it being 30 years too late. Now children’s games designers Exploit ™ have introduced a new range of children’s games for exactly the purpose of teaching procedural thinking skills to your kids. Each game in the new range is designed to be played by children and adults together and involves rules of age appropriate complexity. Standard play of these games should allow the player with the most foresight and self-control to win most of the time (ie the adult). Within each ruleset, however, is hidden a loop-hole which, if discovered, should allow the unscrupulous player crushing victory after crushing victory. The thrill of discovering and using these loop-holes will train your kids in the vital skills of system analysis, procedural thinking and game theory. Parents can either play in “carrot” mode, feigning ignorance of each game’s loop-hole and thus allowing their children the joy of discovery; or they can play in “stick” mode, exploiting the loop-hole for their own ends and using their child’s inevitable defeat, amidst cries of “it’s not fair!” as encouragement for them to engage their own ludic counter-measures.
Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
Kurt Vonnegut, in Hocus Pocus
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.
Paulo Freire, in The Politics of Education, 1985 (apparently)
If you are trying to fix the brightness on a Samsung NC10 running under Ubuntu linux (actually Xubuntu in this case) then you need to know this:
“Maximum brightness may be quite low if you don’t disable the “auto” brightness feature in the BIOS (F2 at start-up). “
Also, whenever I fix anything with my linux installation, I feel like some sort of MAGICIAN-GOD
That is all
“Knowledge is potentially infinite. What we can attend to at a given moment is severely limited. So there’s always a question as to what will count as knowledge in a given context, and another about who will decide what counts. These questions ….are almost always properly political, that is they require a judgement about what is good, a judgement which the scientist is no more competent to render than any other citizen.”
We’re looking for touch-typing data-geeks who’d like to have their brainwaves recorded, all in the name of science. All you have to do is be able to touch-type, and be willing to come to see us at the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield for an hour and a half. We’ll record your neural activity while you show off your typing skills for us. Afterwards, we’ll provide you with your brainwave data, and the behavioural data of what you actually typed.
We collect a record of what your brain is doing using an 128-channel EEG net. This looks like this and works by recording electrical activity at the scalp. This electrical activity changes depending on the activity of your brain cells – as they produce the billions of electrochemical signals that are the basis for your every thought and action. We’ll be analysing this data ourselves, because we’re interested in typing as an example of complex skill performance, but we’d also like to give everyone who helps us out the chance to take away their individual data. We’re really curious to see how people outside of the Psychology department might use it. EEG data contains lots of oscillations and lots of spreading and merging waves of activity. As well as telling us something about when and how certain brain regions become active, this means it can also be used to generate cool pictures and sounds! If you’re comfortable with processing numbers and would like to try out your skills on some numbers that come direct from your most intimate organ, please get in touch!
It’s t dot stafford at sheffield dot ac dot uk or @tomstafford
My worry is that there is so much news that that it is hard to keep attention on the things we think are important. Or, rather, the deluge of information means that we’re more likely to accept someone else’s prioritisation of what is important. (Did you notice how the Guardian’s liveblog of the financial crisis was dropped to make room for the liveblog of events in Libya?)
Similarly, there’s a dark thought I sometimes have, where everybody will know the truth about some of the great ills of our society but nobody will have time or will to do anything about them. Something like a cross between a “somebody else’s problem field” and a late-modernity version of 1984 (it won’t be that everybody knows we have always been at war with Oceania, or really does love big brother; instead everybody will know these are lies, but they will be lies we live by rather than fight). In this grim meathook future we’ll know we’re decimaiting non-human species, or that Tony Blair lied about Iraq, or that our government is eroding vital civil liberties and we’ll care, but we just won’t get round to doing anything for some reason (oh look at this!)
A small example would be the family served with an eviction notice by Wandsworth Council because the son was arrested in the recent London riots. Not even found guilty, just charged! Now I heard this, and I thought it was scandal and symptomatic of a deep problem with the way some of us think about justice. But apart from the excuse of writing this blog post, I never followed it up, never found out if the reported headline reflected the truth. I hoped, vaguely, that someone was fighting this decision. Thought it was probably illegal. Thought a bunch of things, but basically got on with my life. Wouldn’t it be nice if, once something in the news caught my attention, something I decided was important to me, there was an easy mechanism for bringing follow ups on that story to my attention.
What I think I want is something like buyafuckingshovel.com for news stories. I want a personalised sidebar on the news website I use, and I want it filled with follow ups on the stories that I tag as important to me. This tagging should be as easy as ‘liking’ something on facebook. Now I can get joined up news, which will give me a more coherant and less vulnerable to bias view of the world, and also ensure that I can work with the media to focus on what really matters to me, rather than just the enless succession of the ten thousand things.
Dear guardian.co.uk, can you fix it for me?