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Pod Academy

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

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Cover image of Pod Academy

Pod Academy

Updated about 16 hours ago

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

Rank #1: Nocturne

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This is a podcast about music.  A podcast about Nocturne.  A podcast of a Nocturne inspired by the BBC’s nightly Shipping Forecast.  Produced and presented by composer, Arthur Keegan-Bole

A K-B:  Oh dear, I crashed the pips. In the world of radio, crashing the pips – that is, talking over the six sine tone beeps that mark the hour on BBC radio – is a serious faux pas. So, please, let me start again.

Hello you are listening to Nocturne, a podcast about music, its relationship with the night. My name is Arthur Keegan-Bole and I’m a composer. The music you’re hearing is a piece I finished at the start of this year. It is called Nocturne and Nocturne is what this podcast is about. In it you will hear about the music’s materials and meaning, especially the role of radio extracts in the sound-world of the music which includes the BBC pips and, everyone’s favourite sedative, the Shipping Forecast. The piece was written and premiered in America so we will also discover how a non-U.K. audience without knowledge of these niche British sounds might understand this music. Let’s start by thinking about what a nocturne is. This is musicologist David Fay

David Fay:  As you can probably tell from the words relationship with the English adjective ‘nocturnal’ a nocturne is a piece of music suggestive of the night. Although the Italian form of the word ‘notturno’ had been used frequently in the 18th Century as a name for pieces that were designed to be performed at night, it was Irishman John Field who first coined the French word ‘nocturne’ to describe a particular musical genre in a set of piano pieces published in 1815. Thereafter the Nocturne became a popular genre of composition for romantic pianist-composers most famously Frederick Chopin whose twenty-one Nocturnes remain the pinnacle of the genre. Field’s Nocturnes and many of those composed by others subsequently are lyrical in nature, with the pianist’s right hand playing a graceful, singing melody over broken chords in the left. The relationship with the night in these piano Nocturnes is usually in their evocation of a tranquil atmosphere which can be associated with the nocturnal ambience of a calm, still night… presumably in the countryside. However, despite the quietly lyrical, pianistic connotations of the word ‘Nocturne’ it has been used as a title for pieces written for other instruments and ensembles particularly from the Twentieth Century onwards. Some of these explore other aspects of the nocturnal environment – whether the natural sounds we hear at night or the world of dreams, or, perhaps, nightmares to which we succumb nightly.

A K-B  I hope my piece simply has the sound of a nocturne – unspecifically yet unequivocally conjuring night-time. However, we all like a story to guide us, and a narrative of some kind helps the composing process a great deal. So, let me ask you… have you ever fallen asleep to the sound of the Shipping Forecast? Between 12:40 and 1:00am a magical series of sounds are broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This is Closedown. A tune called Sailing By kicks it off, this is what is known in the trade as an ‘identifier’ so those trying to tune in can easily find the station, it is also a ‘buffer’ filling time so that the Shipping Forecast (which follows) starts exactly the scheduled time. I’ve always wondered why they use Ronald Binge’s light orchestral tune. Would it not be clearer to continually repeat the name of the station? Perhaps, but that is certainly not good radio. So, to an extent at least it’s an aesthetic choice. For a long time I struggled to sleep, from time-to-time I still do but I can always count on this bit of radio to help me drift. It is about drifting between one state and another all sorts of strange, ‘in-between’ landscapes and seascapes. This is the narrative behind the first half of this music. It is a strange lullaby, drifting between the real and the unconscious, lingering in a penumbral state.

Folk singer Lisa Knapp has recently produced a brilliant radio documentary about artistic responses to the Shipping Forecast so I need not explore that aspect of this music any further. What has less attention than the Shipping Forecast is the poor old pips (those six beeps that mark the hour). A perfunctory acoustic signal…

I love the pips. Have a listen… They are great aren’t they? ! I’ve always heard a latent activity sitting between the pips, a restlessness as they try to break out of their crucial, chronological confines. Can you hear it? No? What about now? A-ha! There you gonow you are getting it!

Many of the British listeners to both the piece and this podcast will, hopefully, share a familiarity with the sounds I draw on in the tape part of Nocturne. A familiarity gained through experiencing the pips and the Shipping Forecast frequently over the airwaves of BBC radio. But what about those who haven’t had this pleasure? What about those who, through indifference, inaccessibility or pure radio phobia have no knowledge of the sonic signals that sculpt the dreamy narrative of Nocturne? The residents of Rochester, New York state for example, where this piece was written and received its premiere? What did the pips and the ships mean to them? Here’s David Fay again whose research into semiotics tackles the tricky tangle that is musical meaning.

D.F.   Meanings are generated in peoples minds as they perceive and interpret signs whilst experiencing music. Which trigger related thoughts and feelings drawn from the listener’s memory. The resulting mental web of what I call meaning-relations – the signs, thoughts and feelings that are brought into contact with one-another whilst listening – draws on the listener’s relevant previous experiences. These are integrated with the signs that are being experienced in the musical situation and a mental concept of the piece’s meaning is built up in the listener’s mind. Meanings stem from the combination of a wealth of different signs from many different media, whether music, words, sights or smells.

A K-B   So, whilst an American audience wouldn’t have previous experience of the Shipping Forecast upon which to draw in their construction of meaning, they would be reminded of radio in general, by the specific grain of sound and the nature of the extracts of spoken material.

D.F.  Moreover [oh, he’s back!] in this particular case, ideas of Britishness would be integrated into their webs of meaning as they recognise the presenter’s BBC accents. And, even though they lack the knowledge of the specific nocturnal signifiers that insomniac British listeners might bring to their understanding of the piece, the title at least would direct American listeners toward a nocturnal interpretation of the piece.

A K-B   Clearly, the meaning of the piece will differ between those who have previous experience of the material referenced in the tape part and those who don’t.

D.F.  However, a core of meanings would probably be shared between listeners either side of the pond given their shared experience of the English language, the medium of radio and also, of course, a common cultural understanding of the Western harmonic tradition that Nocturne exploits to generate it’s hazy, happy sense of tucked up tranquility.

A K-B   Okay. We are winding down now, sleep should soon be upon us. We’ve thought long and hard about it so let’s take a moment to just listen… for a short while at least.

This is the end of this nocturne about Nocturne and Nocturnes. To hear the music in full go to My thanks goes to Tom Torrisi, the guitarist you have been hearing, David Fay, Pod Academy and to you, for listening. Good night.

This is the first of a series on podcasts of New Music by Arthur Keegan-Bole, to be broadcast on Pod Academy in the New Year.

Picture:  Sunset off Portland by Deck Accessory.  Portland is one of the places mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.

If you are an insomniac or a night person, you might also like our podcast Night Walking.

Dec 20 2015



Rank #2: Can public servants change the face of local government?

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“Government is made up of people”,  says Dave Seliger, a civil servant in New York City.  So, what might public servants do to change the face of local government?

This is the 6th podcast from Civic Radio. In it Dave Seliger talks to Jo Barratt about the role of civil servants and local government officers in developing a new local government.  Dave is the co-founder of Civic Service at Parsons DESIS Lab and a public servant in the NYC Mayor’s Office.

There are 300,000 civil servants in New York, and Dave says it is important to involve all of them, not just the Mayor and City Hall, in rethinking local government.  So he trains and connects civil servants, bringing together Heads of Local Government Innovation, getting them to meet activists and community advocates,  and helping them understand the role and potential of civic tech.

He also asks how we might get people involved in public service, and particularly looks at why tech savvy people rarely join government – why do they opt for working with Google instead, when the problems they’d have to grapple with in government are so much more challenging…….

Mar 17 2015



Rank #3: The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos

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‘Water wars’ used to seem like the stuff of science fiction.  But water poverty is creating major geopolitical upheaval right now in the real world.  It contributed to the Arab Spring in Egypt, and to the growth of ISIS in Syria argues Dr Karen Piper, who teaches post colonial studies and English and is adjunct professor of geography at the University of Missouri.

In this conversation with Pod Academy’s Craig Barfoot, about her extensively researched book, The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos   Dr Piper paints a disturbing picture of the world’s journey towards the ‘coming chaos’ –  including dams that dessicate neighbouring countries and an International Monetary Fund that insists on developing countries handing over their water to multinational corporations who make a profit from drought.

The UN has declared access to clean drinking water to be a human right, but can do little to enforce that right. Karen Piper says that is was scary in conducting her research, to talk to climate scientists, and to see the droughts and coastal erosion and species moving.  But, she says, she met dedicated activists, and her hope is that people can make the change.

Picture of water droplets by Matt Newman

Jan 11 2015



Rank #4: A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic

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Child and family therapist Dr Marilyn Wedge talks to Craig Barfoot about her latest book, A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an American Epidemic

Over the course of her career as a child and family therapist, Marilyn Wedge has witnessed an ‘astronomical rise’ in the number of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Until 1995 she had hardly heard of ADHD, but over the following decades the number of children on medication for ADHD grew and grew until now 13% of boys and 5% of girls in the US – 6 million children –  are on prescription drugs (mainly Ritalin and Adderall) with that diagnosis.

But this approach is not shared by other countries,  A child in the US is 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than in France, and 80 times more likely than in Finland!  Dr Wedge says this is because in those countries, when a child is exhibiting difficult behaviour they look at the context – perhaps the child is unhappy at school, or seeing their parents fight at home – and they address the problem rather than medicate the child.  She points out that in the US a child can be taken to the doctor, and receive a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for drugs in 15 minutes, while in France the observation and consultations are likely to take 8 hours.

Why? because ‘biological psychiatry has taken over the field of psychiatry in the US’  says Dr Wedge.  The view that the problem is in the child’s brain or nervous system, rather than in his or her environment was set out for the first time in DSM 3 in 1980, and Dr Wedge points the finger at the pharmaceutical companies for this approach.

Dr Wedge argues that psychiatry needs to completely change it approach, and look at the child’s environment, offering help to parents through parenting classes etc.

Website mentioned in podcast:

Marylin’s blog on Psychology today:

Photo:  Family Portrait by Jörg Schubert

Apr 12 2015



Rank #5: Mindwise – can we ever understand what others think, believe or feel?

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How good are we at understanding each other?

Other people are complicated,  so when we try to guess what they’re thinking we often get it wrong.  Even with our partners!  Research suggests that partners are hardly any better (and sometimes worse) at guessing what each other believe or feel than a stranger.

In this wide ranging conversation with Professor Nicholas Epley from Booth School of Business at Chicago University, and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and WantPod Academy’s Craig Barfoot finds out about empathy, anthropomorphism, hubris and egocentricity.

One thing they discuss is how our egocentricity makes us feel far more noticeable than we are.  As David Foster Wallace said, in Infinite Jest,

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

This was confirmed in what Professor Epley describes as ‘the most liberating experiment in the entire field of psychology’. Research by Kenneth Savitsky; Thomas Gilovich; Gail Berger and Victoria Medvec found that no one in a room remembered the person wearing a Barry Manilow teeshirt, whereas the wearer of the teeshirt, embarrassed to be seen in this way, thought 50% of the room would remember!

Other issues covered are: do we know what it is like to be tortured? or what it is like to be poor? and how modern warfare has distanced us from death (because if we are too close it is difficult to kill someone).

This is a fascinating exploration of what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make.

Feb 12 2014



Rank #6: ‘It’s a war zone now, here’

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The films of truly outstanding director Spike Lee take a special niche in American cinema. More than that, they especially enrich so-called Black cinema. Lee’s oeuvre includes a great number of films. To mention just some of them: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), Love & Basketball (2000), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), finally, his recently released Chi-Raq (2015).

This podcast is presented and produced by Tatiana Prorokova a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany.

Lee’s works have received a lot of acclaim from their audience as well as from film critics due to the issues raised by the director and the way these problems are formulated and presented to us. African American director Spike Lee manages to present to America racial problems the country has wallowed in in the most authentic and explicit way. Houston A. Baker, Jr., comments: “Lee’s first films are low-budget, minor masterpieces of cultural undercover work. They find the sleeping or silenced subject and deftly awaken him or her to consciousness of currents that run deep and signify expensively in Black America” (166). The scholar continues, shrewdly pinpointing the peculiarity of Spike Lee’s cinema: “Now, it is not that Lee’s films are devastatingly original, telling us always things we do not know. What is striking about his work is that it is, in fact, so thoroughly grounded in what we all know, but refuse to acknowledge, speak, regret, or change” (167, author’s emphasis). Dan Flory contends that the main goal of Lee’s works is “to make the experience of racism understandable to white audience members who ‘cross over’ and view his films” (40). In this respect, one can even talk about particular types of characters or images created by this director, like, for example, “‘sympathetic racists,’” defined as “[white] characters with whom mainstream audiences readily ally themselves but who embrace racist beliefs and commit racist acts”; or “unsympathetic black characters with whom many audience members might feel little or nothing in common” (40-41). At the same time, Baker singles out another aim that Lee seeks to fulfill in his films: “His [Lee’s] mission is freedom – that monumental and elusive ‘it’ that Black folks have always realized they gotta have” (175).

Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, however, stands out of the long row of Lee’s previous works due to the problems raised as well as the projected urgency of doing something about these issues. The director starts his film reporting shocking details about the death rate in one of America’s largest cities – Chicago. While in its most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has lost 2,349 and 4,424 Americans respectively, during the same period, 7, 356 people were murdered in Chicago, which, shockingly displays that it has been safer for Americans in war-torn countries in the Middle East rather than in this American city. Thus, calling Chicago Chi-Raq, Lee claims that it is America’s second Iraq. The film later criticizes U.S. foreign and domestic policy that arguably led to the criminal activity in Chicago. For example, when a priest, being overwhelmed by the numbers and age of the recently killed people, exclaims: “Where was their freedom? Where was their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” He overtly refers to America’s mission in the Middle East to liberate the oppressed; however, he implicitly argues that while fighting far away, the United States does not notice the growing problems on its own territory, among its own citizens, specifically among “young black males”. The issue is later touched upon again by one of the heroines (Angela Bassett) who openly blames America for what is happening in Chicago: “The U.S. spends money on the Iraqi people – to train them, govern them, help them build an economy. Billions and billions of dollars! The Afghan people too. They don’t do economic development like that here on the South Side. See, Americans like war. They like guns.” Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) blames the government for not doing anything against poverty and not investing into education, thus, creating a situation when a huge number of Americans “go from third rate schools to first class high-tech prisons.” Finally, the main heroine – Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) – calls Barack Obama “President Hussein-Obama,” which is a very strong metaphor for the inaction or wrong actions of the U.S. Administration that have made Chicago what it is now.

Apart from revealing the terrifying criminal activity in Chicago (which, as Lee makes it explicit, is the problem of other big cities, too), where children and young men and women get shot every day on busy streets and nobody can do anything, the film also displays positive images of Chicago – its tall buildings, clean streets, and majestic monuments. Working with the contrast, Lee apparently does not give up hope for a better future that the city might have once the government starts paying more attention to the problems of African Americans and young African Americans choose another life for themselves and their future children.

The film turns into a speculation on what could happen when somebody eventually decided to stop violence on the streets of Chi-Raq. And here Lee’s work echoes ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata whose plot is based on a rather comic story: women make men stop the war by means of denying any sexual privileges. This is exactly what the main heroine of Chi-Raq, named Lysistrata, persuades the women of Chi-Raq to do in order to stop violence. Having sworn not to have sex with any men unless peace is negotiated, women go on a strike. It is, however, interesting that these are women who rise up to end up this war. The reason for it can be easily explained by the fact that women suffer most of all from violence organized by men who kill their children, lovers, and husbands. A woman is therefore celebrated in its most conventional role of a mother.

While first taken as a silly joke, the strike eventually becomes even a bigger problem for the local men than shootings. And here, I claim, Spike Lee skillfully turns the focus of his film from the problem of guns to the overt problem of sexism that exists in the community. The only effective measure that can be taken in order to stop the war is to deprive men of their access to women, which they have always been taking for granted. Whereas women also seem to suffer from this new rule and, at first, even express their dissatisfaction, these are men who eventually get angry about women for not obeying them, thus, refusing to be men’s sexual objects. And while in the original play such an attitude toward women may be treated by the audience rather neutrally, the fact that the situation repeats in the twenty-first century is outrageous.

Having put on the most revealing clothes, exposing their bodies, wearing a red lipstick while on a strike, women both provoke and mock men who treat a woman as nothing more than a pretty doll who is good only at satisfying man’s needs. In turn, a man is the one who governs the city. Women of Chi-Raq disagree, claiming, “saving lives – that’s our job”. While Lysistrata proclaims that women’s mission is to “giv[e] the hood the true meaning of life,” one of the men asks: “What is the true meaning of life?” Lysistrata obviously becomes confused with this reaction; yet, now she realizes that all that power that men seem to have accumulated in their hands, making the community overtly patriarchal, is fake.

Women realize that only they have enough power to change their life in the city – to transform Chi-Raq back into Chicago. And the key to this transformation, according to the film, is respect. In one of the scenes, Lysistrata claims, “we deserve respect” and I argue this is the main message of the film. Citizens deserve respect from their government; people deserve to live respecting each other; women deserve to be respected by men. Once people start to respect each other, there will be no shootings, no innocent deaths, no racism, and no sexism.

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq therefore becomes an urgent message to, first of all, millions of Americans. Lee openly demonstrates that while the United States has deserved a reputation of one of the most democratic and economically stable states, the country remains blind to its most pressing domestic problems. It comes as no surprise that the director starts his film with the words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”, desperately hoping to attract attention of as many viewers as possible.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture.” Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 154-76. Print.

Chi-Raq. Dir. Spike Lee. Perfs. Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, and Angela Bassett. Roadside Attractions, 2015. DVD.

Flory, Dan. Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2008. Print.

Feb 28 2016



Rank #7: Female Genital Mutilation – is zero tolerance the right approach?

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United Nations officials have called for a complete end to genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) to ensure the dignity, health and well-being of every girl. There has been much talk about ‘zero tolerance’.  But is zero tolerance the most effective way to

end this abusive practice


A huge international drive against female genital mutilation (FGM) by women’s rights and health campaigners has resulted in the outlawing of FGM in many countries,. But it continues to be widely practised.

Amanda Barnes talks to Dr Kirrily Pells from the Young Lives research study at Oxford University’s International Development Department, about their research on FGM in Ethiopia.

Amanda Barnes:  Kirrily, a Young Lives study looked at FGM in Ethiopia and the efforts the government’s been taking to eliminate it there.

Kirrily Pells There’s considerable variation in the country between different ethnic and religious groups and between the different regions of the country in terms of the prevalence of FGM, which form of FGM and at what age it occurs.  For example, it’s less common in urban areas.

In 2011 the proportion of girls in urban areas who underwent FGM was around 15 per cent compared to 24 per cent in rural areas. And then between the different areas of the country it ranges from between ten percent in Addis Ababa, the capital city, to about 60 per cent in the Afar region in the east of the country.

And there are also differences in terms of what type of FGM is practised. In the north of the country it tends to be performed on girls shortly after birth and takes the form of cliterodectomy, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris. The other form practiced in the northern region of the country is excision, which again involves the removal of the clitoris but also the removal of the inner labia or the inner and outer labia.  In the south of the country FGM tends to be performed just before puberty and it’s very much linked to adolescence and preparation for marriage: and the form practised there tends to be clitorodectomy again.   In the east of the country in the Afar and Somali regions of the country infibulation is practised, and this is what’s often viewed as the most extreme form of the practice where both the clitoris and inner and outer labia are cut off and then the resulting wound is sewn nearly shut, just leaving a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can pass.

AB:  What’s the Ethiopian government doing at the moment to try and get parents to stop subjecting their daughters to FGM.

KP: The Ethiopian government has taken a very strong stance against FGM.  It’s designated it as a harmful traditional practice and it’s prohibited by the 2005 criminal code. And this sets out the theories of punishment, including fines and imprisonment, for both those who perform the cutting and also those who commission ceremonies: whether that’s parents or other members of the community.  And it’s also a crime to publically encourage the practicing of FGM.  Alongside the legislative efforts, the government has promoted a wide range of other preventative actions. This includes advocacy campaigns within schools and the media and encouraging local associations to also be active in promoting knowledge around the adverse health and social consequences.

Alongside the government there’s  also very active civil society. NGOs have been very active in trying  to combat FGM: both national and international NGOs. And there’s a national network of organisations that are working together to try and combat the practice. AB: So how much have things changed there then? KP: Well, within the country the prevalence of FGM is declining, although quite slowly, and also there’s variation between the different regions. For example, the percentage of mothers who had one daughter being circumcised in 2000 was 51.7 per cent. But by 2005 this had reduced to 37.7 per cent.  But the greatest change was seen in urban areas, such as in Addis Ababa, and was much smaller in other more remote rural area such as the midland Oromia and southwest SNNP region.

AB: You were saying earlier that it was now criminalised and the punishments could be quite heavy-handed.  Do you think that might mean that those figures that you quoted might not be necessarily reliable?

KP: I think that’s a big challenge for data collection. The most recent demographic health survey didn’t collect data on FGM precisely because it is an illegal practice.  Instead, what researchers have to rely on in survey data is often around perceptions – so ‘do you believe that it’s wrong to have your daughter circumcised?’  And of course as we can imagine, there’s often a big difference between what people might say that they prefer and what’s actually going on. And indeed the Young Lives research has shown that one of the results of having strong punishment for FGM is that the practice may be being driven underground and taking different forms as families find alternative ways to navigate around the ban.

AB: So despite the number of girls undergoing FGM having dropped, possibly quite dramatically, nearly a quarter of all women say that they’ve had it done to them according to the Young Lives report. So you’re still talking about millions of people affected.  Is this because there’s been a problem getting the message across or is there something else going on? KP: No, I don’t think it’s a matter of knowledge.  Within the qualitative interviews that we conducted with children and their care-givers and community leaders there was widespread knowledge of the ban on FGM. And also people were aware of the health messages that have been communicated through the media and the adverse health consequences of FGM. So I don’t think that it’s a matter of ignorance.  Instead I think it’s a question of needing to understand what actually drives the reasons why parents or girls themselves might choose to undergo the practice.  Now this can vary between the different regions of the country.

But most commonly FGM is very much linked with marriage and is seen as an essential preparation for marriage because it’s seen as ensuring girls’ moral and social development. Rather than being seen as harmful to girls’ wellbeing it is seen as protective. It’s seen as ensuring girls don’t have sex before marriage and therefore their reputation within the community is assured, they are seen as pure and then they’ll be able to get a husband.  And this is particularly important in a context where families are very poor and there are limited education and work opportunities for girls because marriage is the only way in which families can ensure that their girls all get to be provided for.

AB: So do you think that threat of prosecution and the criminalisation has been a major deterrent or not?

KP: I think it plays a role. And I think that certainly people are aware of punishment and express fear of being punished. But I think, because of the strength of the rationale as part of the cultural context, I think that instead what’s happening is that the nature of FGM is changing. So for example, some of the girls within the research talked about how instead of the ceremonies taking place during the day, they were taking place at night now to try and avoid official attention. And this could actually place girls more at risk because it’s taking place in the dark or being performed by less experienced practitioners.

AB: There seems to be quite a build-up of support for the idea of ‘zero tolerance’ for FGM, for example there’s now an international day which is called The international day for zero tolerance of FGM.   Do you think that that idea of zero tolerance is counter-productive, or do you think it is such an abusive practice that it should be criminalised?

KP: I think you have to start with what’s going to be the most effective strategy for eliminating the practice, or what approach is most likely to work.  And I think there’s increasingly more evidence that just relying on legislation or a very punitive approach isn’t working, as Young Lives research in Ethiopia indicates. There’s also evidence from Senegal that came to the same conclusion – having legislation that’s implemented in a very harsh way can actually lead to the practice being driven underground with more risk to girls. So I think instead that the starting point is that it’s better to work with communities to engage in processes of dialogue that involve the whole community and not just officials. Because with the Young Live research in Ethiopia,  we saw that officials were very adamant that FGM should be banned and believed in making a strong stand. But that didn’t necessarily mean that other members of the community believed the same thing.  So you need to involve the whole community to make it a community-owned process rather than a top-down imposition from outside the community.  That said, I don’t necessarily think that it’s wrong to have something in law because I think that can provide a useful framework and can set an important standard.  But I think it’s how you then go about implementing that and the fact that you don’t just rely on legislation alone but you need a whole range of measures that go alongside that.

AB:  What sort of things have you come across people reporting to Young Lives about what’s happened in the community to girls who haven’t had it done to them and the sort of stigma that results.

KP: Girls have described a lot of peer pressure to undergo the practice and the girls who’ve not undergone circumcision have been bullied,  their fears – whether or not these are realised we don’t know – are that these girls won’t get husbands.  And so this is why girls were also reporting that they themselves were organising circumcision ceremonies. Even though their parents weren’t forcing them to do so, they were arranging them themselves in order to make sure that they wouldn’t face stigma in the sense or exclusion from the community.

AB: Some activists would probably say that respecting traditional cultures is no excuse for allowing women’s rights to be violated. Do you disagree with that argument?

KP: I think that we can’t see culture as a static or a monolithic phenomenon.  Culture’s dynamic and it changes.  And also within a culture there are different practices and different voices.  And I think it’s a question of working with different aspects of the culture that might celebrate women or women’s roles within the community and finding ways of promoting those.

I think even within the language of FGM we have to careful.  Internationally, FGM has become the term that used but if you go into a community and you talk about mutilation, you’re immediately going to put people on the defensive because you’re going in there telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, even though they themselves have a strong rationale for doing it. And I think that’s then going to be detrimental to trying to build understanding and build support for gradually eliminating the practice.

So I think it’s better to work with people rather than creating tension and potentially driving things underground and making it more dangerous.

AB: Earlier you were talking about some of the consequences that were social and economic and psychological, and there certainly are significant consequences for people’s wellbeing. But do you think they should take priority over what really amounts to quite severe child abuse and cruelty?

KP: I personally think it should be eliminated as quickly as possible, but you have to think about what strategies are most likely to lead to that happening and what is going to be most successful and more sustainable.  And although legislation has existed in a number of countries for several years now – banning FGM – the rate of change has been very slow.  And there’s also limited evidence on what actually works in terms of engaging with communities and bringing about real and lasting change.

So I don’t think it’s an either/or.  I think it’s that you need to build more opportunities for girls, particularly in terms of education and livelihood opportunities.  Because if girls have other opportunities,  there’s going to be less need for a practice that’s seen as securing their social and economic wellbeing because they’re going to have other routes to doing that. And indeed in Young Lives research we see very strongly that education is changing children’s roles and changing aspirations for the future. And what’s expected of boys and girls, for example care-givers talking about considering it being more acceptable for girls to get married later and to have an education first. And also to find work. So I think you need to build education and livelihood opportunities for girls. And alongside that work with communities to try and change social norms.  But changing social norms does take a long time and it can’t be forced because it will then just be driven underground and there will be a fierce backlash. So if you want to successful you need to bring both the social and economic side alongside the cultural, and work with all aspects within a community.

AB: There’s been quite a lot in the media recently about FGM being practiced here in the UK and the government not having prosecuted any care-givers or parents who’ve had the process done to their daughters. Do you think there might be perceived to be a bit of hypocrisy with northern governments lecturing governments like the Ethiopian government about eliminating FGM when they’re really not doing very much about it here in the North? I think maybe some listeners might be thinking about that.

KP: I think one thing to mention first of all is it’s often assumed to be northern governments or northern-based activists lecturing the South.  But there are very vocal African women and women’s rights organisations who are leading the way really in campaigning against FGM, and also working with communities, and perhaps having a greater voice and greater respect within their communities. Because they come from those communities and understand those communities and people know them. So I think it’s important for us not to set up a false North/South dichotomy.

But returning to your question, I think it’s a very difficult question for the government, firstly because it’s something that’s quite hard to detect. You do also have to think about the consequences of prosecution because there is a danger then that women who need help won’t come forward and seek the health-care that they need because they’re scared of being prosecuted or getting into trouble.  So I can understand that there’s something in law and it’s frustrating because it’s not being implemented. But at the same time I think it’s important it doesn’t actually have an unintended consequence that stops girls, or stops women coming forward for help.

AB: So if there’s three thinks that you think that people involved with the communities in the countries like Ethiopia should be thinking about, what would your three points be for policy-makers and practitioners on the ground?

KP: Firstly, not to rely on legislation alone, but to think about a broader spectrum of approaches, which are indeed taking place in Ethiopia. But I think sometimes there is a focus on the law to the neglect of other approaches such as healthcare and communicating health messages in a way that are understood locally.  And also encourage women who have undergone FGM to come forward for help. And as we’ve seen in the Young Lives research, a very heavy-handed approach can actually put girls more at risk by driving practices underground.

Secondly, the need to work with communities. Not to rely on a top-down approach, but to work with the whole community.  Not just officials but children and parents and other members of the community, because social norms can’t be changed by just individuals.  Because that sense of stigma and exclusion is going to prevent change being sustainable so you need to be able to build support within the community and to find other ways and other approaches.  It depends within the community, whether FGM’s more a private matter that takes place after birth or whether it’s more a public ceremony as it is in some places in the south of Ethiopia.   But one approach that has been used within communities is finding other ways celebrating girls’ transitions to adolescence and adulthood.  Finding ways that don’t involve cutting.

And then thirdly to not just focus on FGM in isolation as a single issue, but to develop strategies that encompass a range of areas of intervention.  As I was saying earlier about the importance of promoting access to quality education for girls: both primary but also secondary.  Then on to training programmes of access to further education because that offers girls opportunities to study and to delay marriage and hopefully to find livelihood opportunities that reduce their dependence on men and on the need for getting married. And alongside that you need the healthcare, the reproductive information and building opportunities for political participation and women’s voices within the community. All of these areas together can help reduce what’s the underlying rationale for FGM.

AB:  That was Kirrily Pells from Oxford University’s Department of International Development talking to Pod Academy about the Young Lives study’s findings on FGM. Kirilly Pells, thank you very much for joining us today.


You can find World Health Organisation information on FGM here.

As Kirrely points out, there are high rates of FGM, even where it is banned as in Ethiopia. For example, In Egypt  95% of women have been cut, and there are high rates in some countries in South East Asia

You might also want to listen to Pod Academy’s interview with Nawal el Saadawi in which she talks about so called ‘honour’ based violence in Egypt.

Feb 06 2014



Rank #8: Prison – Does it work? Can it work?

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‘Lock them up and throw away the key!’ is something that is often heard.  But does locking someone up for committing a crime really work to punish an individual? What about having them come back into society a changed person, asks presenter and producer Lee Millam in this podcast.

Prisons, why do we send people there?  Does it work?  Should it work?  This was the subject of a recent lecture at Gresham College in the City of London.  It is one lecture from a series on Law and Lawyers at Gresham College, presented by Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.  He explains why we lock up criminals…..

Geoffrey Nice:  …..for a range of reasons, many of them not fully articulated.  You could look back and say thata there are some coherent lines of justification – deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation (those are the standard ones).  But does it really explain our attitude towards imprisonment.  I rather doubt it.

Not only are people complex, but our reactions to people are complex too.  Take those who, on some objective calculation, would be less culpable but get more opprobrium and heavier sentences than those who are in one sense guiltier but get lesser sentences.  The most obvious examples are those who really cannot control themselves because of their upbringing – such as sex offenders who have themselves been formed by childhood, have been victims of sex offences and may become sex offenders themselves. They draw the maximum opprobrium from society, and not the understanding that they themselves are victims.

So we are complicated in the way we respond to crime. There is no great political dividend in rehabilitating people, at least there doesn’t seem to be in our country.

Interestingly there are changes around the world. Norway is rather leading the way.  Its prisons are so shockingly liberal that people from America and England can’t probably recognise them as prisons at all!  Their purpose is to enable people to rejoin society.  And these prisons have a recidivist rate of 20% whereas the US and England have recidivism rates of about 70%.  Why aren’t we spending more time looking at that/

Lee Millam: If other countries are more successful at rehabilitating prisoners, then there must be lessons to learn from other systems in other parts of the world.  But there are some crimes where prison is the only answer.

GN: There are some people who are so dangerous they do have to be restricted so that is one justifiable expense – though whether it has to be done in this way, given modern technology, is another issue.

I think it is really a desire to punish people that justifies what we do.  I may not be on that wing of public opinion, but what is clear is that you have to carry public opinion with youon an issue like this.  Change from where we are to something more humane, or rather more liberal (as it would now be described) is going to take some time.

It is also going to be more difficult to do that in a society where so many of the other structures, in their own way, almost require punishment and offenders.  The rich need the poor, the good need the bad, the apparently lawful need criminals.

You could argue, in a rather nasty way, we don’t actually want to live in a crime free society.  So if you’ve got an aggressively capitalist society with great divergence of wealth, it is probably inevitable that you are going to want to punish, or will punish, those who offend the implied values of such a society.  Maybe as long as you’ve got a society that , since the 1960s has believed in all aspects of sexual liberalism, it is in some curious and perverse way particularly hard on those who transgress what is left of the law on sexual control.  Mary Whitehouse may well be shown, in due course, to have been right.  More and more people may be thinking it wasn’t quite so good to create a sexually liberal society, one of the consequences of which is that people had to do more thing to temper it.

LM: Many voters want criminals punished for their crimes, but perhaps there are other wasy of asking those who have committed a crime to  pay back to society.

GN: Politicians only get elected if they promise more prison, and everyone starts ratcheting each other up.  That is why the US has such a huge prison population – larger than anyone else’s.

LM: Many would argue that sending someone to prison doesn’t always work.  If prison isn’t the answer, what is?]

GN: Prison isn’t the right way forward.  There has to be not only a recognition of the utilitarian advantages of a more liberal system as in Norway.  But there also has to be an acceptance (which will be much harder) that it isn’t always necessary to punish people, however bad are the things they have done.

Our system [here in the UK] is not that different from China, North America, Australia.  You have to achieve recognition that other systems work according to the parameters you set, which would be utilitarian as opposed to retributive parameters.  And then you have got to get people to be willing to do without that element of condign punishment that is perhaps part of our national psyche, and part of the psyche of lots of other countries.  So it is a big shift and it would be a daring politician who let it!

The full lecture and transcript of Geoffrey Nice’s lecture can be found here.


  • ‘Good enough’ – CuzOH
  • ‘Cold Noise’ – time

Photo: Still Burning

Jan 03 2016



Rank #9: The East India Company and its legacy

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The East India Company was in existence for over 250 years –  from 1600-1858.  It was the biggest corporation in world history.

Largely forgotten in the UK, it was responsible for the opium wars with China, it contributed to devastating famines in India,  and was a perpetrator of cruel employment practices in Bangladesh and other British colonies.

Not suprising then, that the memory of the East India Company is very much alive throughout India and the far east, where it is a byword for exploitation and oppression. Its story holds important lessons about the dangers of the overweening power of large corporations.

In this podcast, Nick Robins, author of The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational talks to Jane Trowell of Platform, an organisation that uses art, activism,  education and research to work for social and ecological justice.  They have  been working together on projects around the legacy of empire for Britain in the 21st century.

They  met up in the National Maritime Museum in London, where the Trader’s gallery focuses on the history of the East India Company.  Jane started by asking Nick to describe how he first came to take an interest in the East India company.

Nick Robins:  It is an interesting journey. I have been working in India and Bangladesh, working on issues around fair trade and ethical trade in the textile industry and coming to learn there about the impact of the East India Company particularly on Bengal’s textile industry.

I subsequently came to work in the City[of London], working in socially responsible investment.  And I went to find the location of the headquarters of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street.  That is where the Lloyd’s Building is now, the glamorous steel and glass building.  I was expecting to see some form of plaque saying ‘Here was the site of the East India Company, 1600-1858’.   But there was nothing there.   We have so many plaques around the city, such an emphasis on heritage for very minor things. In fact, on the site there was a plaque to a postage stamp. And it just struck me as something odd, that there is the biggest corporation in world history, and it has somehow disappeared.  So I started doing some research into it, particularly looking at how it was seen at the time, and from that the book came along.

Jane Trowell:  For those who do not know that much about the East India Company, why is it such an extremely important fact of life – such an extremely important piece of our business history?

NR:  It was founded in 1600. It was a company with shareholders, which had a charter for all the trade between England and Asia.  At that time England, in particular, was very much the poor cousin compared with Asia. Traditionally, wealth has flown from west to east in the global economy.  Even in the Roman Empire, there were complaints of the flood of bullion to pay for peppers and textiles from the East.   Britain was in a very, very poor place and the reason the East India Company was set up was to gain access for this very marginal maritime kingdom of England into the luxury markets of Asia, to get access to spices in particular. So it was very much the supplicant. Very, very small, struggling to get into these big markets, particularly the Moghul empire of India.

And then, gradually over the years, particularly over the eighteenth century through the use of its private armies, it started actually taking control of key parts of India, particularly Bengal. It became a power behind the throne and was not just trading but was engaged in real conquest, in battles.  It started with dominating the markets in India, got involved in the opium trade, smuggling opium into China in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It became more and more of a ‘public-private partnership’.  It was still a private operation, it still had shareholders, was still paying dividends to its shareholders but was increasingly doing the job of the British state who were standing behind it.  Eventually it was wound up in 1858 after what was called the ‘Indian Mutiny’ or the ‘Great Rebellion against the East India Company’.

But one of the things that is interesting about the company is that it continued to pay out dividends for another twenty years or so. So, its actual corporate form extended much longer than its operational life. It paid its last dividend, drawing on the taxes in India, in April 1874.

So it had a very, very long existence from 1600 to 1874, and many incarnations along the route. But  probably all the way through its primary purpose was to generate profits for its shareholders and executives.

In that picture it seems like – or could come across as – a great English or British success story. But in fact your book ‘The Corporation that Changed the World’ is a brutal dissection of the company, looking at it from an ethical standpoint, looking at it from a human rights standpoint, and looking at how its own private army was used in the absolute suppression of local democratic control.

NR:  If you look back at the company’s record, there are some examples of some really outrageous negligence and oppression, particularly once it had gained a real foothold in India, dominating markets and driving prices down for its goods.

For example, when it controlled Bengal, there was a drought and the company did not intervene. In fact its executives intervened to buy the grain that remained on the market, so driving up the prices. Drought led to famine.  It was probably one of the biggest corporate disasters in world history, anything up to seven million people died in that famine.

The Opium War we’ve touched on. The company was the monopoly administrator of opium production in India and smuggled that deliberately, against Chinese laws, into China. So, there’s some fairly extreme examples of corporate malpractice.

As I was writing the book I was conscious and wary of implying twenty-first century values – saying, ‘they do look outrageous to us, but maybe they were not seen as as bad at the time, because of different values and so on’.  But what really impelled me to write the book was how contemporaries, particularly back here in England, saw the company’s behaviour and actually did react with outrage and in many ways in disgust to some of the company’s behaviour. So in the book, I try and draw on that, in terms of the poems and the plays and the caricatures that were generated by the culture at the time, in reaction to the company’s behaviour. So, while the company was certainly powerful and a part of the establishment,  it was also the subject of cultural criticism at the time.  This gave me the confidence to look into it. It was not just looking back at this historical object through twenty-first century eyes but actually drawing on the critique at the time – when some people were saying ‘In future times, people will look back in horror at the East India Company’.

JT:  There is, in this country, wilful ignorance about the legacy of that particular company. Unlike some of the slave trade companies, which have been held up for scrutiny in much more rigorous manner. But of course in your travels in China and in India and Bangladesh, you came across a very different story. Because in effect, this is a corporation that ended up ruling a large chunk of the Indian sub-continent.

NR:  In India, I think you talk to pretty much anyone about the East India Company’s role   –  coming to trade but eventually conquering – and it is part of standard education. So everybody will know about it. And when I was talking to textile workers in Bangladesh and mentioned the East India Company,  people would say ‘Oh yes, yes. These are the people who chopped off our weavers’ thumbs.’  There was immediately a recognition of the company after they had taken over control of Bengal, and that they were so oppressive, that they chopped off the weavers’ thumbs.  I could not find evidence of that in my research, but I found evidence of something probably even more horrific – the weavers chopped off their own thumbs, so they would not actually be forced to weave under the company’s orders.

So this is very close to the surface in India.  This year, in 2012, India has passed new laws liberalising the retail sector to allow multinational companies to come in and take majority stakes in retail companies. And immediately, the gut reaction in Indian society is that people were opposing at is to say it is the return of the East India Company. So, it is the motif for talking about companies, the wrong companies.

And in China, in the opium museum in modern Guandong you have the East India Company portrayed  there, very powerfully. They have these fantastic full-life tableaux of the company, these opium chests, its logo or chop-mark there, and it is seen that is was the institution which was the driving force behind the opium trade which resulted in the humiliation and the loss of power, the secession of Hong Kong, it is seen that that went on for essentially a hundred years until 1949. So again, when I talked to most people in China about the East India Company and immediately there would be some reaction. Whereas I think in Britain it will be somewhat fuzzy. And if at all, it will probably be linked to consumer articles, to some nice set of teas or whatever.

JT:  If you go to the very touristy Twining’s shop on the Strand, which is the original Twining’s tea building, with a very, very small frontage, it is only about three meters across, it is not a wide building, with two, in inverted commas, ‘Chinamen’, reclining on the pediment as if in total happiness with the tea trade, with Britain. These representations, like thousands of others, dominate the landscape. Before we even get into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and look at the marvellous painting, that you describe in the book, of Britannia receiving riches… what is the exact title of ‘Britannia receiving the riches of the East’

Britannia receiving the riches of the East

NR: Yes, what a picture. Britannia very much in a position of hierarchy and receiving essentially tribute from Indians and Chinese and so on.

JT: And certainly in the context of England and Britain the amnesia about the company is  well observed.

Except…. when we were doing our walks and talks and things in Tower Hamlets in East London, where there is a predominantly Bangladeshi community. Because of course, when we talk about Britain we have to talk about who in Britain is conveniently forgetting. And we had some extremely interesting encounters with young people and older people in Tower Hamlets, whose political understanding of their current situation and the situation in Bangladesh was deeply informed by an understanding of what had happened in Bengal, the bread basket of the world at that time under the East India Company.

So again, it is a question, it is a very interesting question, of who we are talking to about this company. Because I remember one young man, I’m not sure I was with you on that occasion, who was thumping the table with grim delight that anybody was trying to talk about this in a political way that was relevant to now.   He was an eighteen or nineteen year old, dealing with racism, dealing with unequal opportunity, dealing with family back in Sylhet.  It is an interesting contrast between museological world, the white-dominated world of museums, the heritage world that wants to shut it down; and the business world, which may want to shut it down – and on the other hand other communities, for whom it is a vital part of reclaiming their history.

NR: Yes, and I think it is one of the interesting things which has happened over the last five years. The history of the East India Company has not changed, it is in the past, it is there. But I think what has changed, certainly in Britain, is the ways in which different communities have encountered that legacy. So, there is a very interesting community organisation in East London, the Brick Lane Circle,  which has been working to get young people of all communities and backgrounds and races to actually think about what this legacy of the East India Company means. And actually, in many ways, how you can through encountering it, through confronting it and challenging it, you can actually maybe develop a sense of a shared culture, that is not exclusive. Its not about people with a Bangladesh background having to be interested or share a certain view. But it is a way of saying that because of this company we have a lot of things in common which we have not quite explored. So that is a very interesting thing, a very live thing. A current project of the Brick Lane circle is about how Bengal dressed Britain through it textiles . o again, very good ways of bringing this history to life and showing how these historical connections formed the way we are today.

JT: It has been very interesting, hasn’t it, over the past twelve years or so that we have been working on this on and off together and sometimes separately, to see how different museums and galleries, let’s say in London, have changed or have struggled with how to interpret these histories of trade in Asia – and we could even talk about slavery, even if it is a different subject it is a related subject because those two things are very interwoven economically. Is there anything new –  particular moments, particular exhibitions you have seen or have been involved with – where you have seen a shift in thinking?

NR:  Yes,  certainly in a cultural sense.  There have been three exhibitions over the last decade which I think, do pinpoint three different moments for how British society is trying to come to terms with this.

The first was an exhibition in the British Library back in 2000 for the 400th anniversary  of the Company. It was a very romanticised view and in fact, had totally omitted any reference to the opium trade. So you had community protest from the Chinese community here in Britain, very strong, to introduce a proper explanation of the company’s role in the opium trade.

Secondly, the Encounters Exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I think that had the beginnings of a recognition of the balance of the story.

And now finally here, in the National Maritime Museum, the new permanent exhibition on the East India Company which, I think, is a very good attempt to explain in a popular way the full account of the East India Company – to explain that it was a company and certain parts of it appear properly, maybe for the first hundred years, to be trading and  bringing benefit. That it was bringing the benefit of stimulating demand for goods in India, bringing in tax revenues in Britain and so forth. But there was another big part of the story, which was bringing oppression and domination. And I think that the gallery here has attempted ato bring that richness without being too didactic. Hopefully, it leaves the viewer to make up their own mind. But I think it lays out this was a very complex story and the company had strengths in parts of the earlier period, where it did not have this overweening power, but then began overturning existing cultures and really changing the course of economic history so that wealth would flow from East to West, changing that historical flow from West to East.

So I think those are interesting moments, and within only a decade. They show the assertiveness of once immigrant communities now playing their part in the shaping of the public memory of Britain as a whole, particularly the Bangladeshi and Chinese community. It means we have a much richer, more honest, representation of this peculiar institution.

JT: So, we have talked a bit about different communities’ memories.

Now let’s think about business. You know, one of the things about capitalism is it likes to forget (there is some very interesting writing about that in terms of capitalism). But you have deliberately subtitled your book ‘How the East India Company shapes the modern multinational’. Working in the City [of London], you understand the forces at work. How has this book gone down in business communities?

NR: One of the things again I did as I was going into the heart of the matter, was to look at the characters of that time and whose learnings and teachings we still draw on –  people like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, very different people.  Adam Smith was seen as the father of liberal economics, Edmund Burke as the father of political conservatism, Karl Marx leading the communist movement.  All, in very different way,s encounter the company in a period from, let’s say, 1770 to 1858/1860.  And all are critical, from quite different perspectives.

Adam Smith, was a supporter of free trade but very critical of corporations, particular their monopoly power –  both because of the scale issue (he was interested in open markets, so he was obviously against that) but also he was particularly concerned about the shareholder listing point of that, and the tendency towards speculation and abuse.  It is interesting going back through  Adam Smith’s work and realising that when he wrote his third edition of the Wealth of Nations, he actually went back to his editor and said ‘Look, I want to add another section to the book about the behaviour of corporations because we have this egregious example of the East India Company.’

I suppose when you are talking to a modern business audience, drawing on the reality of Adam Smith and actually placing his views in his time, pointing out that this was one of the big things he was struggling with, then I think you get a more honest response.

Edmund Burk again, a conservative.   His reaction to the East India Company, particularly  the way it destabilised –  threw into turmoil –  Bengal society, was similar to his reaction to the French Revolution.  He opposed the East India Company  because it was revolutionary. It was this revolutionary power, going into India, overturning all the  established relations and leading to oppression as a result.

So you have a conservative critique as well as a liberal-economic critique.  And then there is Karl Marx. For his purposes the East India Company was an agent or a tool of the British ruling class, which had turned from being the trading class to what he called the ‘moneyocracy’.

So all very different perspectives but all ones that have resonance today.  And it helps us to when we are looking at those figures and their ideas, to root them in their realities so they are not abstract.

JT: At the end of the second edition of the book, you itemise, like a manifesto,  what could be done or what should be done in light of what we have learned from the East India Company. You give an analysis of what you call a ‘trilogy of design flaws’ – speculative temptations of executives and investors, the drive for monopoly control and absence of automatic calamity for corporate abuse.

You then make a series of recommendations and you talk about some progress one can see in the UK 2006 Companies Act. Can you talk a bit more about how you think those recommendations might play out?

NR:  Yes, I think we are looking at the company and what it teaches us about the modern corporation.  I looked at four factors.

Firstly, the company as an economic agent. How the financing of the corporation is a powerful factor in determining its behaviour.  As we discussed with Adam Smith we need to be very careful about the dynamics of the stock market listing. It is not necessarily intrinsically a bad idea, but we do need to recognise that there are inherent problems about stock market listing and the tendency towards speculation.

Second is the issue of scale – again something brought up by Adam Smith.  We have seen recently, in the discussion of too big to fail issues,  the problem of the larger the organisation, when things go wrong, the more magnified the problems are.

The third, which we have not really discussed,  is technology.  How the company deployed its technology – in its case, the technology was particularly its military technology and shipping technology.

And a fourth is regulation. There was a collusion of state power and corporate power in the company’s case.  So how can we avoid that, and  how can regulation be used to ensure public accountability.

So  the recommendations are really around mechanisms through which you can ensure that both shareholders and company management must have the public interest as part of their mandate. So it is not purely the seeking of private good.

You do then have the critical issue of company scale and company size, and a recognition that economic diversity is a value in itself – diversity of size, but also of form.   When we look back at the history, Adam Smith was recognising that certain economic forms are useful for certain things. You can have the joint stock company, and there are also partnerships, co-operatives, state companies and so on. And they can all play different roles –  so diversity of form and size is important.

And then  finally, regulation. We have had a reform in the last few years of the Company Act. In a very British way, the focus of a company is to promote the interest of its members, its shareholders. But, in a reformist measure company directors were asked to consider to take into account the interests of employees and suppliers and communities and the wider environment. To consider but not act.  And there, I suppose we have seen it is important that there is more of a recognition that companies need to have that positive requirement to act in the wider interest as well. Those would be three, I suppose, big recommendations around the business side in our times.

So there are many examples, I suppose, where the company was doing the first in so many of these failings of corporate form which for me again, thinking of the history of it, is that the issues that we are facing today are not accidents of circumstances I suppose. That they are things that are more structural and do have patterns through history, which I think means we can address them today with more confidence really.

So moving from the imperial gene to the ethical gene?

That’s right, that’s right. And some people call it the ‘civil corporation’. The company corporation can be a very useful institution, but we really need to think about its design so that it does serve the interest of society.

With thanks to Dianne Prosser at the National Maritime Museum for hosting this discussion.

The podcast was produced by Matthew Flatman and the transcript was prepared by Maarten van Schaik

Jan 13 2013



Rank #10: Sugar, sugar everywhere

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Podcast produced and presented by Lee Millam

“A chocolate hug”.  That’s how one person we talked to describes her ‘addiction’ to sugar and chocolate.

Sugar is everywhere.  It is added to virtually all processed foods from pizza and curry sauces to soups, and fishcakes.

The average person in the UK eats the equivalent of 15 teaspoons a day (that’s probably an underestimate as few people are honest about their sugar intake)- but the recommended level is no more than 6 teaspoons per person per day.  We crave chocolate and other sweet things.

And it has had a huge impact on our health and our health services.  Not only is it very bad for our teeth (Queen Elizabeth 1 had black teeth from eating too much sugar), but it is a major contributor to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

In this podcast Lee Millam talks to Professor Graham MacGregor of the Wolfson Institute who says we are not exactly ‘addicted’ to sugar, but rather, we are habituated to sugar.  We now expect it in our food. “You get used to a lot of sugar in things and your sugar taste receptors get suppressed and you then prefer more and more sugar.”

So why are we consuming so much sugar?  Professor MacGregor points the finger at the food industry.  The food industry, he says, is feeding us rubbishy, cheap, tasteless food, and making it more attractive by adding sugar, salt and palm oil – all of which are very bad for us. Sugar is a cheap additive, it bulks up the food and makes us crave it.  The industry is good at marketing cheap foods to poor communities, including children in poor communities, and the result is high rates of obesity and diabetes. And now, he says, they are planning on moving into India and China and Vietnam to sell this ‘rubbish food’.

So what is to be done?  Professor MacGregor dismisses the idea of promoting healthy eating, and says we have to ban products with high sugar content (and high levels of saturated fat and salt).  And all of us, individually, must avoid eating biscuits, and confectionery and give up drinking soft drinks and fruit juice.

All music from
  1. EX LUNA – Serial Project – LAFAYETTE 
  2. Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness
  3. Project 5am – The Dream

Photo, Lips Like Sugar AJC

Apr 09 2015



Rank #11: New Citizenship Project

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The New Citizenship project wants to challenge the idea of an individual as a consumer – and replace it with the individual as a citizen, using the techniques of marketing and public relations(usually associated with consumerism) to do so.

in this latest podcast from Civic Radio, Jo Barratt talks to  Jon Alexander and Irenie Wilson, the Directors of the New Citizenship Project.

Has the world of commerce encroached irrevocably on our civic spaces, and how much do we care? How much is civic exclusion growing because of what participation demands or expects of us? Civic Radio is on the road, seeking out the people and organisations that are exploring these topics in different ways.

The New Citizenship Project is interested in how you create a shift in the dominant story of the individual in society from the Consumer to the Citizen.

Subscribe on iTunes to Citizen Radio..

Produced by Jo Barratt.

This is the latest podcast in the Civic Radio series.

Other podcasts in this series can be found here:

Apr 03 2015



Rank #12: The Butterfly Defect: How globalization creates systemic risks, and what to do about It

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Podcast produced and presented by Craig Barfoot

The past 25 years have witnessed the most rapid economic and social development the world has ever seen.

In our increasingly globalised world, if something happens in one place, the aftershocks move quickly around the globe.  Globalisation creates systemic risks.

Professor Ian Goldin,Director of the Oxford Martin School, University ofOxford. and author, with Mike Mariathasan,  of The Butterfly Defect:  How globalization creates systemic risks, and what to do about It talks to Craig Barfoot about the joys and perils of gloabalisation.

By any measure – life expectancy, nutrition, infant mortality, income – we see improvements.  But the unintended consequences of hyper globalisation such as microbial resistance, obesity, water shortages, climate change, as well as the threats from hyper complexity and integration –  growing inequality, cyber attack, terrorist attack, pandemics and financial crises suggest that the gap between the world’s ability to control its affairs, and what is happening on the ground, is widening.

If we look backwards at globalisation, the glass if half full – there has been significant progress.  But if we look forward 25 years and ask is this progress likely to be sustained, the answer is probably not, it is essential that we learn to manage globalisation and the systemic risks it poses.

A systemic risk is one that cascades across sectoral boundaries – it is not confined to an industrial or commercial sector, or a country.  The 2008 financial crisis was the first systemic risk, it started with the banking industry, but crossed industrial boundaries, flattening industries and putting people out of work, and it fanned out across national borders.

The financial crisis should be seen as a wake up call.  We need to learn from the financial crisis, put in place the necessary reforms.  But the lessons have not been learned and it is likely that there will be another financial crisis.

The Butterfly Defect looks in detail at the financial crisis, but transposes some of the lessons to potential crises involving pandemics, infrastructure, supply chains, ecology, environment and business systems.

The question is, how do we manage complexity and prevent our hyper connected systems leading to contagion and risk?  How, for example, do we ensure that airports are places for conveying people and prevent them becoming places that convey pandemics?

Part of the answer lies in understanding the nature of the risks we face.  For example, we must ensure that no place, as well as no industry, is too big to fail.  Much risk has become geographically concentrated (eg servers in Nevada, banks in Wall Street).

It is also crucial that our international institutions are up to the challenges posed by globalisation – the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, the United Nations, for example.  At present they are not.

Ian Goldin also discusses the paradox of the rise of nationalism in this increasingly globalised world.  Many people feel that the world is out of control and respond by trying to put up walls (trade protectionism, anti immigration laws, referenda for leaving the EU ) and go back to an imagined, safer past.

This is Professor Goldin’s second podcast for Pod Academy.  See also  Divided Nations: global challenges, global governance 

Photo by Lars Plougman

Apr 27 2015



Rank #13: A Demanding Job: youth unemployment in the UK

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Youth unemployment frequently makes it into the headlines.  It is an issue that many young people here in the UK – and elsewhere in Europe – have been struggling with ever since the 2008 financial crisis, and even before then.

Maarten van Schaik is joined by Callum Biggins, author of A Demanding Job. Finding sustainable employment for Britain’s youth for the London-based liberal think tank CentreForum.  As an institution trying to promote liberal thinking in the UK, CentreForum works on four different themes – Education and Social Policy, Globalisation, Economics and Liberalism.

Maarten started by asking Callum about his personal motivations for picking a topic like youth unemployment to write a research paper on.

Callum Biggins: Youth unemployment is a very topical issue, and one that is quite politically sensitive. While I was writing the report, the level of youth unemployment (ie those not in education, employment or training) went over the psychologically important one million threshold. So, it was a topical issue and we at CentreForum thought we should write our response to it, our critique of it, saying why youth unemployment was at such high levels. And, more importantly, suggesting what the government could do to tackle this growing problem.

MvS: You just mentioned there are over a million young people unemployed. What kind of people are we talking about here?

CB: Well yes, that was one of the central contentions of the report. We found that the reporting of youth unemployment tended to describe unemployed young people, that is those aged sixteen to twenty-five, as one homogeneous group. However we found that, somewhat unsurprisingly, youths in this range vary quite substantially in terms of their characteristics. For instance, we found that youth unemployment has been relatively static for those aged sixteen and seventeen between 1993-2011 – hovering round about ten per cent. This said, unemployment has been rising steadily for this group since the financial crisis, so since 2008.

We also found that unemployment varied significantly by education level as well as by age. So, those with low skills or a low qualification are far most likely to be unemployed.  We also found, and this was the most pressing concern,  that twenty per cent of those over 18  who are unemployed are skilled to a very low level and this has not increased at all since 1992. So that suggests education is failing some young people.

MvS: In your report there is a fairly substantial section about the scarring effects of unemployment for the youth. Could you expand  a little bit more what you exactly mean by scarring and what different types of scarring there might be?

CB: Obviously, no matter when you get unemployed during your economically active life you are going to be scarred as a consequence of it. We found that these effects are particularly severe during your youth.

Research has shown that, during sustained periods of youth unemployment, you are more likely to have lower future wage earnings later on in your economically active life, as well as an increased probability of future periods of unemployment. More specifically, research by Gregg and Tominey show that a wage scar between twelve and fifteen per cent occurs following a period of youth unemployment . Further still, the scarring effects are evident up to twenty years after the initial period of unemployment. So, if you put that in some sort of context, you have got someone who is unemployed at the age of seventeen,  but by the age of thirty-seven, they are earning twelve to fifteen percent less than their peers,  just because they were unemployed at the age of seventeen. So obviously youth unemployment, as well as having consequences here and now for the Exchequer and the tax payer, also has significant consequences for the person involved.

Secondly, the scarring following youth unemployment is the social and emotional consequences. So this means the impact of youth unemployment transcends the economic sphere. Research suggests health and social issues following a period of youth unemployment are commonplace. So a sustained period of youth unemployment is widely believed to have a significant impact on the future – on the individual’s future happiness, job satisfaction and personal health.

MvS: So those with limited education and low initial work skills are the ones hardest hit by youth unemployment. Do you think the changing make-up of economies in Western Europe, and the UK especially, over let’s say the course of the last decades, with more and more companies choosing to set up shop elsewhere in the world, might play a role here? To some it may seem that with the changing economy there is just less of a demand for lower skilled labour here in the UK, and they would see the rise of the levels of those in higher education as a sign of that. Do you think the idea of the UK moving towards a society where there is more of a demand for higher skilled labour is a correct one?

CB: I would not say it is more to do with a higher education. I still believe there is a place in the modern economy for those people who decide not to go into higher education or further education. The point of the report, a large part of the report even,  was to dispel many of the common myths. So for instance, if you pick up a standard paper, you may happen to read an article about EU migration having a negative effect on the ability for young people to find jobs because EU migrants are taking those jobs. Our research found that was not the case. Our research found it was the lack of demand by employers for low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing industry that was contributing to the high levels of youth unemployment. There was also quite a large rhetoric concerning the employability of young people and whether or not the school curriculum accurately reflects the needs for employers.

MvS: Another thing that seems to pop up when people are debating or discussing youth unemployment, and it does not really matter whether you read about it in a newspaper or are discussing it with friends in a pub, is the idea of some sort of ‘free rider’ effect i.e the idea of having young people in unemployment as a result of the welfare system in place in the UK. It is an argument I hear in the Netherlands often as well.  It is the assumption that social benefits have a negative impact on youth unemployment, that they take away the incentive for you people to look for jobs. Do you think these assumptions have any truth to them?

CB: For a large majority of the population in the sixteen to twenty-four age bracket it doesn’t apply. I think the major problem is, is that in the past thirty years or so there has been an increasing shift towards kids staying at home with their parents post sixteen education. So this, in effect, disincentivises them to look for work immediately and stay on in higher education or whatever when it may not be the right thing for them to do. It was also currently against them not getting practical work experience because their parents can give them pocket money where in bygone generations you might have been on a paper round at six-thirty every morning before school.

MvS: In 2012 we reached the staggering number of over one million young people in unemployment right now.  Could you expand a little bit about what kind of impact that has on the UK’s economy?

CB: Well, we calculated that in total it costs the Exchequer five billion in terms of welfare payments but also it costs the economy ten billion pounds in lost economic output through these people being economically inactive or underemployed.

MvS: So clearly we are dealing here with a problem with not just direct costs but also we see loads of missed income out of taxation, as a result of wages…

CB: Aside from the direct economic costs of it there is also a large societal cost in terms of scarring for the young people.

MsS: I was wondering whether you could explain some of the attempts undertaken in the recent years to tackle youth unemployment and why you think these attempts might or might not have had the desired effects?

CB: Obviously, youth unemployment is hardly a new phenomenon. The Labour government made persistent efforts to tackle it – their first initiative was the New Deal for Young People and the second one was the Future Jobs Fund. We believe that both of these initiatives failed to accurately target the problem.  To an extent they were kicking the can down the road. They weren’t providing long-term sustainable opportunities for young people to find employment.

MvS: A very considerable section of your report is a comparative study of the approaches undertaken here in the UK in Manchester and the system used in the Netherlands. Could you explain what kind of measures were put in place and why you think these were more successful than the way it is usually approached in the UK at present?

CB: Firstly taking the Manchester example. The case study we looked at was under the Labour government where the Future Jobs Fund was in place. And we found that in the Manchester  there was a greater involvement of all stakeholders within the process. So rather than it just being a government-led initiative, they also actively engaged with local employers to ensure that they were able to establish a wide range of public, voluntary and community sector partners to provide employment opportunities for unemployed young people in Manchester. So, under this initiative fifty-five per cent of the participants under the Manchester scheme were either in employment including apprenticeships, in education or volunteering. So in practical terms this means over eight hundred people become re-engaged with the labour market. Contrast this with the outcomes for Greater Manchester (39%) and nationally (43%).  So the 55% in the Manchester case study represents a  big increase, fifty-five per cent against forty-three per cent nationally. It demonstrates that if everybody comes together, starts pulling in the same direction, there is not an overlap of efforts. It is a more an effective and efficient way of tackling youth unemployment. Results could be improved considerably.

MvS:  And would this be the same back in the Netherlands?

CB: We choose that case study firstly because the Dutch economy is quite similar to that of the UK in terms of the way you break it down between, industry, agriculture, financial services, etc. But in the Netherlands, there is a quite significant incentive on local authorities and principalities to tackle youth unemployment themselves rather than waiting for the top-down approach that is adopted in the UK. So they favour a much more local approach. Through favouring this approach, local Dutch governments are better able to tailor youth unemployment initiatives to their own individual economy, depending on what their local economy needs rather than what the national economy needs.

MvS: So, looking at the people that are in youth unemployment, and after having looked at the two case studies about Manchester and the Netherlands, could you list a couple of the recommendations you make in your research paper?

CB: In general, the report concludes that, using the case studies we just talked about, both Manchester and the Netherlands, if you have a more proactive approach on the local level, that can have significant improvements on the national level. So, that means you can tailor initiatives to suit the local economy. One of the examples we used in the report suggested that what may work well in Newbury won’t work out in Newcastle because the two economies are totally different. The two economies have totally different needs. Also the characteristics of the young unemployed in those two areas  are remarkably different. So, initiatives need to be tailored towards the local situation. There is no point having an initiative that works well in one area but won’t work well in the other.

Everything has to be tailored to suit the local economy, so with this in mind the report calls for greater autonomy for local authorities to determine their own youth unemployment initiatives rather than a central government diktat which may or may not work for that particular region. Using the Dutch example, again we call for a tailoring of initiatives for local economy needs.

Also, both case studies proved that intervention needs to begin much sooner than the currently determined by the Youth Contract. Somewhat perversely, it dictates that intervention begins earlier for those unemployed people aged over twenty-four than those aged under twenty-four – even though those aged under twenty-four often have a greater impact of scarring from being unemployed. As the Dutch case study illustrates providing young people with access to support is critical, given their relatively poor knowledge of the labour market and the risk of extended unemployment. So, we recommend that intervention begins much sooner to minimise detachment of the labour market and dependency on the welfare state.

Also, a critical part of what we found doing our research, was that employment initiatives have to comprise a real job element.   Now this is not so much about the youth contracts or youth employment initiatives being real jobs. It was more so to do with participants receiving a wage in return of their labour. To incentivise them to think ‘Hold on, the world of work is better than the world of benefits. I want to go out and work rather than stay in bed.’ Or those other stereotypes people have of the youth unemployed.

As both case studies illustrate, in this way they not only will gain experience that is essential for improving their employability (and thereby enhance their long-term employment prospects), but they will also experience the financial benefits of being employed.

MvS: One final question.  If you were in control of government, let’s say you are prime minister, what kind of changes would you try to put in place? What concrete changes would you want to see in order to solve this problem or minimise the effects of youth unemployment?

CB: There is no silver bullet. I do not think you can just solve youth unemployment like that. It is clearly, as the data illustrates, a structural problem which may have been exacerbated by the financial crisis. So for that reason it has to be quite a multi-lateral approach. You cannot just target one specific area, because ultimately that will not solve the problem with youth unemployment.  I would encourage, as the Manchester case study suggests, greater involvement of local authorities to pump up local youth employment in their area.

I would also encourage that companies which bid for public sector contracts should have youth employment sustainability clauses in those contracts. So to get a large public sector contract for building a new hospital (or whatever), then, as part of them being awarded that contract they should be taking on unemployed youths and giving them practical work experience to help them increase their employability for future jobs which may come their way.

MvS: Thank you very much, Callum Biggins.

This podcast was made for Pod Academy by Maarten van Schaik. For more information about Pod Academy, the research we have dealt with in our podcasts and other interesting news on podcasting, please visit us at, or go to our Facebook or Twitter pages. For more information about CentreForum, please visit, where you can also download your own copy of Callum’s research paper on youth unemployment.

Jan 27 2013



Rank #14: Marxism and the Oppression of Women

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First published in 1983, Lise Vogel’s seminal work, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, was seized on by a generation of feminists who called themselves Marxist feminists, but were finding the fragmentation of socialism and feminism difficult to navigate.  Now republished, it was launched (or, rather, re-launched) at the Historical Materialism Conference in London in late 2014.  Pod Academy was at the launch, and recorded the platform speakers:

  • Lise Vogel,   Professor (retired) of Sociology at Rider University and the author of numerous books and articles. Before becoming a sociologist, she had an earlier career in art history.
  • Dr. Tithi Battacharya. associate professor at Purdue Liberal Arts University in the US,
  • Kate Davison, of Melbourne University
  • Dr  Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, who co-wrote, with David McNally, the introduction to the new edition of the book.

This bookpod has been made possible by a grant from the Amiel Melburn Trust

You may also be interested in our recording of the Beyond the Fragments event held in London in 2013.

May 04 2015



Rank #15: Civic innovation and the interconnected city

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“Citizenship is about participating in a thing that is bigger than yourself and in which everyone has an equal stake.”  says architect Bryan Boyer.

In this latest podcast from Civic Radio, Bryan Boyer a US architect who spent some time in the Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki, talks to Jo Barratt about re-imagining the libraries in New York and the importance of reconceptualising the civic.

With a bill for repairs that would top $1bn dollars (more than a universal childcare pledge), a grand library building programme was unlikely to be championed by New York politicians, so Boyer and his team had to find another approach, one that would leverage alternative forms of capital – time, expertise and also the institutional weight of individuals, communities, museums,  and non-profit organisations  – which could effectively  de-risk investment in civic assets.  It is, he says, crucial to demonstrate that innovation can bring good results, and at the same time de-risk the innovation (innovation can be scary for politicians), so that local politicians can buy in.

So what role does he see for public institutions?  For Boyer they provide ‘continuity and scale’.  Pubic institutions are important because, he says, they deal with large numbers of people in equal, fair and consistent ways.  However, because of their sheer scale they have often abstracted the detail – it is statiscitcal analysis rather than the experiences and needs of individuals, that drives policy. The big issue is making public instituions more responsive.

A lot of people in the UK are talking about a ‘digital public space’,could this be the answer?  According to Boyer it is important (and he commends for its friendly interface), but ‘we still need to coexist on the street.’  We have to rethink how the core of an institution works.

So,  do civil servants really understand the potential of open data portals?  Boyer is clear that top civil servants know that a different approach is needed(but feel constrained by the system), and certainly front line staff at the bottom of the food chain know what is at stake and have the best ideas of what is needed.  But there are two problems.  Firstly, the tech community is not coming up with the killer apps that will seize the initiative, and secondly the huge number of civil servants in what he calls the ‘Fat Middle’ (a term he used in Helsinki) is so disconnected from the everyday concerns of citizens that they cannot see the need for a new way of working.

How can  ‘civic spaces’ (such as schools, parks, post offices and libraries) retain their importance at the heart of the community when they are increasingly facing competition from private providers?  The so-called ‘white flight’ from US cities in the 1980s meant a lower tax base for public services, which led to a vicious cycle of decline – the services deteriorated, so few people were then prepared to fight for them, they became sink services.

In part, says Boyes, this is a failure of the conceptualisation of the civic.  We need to develop services that people really want to use, and persuade them to participate in those services as citizens but, importantly, it is also about initiating a healthy conversation about funding the civic parts of our lives.

A key recognition is that civic institutions are linked – the swimming pool and the library and the park together give us an understanding of the connectedness of the city as a whole – and of utmost importance is affordable, efficient public transport that enables us to move around the city, and the safety and cleanliness of our streets.  Here there is also a role for civic tech – to connect us to what is going on (though as Boyes points out, he doesn’t know of one single place where information on  all the events and activities being run by the public authorities can be viewed.)


Photo of Tampa, Florida by John T Howard 

This podcast is part of the Civic Radio series of the Civic Shop which is temporarily housed at Somerset House in London.

And you can subscribe to the Tech For Good feed on iTunes – just search in the iTunes store).

Other podcasts in this series can be found here:

Mar 27 2015



Rank #16: Putting our genome to work

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This podcast is drawn from a Progress Educational Trust (PET) event called Putting Your Genome to Work: For the NHS, for Industry, for the UK Post-Brexit

Chair:  Sarah Norcross, Director of PET


We are at the beginning of a biomedical revolution built on the promise of genomics. The British government has put this at the heart of its post-Brexit industrial strategy.  So what is the potential of genomics, what is the journey we are setting out on, and what are the pitfalls?

The British Government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper Building a Britain Fit for the Future sets out an ambition for the UK to ‘be the world’s most innovative economy’ and play a leading role in a ‘fourth industrial revolution… characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds’.

The White Paper argues that ‘the government, the NHS and charities can all contribute to make the UK an attractive location for businesses to invest and for patients to benefit’. According to the first in a series of Sector Deals published in the wake of the White Paper, the Life Sciences Sector Deal, ‘a new genomics industry is beginning to emerge… with UK companies like AstraZenecaCambridge EpigenetixGenomics plc and Congenica working with Genomics England‘.

The Sector Deal discusses investments from and agreements with a variety of companies, involving the whole genomes of around 70,000 participants in the 100,000 Genomes Project and around half a million participants in UK BiobankGSK and others have committed to sequencing the whole genomes of the latter, while a separate consortium coordinated by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals will sequence the exomes (partial genomes) of these same participants in the shorter term.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says the Sector Deal ‘proves that life science organisations of all sizes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming years, which means NHS patients will continue to be at the front of the queue for new treatments’.

However, there remains a degree of public unease about the involvement of commercial interests in health. This unease may be intensified at a time when how best to fund and manage the NHS, how best to approach Brexitand who can be trusted with health-related data are all matters of ongoing concern.

Issues discussed at the event included:

What are the benefits of genomics for patients?

How can we ensure that the NHS, and its patients, derive reciprocal benefit from scientific and medical advances that involve people’s genomic data?

How can we address the view that there is, or should be, a clear partition between public and private involvement in health, when the development of medicines and diagnostics has always been led by the private sector (and now the Industrial Strategy involves closer collaboration)?

What can we learn from the world of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, where consumers often consent to their data being used in research (to the commercial benefit of the testing company)?

Finally, can we learn anything from proposals by a US company to treat members of the public neither as patients nor as consumers but rather as ‘data owners’, who will use blockchain technology to make their genomic data accessible (or inaccessible) to whomever they wish?

Photo:  PLOS One Pyhlogeny Comparative genomic DNA hybridization and in silico comparison of gene content within mobile elements of bovine and human SA isolates

Jun 21 2018



Rank #17: The Alt-Right – a journey into mainstream politics?

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Maxwell Ward talks to Dr Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Centre for Right-Wing Studies, about the Alt-Right’s unlikely journey into the mainstream of US politics and their more recent struggles. What are their ambitions? What do they really think of Donald Trump? And where do they go from here?

But the first thing Maxwell wanted to know… who and what are the Alt-Right?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: The Alt-Right represents what has long been called in the USA the fringe of American politics. What made them the fringe, or the very definition of the fringe, is that they are outside of the mainstream and do not have particularly a role in national politics. The kinds of ideology that we’re talking about are things that have characterised the Klu Klux Klan in this country and Neo-Nazi organisations in this country. They have not had a role in American Politics nationally since the 1920s and 1930s. But, they continued to exist and they existed in atomised corners. There would be groups in rural Ohio or rural Michigan. There would be numbers of them. But, comes the internet age, and above all social media, they networked. So that’s step one. These guys networked.

Two, there were events that made these people come together beyond simply politics. That has to do with what is better understood as culture. Above all, there was a thing called Gamergate. To some extent, the base of the Alt-Right online consists of what used to be called in Social Science “alienated young men” and they were gamers online. A controversy arose around the place of women in the gamer world. It provoked an immense backlash against feminism itself. Very anti-women. That consolidated this element of what would constitute the Alt-Right. Donald Trump famously said, “Well, these online things aren’t necessarily from Russia. They could have been from some 400-pound kid lying on his mother’s bed somewhere.” The point being that there are these unhappy young men who are engaged more culturally than politically. So, you get the rise of this essentially nihilistic internet culture in which things like Pepe the frog become symbolic and there is a vast array of these symbols. Basically, the thrill of it is it’s edgy and anti-establishment and it’s anti all establishments. Left, right, etc. So you have those guys, the alienated young men and you have the formerly atomised neo-Nazi and KKK groups who have discovered social media and are now not atomised anymore but are a social network or networking on social media.

Finally, you get step three which is the candidacy of Donald Trump. What happens in the world of what would become the Alt-Right is they are electrified. They are electrified because suddenly, at the level of presidential politics in the USA, somebody is talking their language. So, the experience, the decades long political experience of being marginalised, of being the fringe, has suddenly changed. Somebody who is running for president is talking about immigrants the way they talk about them, the very premise of whose campaign is anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist… well, let me be clear about that, anti- “political correctness”. Donald Trump would say things like, “the biggest problem in this country is political correctness.” That, above all, had two constituent elements for the Alt-Right. One was feminism and the other was multi-culturalism. Both of which seem forced down their throats by elites and in these two, in particular, the liberal elites. Donald Trump was like a siren call from the thoroughly unexpected province of not only national politics but presidential politics. So, the Alt-Right became mobilised and a participant in the election of 2016 in a way that that kind of ideological warrior had not participated in American elections since the 1920s and 1930s.

MW: You talk about these disparate groups that have come together. Would you say that, apart from that kind of combative element, that there is a thread, some sort of key beliefs that they share?

LR: Yes! The key belief is that the centre of their politics is white identity. They are self-conscious of what has gone by the name of “identity politics” in this country. Which is to say, the politics of groups like women, like Blacks, like Hispanics, like gay people, increasingly transsexuals, etc. That’s understood as identity politics. Their premise is, “well, this is the identity politics of white people, or European people or European men” and you get variations on that. One is white separatism, white supremacy or white nationalism. In the centre of the consciousness of the Alt-Right is “we are white and we are being displaced.”  Probably the most prominent manifestation of Alt-Right politics in this country was Charlottesville in Virginia where there was a “Unite the Right” rally. In the evening, on the University of Virginia campus (University of Virginia is a venerable institution in this country, founded by Thomas Jefferson) they marched through with torches which were kind of tiki torches. But what are you going to do?! It’s just not an easy country to find several hundred torches available. And they chanted and some of the chants were old Nazi chants, like “Blood and Soil”, which is a remarkable thing to chant in the USA where the country has developed through immigration. It’s not as though “Blood and Soil”, which is to conjure up the kinds of racial tropes of the Nazis, which says, “We are the people who were born here, on this soil, ‘Blood and Soil’”. It’s kind of an irrational thing in the USA.

Okay, that’s one. Another was “Jews will not replace us”. One of the elements in the Alt-Right has been the rise of political anti-Semitism in a way that has been completely out of bounds in the USA in my lifetime and I’m no spring chicken. Perhaps the most revealing of the chants was, simply, “You will not replace us”. That chant goes to the heart of what the white nationalism of the Alt-Right was about and is about. It is the conviction that white America is being displaced and is being displaced by newcomers – and they are largely people of colour – and that traditions are being displaced. The premise of the “Unite the Right” was about replacing statues or defending statues that celebrate civil war heroes in the USA. This was in particular about Robert E. Lee, who was the chief general of the American confederacy. So, if you take seriously, and I do, that chant “You will not replace us”, it is the death of what white nationalist identity politics is about.

Using the words identity politics, you have to understand that this is a different kind of identity politics than Black identity politics, female identity politics, Hispanic, gay, let’s call them “classical identity politics” which is essentially a politics which argues, “We do not have a seat at the table and our politics is about demanding a seat at the table.” White identity politics is, “We are being cast out of the table. Other people are taking our place.”. The first one is about being deprived of rights and being deprived of justice. The other is about a sense of being dispossessed from what you have.

MW: While white identity links the Alt-Right together, a populist fury at the political elite fuelled Donald Trump’s election campaign. I asked Dr Rosenthal to explain how important economic issues had been in that and in the Alt-Right’s rise to prominence.

LR: People tend to divide up about whether they explain it from the cultural point of view or whether they explain it from the economic point of view. Basically, those two things went hand-in-hand and they are both true. The American economy has become deindustrialised. The kinds of expectations that white, non-college-educated males, above all… the kinds of expectations that the generations of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them, which had to do with, we’re talking in stereotypes here, the availability of reasonably well-paid jobs in things like factories have gone away. The cities and towns that characterise those places have become well-characterised as the “Rust Belt” in America. So, what are their life expectations? Their life expectations are things like being security guards in Walmart or unemployment. They are poorly paid jobs which are a step down from what their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had. So, you get a kind of deterioration of life chances among a big portion of the American white working class and you get enormous dysfunction along with that. This dysfunction is characterised by things like diminished life spans. Life spans have gone down among this class of people. Perhaps even more notable is the rise of drug addiction, above all heroin and opioids. So, you have the dislocation, the end of the industrial system. To the extent to which there is manufacturing in this country, and there is, it tends to be computer driven at this point. So, you need to be educated even to work in the factories these days. What happens to those people?

From about 1973 to 2008 the dispossession of the American working class was like a wave that was rolling in very slowly. The wave broke in 2008, with the financial crisis. The last thing to break was that the housing market which collapsed. The way a lot of people had been sustaining themselves went like this, “We have this house. Yesterday it was worth $100,000 and, look at this, today it’s worth $150,000. We’re going to refinance it. We’ll get that $50,000 and we’ll put it in our pockets and wait for it to turn to $200,000 and then we’ll renegotiate the mortgage again.” So, there was a kind of buffer and that buffer disappeared in 2008.

MW: Donald Trump may have been a catalyst for the Alt-Right’s growth but what do key figures in the movement, like Richard Spencer, the person credited with creating the term Alt-Right, really think of the president?

LR: Well, people like Spencer, the ideologically committed leadership of the Alt-Right, for them Trump was a vehicle rather than their ultimate goal. Trump put them on the map because they coincided around immigrants and political correctness etc. But there was no expectation that he was going to be the historic leader who would lead to a white nationalist triumph in this country.

Let’s take Steve Bannon. He went to the White House and was, it was a strange phrase, the CEO of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign in its last two-and-a-half months. There are things that Bannon liked about Trump and things where they didn’t match. For example, the great triumph of the Republicans in power, and promoted by Republican party and people like Paul Ryan, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, were tax cuts. That is the single noteworthy legislative achievement. It’s a very regressive tax package which reduced the top-rates for income earners from 39% to 35%. Steve Bannon wanted the rate to go up from 39% to 44%. So, Alt-Right politics at the level of the economy was not in lock-step with the Trump administration. The Trump economic advisors were very much along the lines of this kind of free-market conservatism as opposed to what Steve Bannon used to call “populist nationalism” or “economic nationalism”. Where that economic nationalism has sustained itself so far in the Trump administration is around trade. So, there are people like Peter Navarro, who is a kind of one-off economist, there were not a lot of economists in this country like Peter Navarro, he and a guy called Steve Miller are running the trade and immigration policies in the Trump administration. Those are good from the point of view of the Alt-Right. Whereas things around taxes and the presence of so many people, so many veterans of things like Goldman Sachs, do not follow from the projected policies of the Alt-Right.

MW: You’ve talked quite a bit about the difference already but I’m quite intrigued by what the Alt-Right vision would be for America versus a more traditional Republican vision for America as it stands right now.

LR: The outstanding things are economics and free-trade, foreign policy based on the settlements emerging from World War Two (such as The United Nations, The European Union, trade agreements, international trade agreements which the Republican Party has always stood for) – that would go.

And the Republican Party has been very much against the welfare state in this country. The strongest advocates of “free-market economics” in the Republican Party aim at getting rid of things like social security and Medicare (social security goes back to the 1930s in this country).  However, the Alt-Right, the rank and file, are not particularly interested in all that.  That’s another place economically they are very different than orthodox Republicanism and even extreme free-market conservatism, such as the politics associated with the Koch brothers, who are big financiers of right-wing politics. But it’s a very different right-wing politics eg on foreign policy, no entanglements particularly interested in America being the policemen of the world, things like the United Nations are regarded as assaults on American sovereignty. So, on both foreign policy grounds and economic grounds they are very different.

On the cultural issues, the Alt-Right takes Republican orthodoxy to an extreme, and it’s a racial extreme which the Republican party has been at pains to have, at least, deniability on race questions. One can argue that Republican politics have had racial bias threaded through them for decades but in terms of the rhetoric you will not get it. The head of the Republicans in the Senate for many years was a guy called Trent Lott from Mississippi. He lost his leadership because he talked about  an old Senator from the segregation days called Strom Thurmond who was in the Senate until he was about 100. When he died, Trent Lott said things like, “Well, if we had listened to Strom Thurmond we wouldn’t be here today.” And that was enough to get him bounced from his leadership. Contrast that to the explicit white politics of the Alt-Right and you have a difference. Many would argue that the Republican party has a mask over the racism but at least there was a mask. Now there is no more mask.

Maxwell Ward: If Trump failed to deliver on some of those key ideals that you’ve mentioned, is there a plausible liberal, democratic campaign that could be run to appeal to these fringe groups, do you believe?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: You’re raising the question of what happens when it turns out that Donald Trump does not bring the jobs back and Obamacare gave them something which now is being taken away. What happens when those scales come down? One question is whether the cultural half of support for Donald Trump is sufficient? One bellwether of that is the astounding continued support of American evangelical Christians for Donald Trump.           They have been a significant force in American politics at least since the 1990s and their politics is in part is holier than thou. Democrats are libertines and so forth. But here you’ve got Donald Trump, the pussy-grabber, the Stormy Daniels guy – and he doesn’t lose support among evangelical Christians. There have been almost theological explanations of, “This is who God delivered to take us to the promised land. Sometimes God sends the strangest messengers”. So, you get kinds of things like that. But what happens when the rank-and-file of the Alt-Right says, “We’re not getting what this guy wanted to give us”. It’s not a given that Evangelicals are going to abandon Trump, the very premises for their politics going back to the evolution trials, The Scopes trials, of the 1920s. Their response is to find a way to continue to accommodate Trump in spite of his transgressions.

So, you’re asking if the kind of wonderful, fantastical ideal of the Democratic left, the left of the Democratic Party, a version of left-wing populism a la Bernie Sanders will be the thing that will appeal to these people once they’ve been disillusioned by Trump politics.  To that I say, well, maybe! I don’t see any basis on which to say that’s what’s going to happen. It is plausible. There’s no doubt that it’s plausible. It would be a change, in the sense of moving from a kind of expressive politics on the part of the Alt-Right, where we get to say, “Up Yours!” to every establishment to a more interest-based, rational-based politics. And that might happen. But we know very well that the expressive politics has an enormous power and that’s what happened in 2016. Can there be that transformation? Sure, it’s possible.

What would have to happen in order for that to take place would be, I assume, more than anything else, a combination of Democratic organising at the very lowest levels, what we call the “grassroots” here, things like schoolboards, running for schoolboards; running for local judgeships and things like that.  Winning at that level.  And at the national level the emergence of a leader who can capture the imagination of these people, which Hillary Clinton most certainly was not.

MW: Are there any things that you think American politics has learnt, or anything that, looking forward, we could predict about the Alt-Right?

LR: The Alt-Right isn’t doing well. Post Charlottesville is has run aground and, to some extent, what that suggests is the racial quality of Alt-Right politics, the spectacle of Charlottesville, has alienated a great deal of the American population. Also, the idea that it was called the “Unite the Right” rally. And it also had this quality of… let’s call it the militias of the various groups that came together. In part, it was about uniting the militias and that has all fallen apart. That didn’t work. There was a hope, and the strategy of the Alt-Right was there would be, in effect, fighting on the streets in the U.S. That image which is taken from the 20s and 30s and Weimar and things of that nature, explicitly on the part of people like Richard Spencer… I’m not putting those words in his mouth, those are his words. That hasn’t panned out as they thought it would so what might resurrect their fortunes depends on racial politics in this country and also depends on things like war, declaring a new national enemy and going to war, which would energise these people and so forth.

So I would say the hard Alt-right alternative has run aground. But whether the sort of Steve Bannon based Alt-Right, what he calls “populist nationalism”, which is basically that his strategy of an electoral coalition of the type that that succeeded in the Trump 2016 election becomes a kind of permanent electoral force in American politics, the successor to the American Tea Party, is another question. He perceives himself as the leader of that, so will he succeed at holding it together, because it, also, is running into hard times based on the Democratic party’s performance in all of the elections since November 2016. In the elections of November 2018, which are called the Mid-terms, every member of the House of Representatives has to run (it is every two years) and a large number of Senators will be elected in 2018. If there is a strong Democratic wave, that will be a significant defeat for things like Steve Bannon politics and Alt-Right politics.

MW: Could it be the end of the Alt-Right, do you think?

LR: The Alt-Right is never going to go away. Think about the fact that KKK, neo-Nazi politics have managed to exist and be passed down for decades in an atomised way. So, the glory of 2016 might go away, it might diminish, but the Alt-Right is not going away. The real question is, does it go away from the mainstream? Does it cease to be a force in national elections. For it to go away is going to be difficult because it has established itself in media. It has established itself in things like Breitbart news. It has established itself in television, internet, radio. Because of that we will never return to pre-2016. The Alt-Right will continue in its dedicated media.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please also try Kill All Normies. Angela Nagle talks to Alex Burd about how the Alt-Right, a movement rooted in online and video game culture, came to be so influential.

Photo by Anthony Crider “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville August 2017. Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags.

To listen to further podcasts please subscribe on itunes and check out our website

May 11 2018



Rank #18: Beauty and the Beast

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Hello, this is Pod Academy. 

Of late, there has been much talk of sexism, in particular sexual harassment, behind the scenes in the film industry.  But what about the films themselves?  Pod Academy’s Tatiana Prorokova took a look at the hit movie Beauty and the Beast.  One of the highest grossing films this year, it has taken over $1bn worldwide.

The recent adaptation of the famous Disney cartoon – Beauty and the Beast – is the film that through a children’s story raises the profound questions of female oppression and sexism that have existed in our society for centuries.

The story focuses on the girl Belle (played by Emma Watson) who lives with her father in a small village in France. Belle is considered weird by most of the villagers and the reason for that is her love for books. The girl is frequently portrayed with a book in her hands; such an image, however, provokes rather negative responses from the people around her primarily because they believe that education, which, in this context, is access to books that Belle has, is not for women. The scene that illustrates this idea even more vividly takes place later in the film when Belle is teaching a small girl how to read. The crowd largely disapproves of that. Sexism thus manifests itself not only through the reactions to the girl who likes reading but also, and perhaps even more crucially, through the idea that men and women have different privileges. This foregrounds gender inequality and reminds the audience about the perverse norms that were generated and sustained by patriarchy.

Belle later finds herself in the castle, where she came to save her father (played by Kevin Kline). She chooses to stay there instead of him, sacrificing herself for the well-being of her parent. Her stay in the castle supports the ideas of sexism and female inequality in multiple ways. First and foremost, being the Beast’s (played by Dan Stevens) prisoner, she is literally locked in the castle. Yet one can interpret this imprisonment from a different angle and argue that it figuratively embodies the existing gender inequality. The visibly subordinate relationship between Belle and the Beast metaphorically visualizes patriarchy in the family life or perhaps even stands for family tyranny. In this respect, the image of the Beast only intensifies the power and cruelty of the oppressor. The castle becomes Belle’s cage where she is both literally and symbolically locked. The girl can only wait for someone from the outside to come and save her. That savior, as the audience can easily guess, could be Gaston (played by Luke Evans) – the former soldier who wants to marry Belle. Belle is thus portrayed as a fragile girl who is oppressed by a male and who can be ultimately saved only by another male.

In the castle, the enchanted servants forcefully redress Belle so that she can look like a real lady – again, the image that is constructed by patriarchy as the only right one and imposed on women. Belle is portrayed in a pompous dress, she is wearing a wig, and her face is richly covered with vulgar makeup. The girl ultimately rejects these clothes, preferring to stay in her old ones.

While the castle symbolizes Belle’s cage, it is pivotal that this is the only place where she is not laughed at for her love for books. The Beast shows her his large library and Belle’s heart seems to melt, for she now has something that she wanted to have so much – access to education. Nevertheless, Belle remains a prisoner; thus while she gets something what she likes, she is still under full control of the Beast.

Apart from Belle, there is another important female character in the film that is introduced to support the issue of sexism provoked by patriarchy. This is Agathe (played by Hattie Morahan). Agathe is first introduced to the audience as a beggar who saves the life of Belle’s father but later turns out to be the enchantress. There are several scenes in the film with Agathe and Gaston that reinforce the issue of sexism. First, Gaston generally thinks that Agathe is crazy because she is not married; thus an unmarried woman, i.e., a woman without a man cannot exist in a patriarchal society without being considered even more inferior than she already is. Second, when Belle’s father tells everyone that Gaston tried to kill him, and Agathe confirms that this is true, everyone still believes Gaston. This arguably happens not only because Agathe is an outcast due to her poor social and financial status but also because she is a woman: the word of a man appears to be more trustworthy than that of a woman.

The film’s final attempt to recover the image of a woman and balance the roles of women and men takes place in the end. Both Belle and Agathe are depicted as saviors: Belle, because she falls in love with the Beast despite his appearance, and Agathe, because she removes the spell from the castle and thus saves lives of its inhabitants and the villagers who came to fight against the enchanted creatures. Yet even in this, as one might argue, triumphant and powerful images of the two heroines, the film discriminates against women. Belle falls in love with the man whose prisoner she was. If she had been free to choose, she might have simply run away from him. She is thus forced to live the life that he imposes on her, including the ultimate marriage. In turn, Agathe appears to be a witch – the image even more dehumanizing than that of a crazy beggar.

Beauty and the Beast is thus a powerful story that raises the acute issues of female oppression and sexism that women continue fighting against even in the twenty-first century. The genre of the film helps deal with these serious socio-political and cultural issues in a rather careful way, despite their far-from-being-fairy-tale nature.

Dec 21 2017



Rank #19: Arts policy – a new approach

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A radical vision for arts policy should be at the heart of any progressive government argue Professor Rod Stoneman and Adam Stoneman.

Note: This is not a transcript of the podcast interview with Rod and Adam, but rather the text of a paper by them on arts policy.

Restoring financial support for the arts would hardly amount to a radical transformative vision for the arts.  The major proposals in a recent document from the Labour party, for example, were entirely defensive: ‘reinstate arts funding’, ‘safeguard our galleries and museums’, ‘protect the BBC’.

It does not have to be like this; in 1965, Government Minister Jennie Lee published Britain’s first cultural white paper, ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’, in which she addressed uneven regional distribution and unequal access to the arts and committed state support for infrastructure. The paper led to the creation of countless museums, galleries and concert halls across the country and completely transformed Britain’s cultural landscape. Rather than attempting to merely return to this post-war model of funding however, we should apply its principles to the challenges of the present.

Access and involvement.

Research shows that well-educated middle-class professionals are most likely to be drawn to the areas of the cultural sector that are dependent on public funding such as opera and theatre, with those on less well-educated unskilled and semi-skilled workers tending to be more involved in the commercial culture industry. Instead of restoring a subsidy model that entrenches this division, we should seize the opportunity to change the funding system in a way that broadens and deepens the audiences that engage with publicly funded arts.

The prevalence of unpaid internships and unpaid labour in the arts presents a major financial barrier to access for those who do not come from privileged backgrounds. Discussion of a ‘real living wage’ to protect arts workers is a good start but there should be a root and branch approach to tackling the lack of diversity in arts organisations, from the shop floor to upper management – of the directors of our ten most popular museums, all are white and only one is a woman.

Renewed and dynamic versions of culture need to be brought out of the institutions into the widest public sphere; for large sections of the population there are invisible barriers to entering galleries, arts centres and concert halls – we can unconsciously assume “those places are not for me”. We should be looking to bring art activities beyond existent facilities to intervene directly in public spaces and within communities. Theatre groups working on civic initiatives, artists’ placements, musical ensembles from housing estates, filmmakers in workplaces and writers conducting workshops in local libraries enable myriad forms of individual and group self-activation. A focus should be placed on facilitating and empowering marginalised communities to speak without constant mediation; this would include the funding of workshops, training and skills-based initiatives, enabling communities to shape discourse about themselves from the very beginning. Importantly this should not be sidelined into ‘community art’ as once-off, philanthropic gestures but should be a guiding principle of national arts policy.

Public art can renew the sense that urban space belongs to all of us. The success of the Fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square, or the use of billboards to display modern painting in Tehran demonstrates this well. Too much of our visual environment is dominated by commercial marketing; companies operating billboards on public land could be required to periodically devote space to classical or contemporary art.

Regional access should be inclusive, localised and democratic; London, and to a lesser extent, the other select urban centres benefit disproportionately from arts funding. Publicly funded theatre, dance, music or art exhibitions must achieve wider geographical coverage, engaging with parts of the country that have tended to miss out. In delivering all this, we should prioritise support for democratic initiatives emanating from practitioners, with artist-led galleries in the visual arts, film workshops, musicians’ and writers’ associations.


The British government has dropped art history from its rosta of A-levels, but it is crucial to remove barriers to arts education, possibly using a new pupil premium. This should be undertaken as part of a wider strategy to reinstate the arts at all levels of the educational system.

We must encourage creativity throughout national curricula; excelling at the natural sciences and mathematics requires the kind of creativity and invention that the arts develop. The teaching of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects should include Art to make ‘STEAM’. This approach draws on the interconnectedness of these disciplines and leads to productive interactions. Students should be encouraged to discover the science of art and vice-versa.

Broadcasting and arts institutions.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to take on the complex question of public service broadcasting but suffice to say a radical arts policy must go beyond defending BBC funding and look to transform it into a more transparent, accountable and open institution. The BBC must serve to challenge the market logic and commercial instincts of private media.

Quangos like the Arts Council and the British Film Institute that fund and administer arts bodies are dangerously opaque and unaccountable. While the ‘arms length’ principle separating government from actual funding decisions is still correct, it is untenable that these organisations’ workings are hidden from the public and that their CEOs can enjoy inflated six figure salaries.

Leisure for all.

In 1894, alongside the call for an eight hour working day, William Morris proposed the slogan “leisure for all”, underlining the importance of the arts to his socialist vision of the future. In a post-industrial age in which our jobs are increasingly automated, the arts can take a more central role in our lives, replacing the ‘prosaic’ with the ‘poetic’ and providing the catalyst for new ideas and for change. Art is communal and active; it is the emotional and intellectual air we breathe and it can play a key role in the construction of different kind of society.

The positive economic and employment effects of the arts sector are relevant but not the only motivation for the creative industries; cost benefit analysis and key performance indicators should not be the primary criteria for developing and assessing policies. Arguments for the arts should not be so habitually defensive and hide behind voodoo economics.

As Gaston Kaboré, a West African filmmaker, suggested: “Culture is not as short-term an issue as the politicians think. In a deep sense it is the route to the future, a projection of how we understand our future.” A radical vision for the arts is essential.

Adam Stoneman works in heritage education in North London, Rod Stoneman works in television and cinema. Both have written extensively on arts, culture and politics.

Picture: mural by Banksy on the wall of the Baribcan Centre in London, to mark an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Extracts at start of interview:

  • Kate Tempest ‘People’s Faces’
  • Kenneth Brannagh reading from The Tempest at the opening of the 2012 Olympics
  • A beat box with people dancing at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival
  • Pavarotti – Turandot

Nov 02 2017



Rank #20: The ethics of space exploration

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When you use a SatNav, or check a modern weather forecast, you’re using technology made possible by space exploration. Emerging space industries include tourism, and some tentative plans to mine asteroids, or the Moon, for rare materials. Space now has its lawyers, its policymakers, and even its ethicists. Robert Seddon went to King’s College, London, to meet Tony Milligan, a moral philosopher who has worked extensively on the ethics of space exploration.

Robert Seddon:  So, how did that begin?

Tony Milligan:  Well, that’s a piece of guidance from my students, in fact. There was a student who wanted to work on the issue of terraforming—which is one of the big, sexy issues in space ethics—and I thought, hmmm, does the world really need this to be done? And then I looked into it, and he produced the work, and it was a good piece of work. So I thought, this bears looking into a little bit closer; so I did a short course, and the blurb advertising the course was picked up by Space Policy, the journal: they invited me to write an article. And then from the article other people wanted other things, so it sort of snowballed into a new research direction for me, which was good, because it’s a fresh area, and it’s interesting stuff, and you’re also dealing with things that matter. And that’s always a nice added bonus.

RS: Do you see much engagement from people involved in space industries in practical terms?

TM: Well… up to a point. I think there are people who want to have a story about the importance of space. Elon Musk wants to have a story about backing up the biosphere and the ethical significance of what they’re doing, and he’s got shareholders that he has to keep happy, and so on. So there is that high level interest, and the stories aren’t particularly convincing ones from an academic ethicist’s point of view, but they’re interesting stories. And then you’ve got the wilder reaches of the ethics of space, which is all about really big questions, and it doesn’t connect up with the agencies.

And then you’ve got stuff that’s done by people like myself, Jacques Arnould… And we try, in our own modest ways, to be embedded, not… We would like, ideally, more of a dialogue, I think, with the players within industry, but you already have the agencies, you have NASA, you have the European Space Agency, and we connect up at that level.

And so at the moment, for example, there’s a white paper getting put together—I’m meant to be doing editing; I’ll diligently do that tomorrow—and that’s for the establishing of a European institute for astrobiology, and the role of the key people that you would want across Europe, with some feed-in from NASA people and elsewhere, to the rationale to get that off the ground and funded. And one of the things that we say in the white paper is that we need to get, to move, beyond that level of academics talking to the institutions. We also need much more of a dialogue with people from industry.

RS: Do you think Musk and co. will get what they want, or will they have to make do with something else?

TM: Well, nobody ever gets quite what they want… or if they do then they’re never quite sure that it’s what they wanted. When you’ve got investors, when it’s a big money game, when there’s a lot on the line, you have to sell things quite hard. So it’s difficult to understand, or difficult to separate out, what’s the image, what’s the sales patter, from what he realistically expects will be realised. One of the things that usually is over-optimistic is time scales. So there are people: Mars One and so on… (That’s not Elon Musk; Musk’s much more… He’s got the technology to do stuff. Mars One doesn’t.) But they’ll talk about: well, we’re going to put somebody on Mars within a couple of years—and that’s ridiculous: there’s nothing… There’s no way you’re getting there. So they’ll change their time scales, and so on, and you get the same thing up to a point with Musk, and you get the same thing up to a point with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

So there they have this plane which will take you up into space, and just the very tip of it, just the very edge of it. And they’ve a small-scale model, and it’s going to be simple to scale it up… Ten years later, and the scaling up process looks like it might finally be heading somewhere. So it happens. Progress gets made in terms of the achievement of the goals which are being set by the big financial players, but the progress doesn’t necessarily get made within the time scales that they initially envisage, or even within the time scales that they generally revise a couple of years down the line.

RS: And does that also apply to the ethics of space exploration?

TM: Yes… Where are we in terms of the development of the ethics? Well, we’re in a better situation than we were ten or fifteen years ago, because we have more of a couple of things. We have more of a serious literature, good scholars who’ve done their work and are familiar with the various ethical theories, and who’re not just… They don’t just sit down and say, well, we have three ethical theories, we have deontology and we have consequentialism and we have virtue ethics, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to write a paper which applies each of these to this particular problem in space ethics. That’s not kind of ideal because the appreciation of the ethical theories doesn’t go through every line that they have, so it’s kind of forced. So we have a better literature.

But we also have an emerging international community of scholars who are much more connected up to one another, and are much more familiar with each other’s work. We go to the same conferences, we sit on the same panels, we publish in the same journals and edited volumes, and that’s crucial in terms of separating out what’s realistic space ethics from what’s a more speculative thing. Because nobody does it all on their own. You have to have that disciplining element of an emerging and expanding and well informed community of fellow scholars too… Well, I need that to make sure that I don’t say quite as many crazy things as I might otherwise say. I mean, I still say crazy things, obviously—but not so many as I would.

RS: I suppose the sceptical position would be something like: look, this is perfect virgin territory. It’s all empty space, it’s rocks… These are resources free for the taking by the first people able to get to them. How could there possibly be a moral concern here?

TM: Well, I think there’s a certain number of reasons why there can be moral concern. First of all, you could run those arguments with the Grand Canyon. You could run them with Ayer’s Rock. But nobody’s about to go mine Ayer’s Rock for driveway chips. There would be objections. Nobody’s about to say, look, we have this big, big space in the United States, we have got some serious problems in terms of agricultural waste—let’s dump all the agricultural waste into the Grand Canyon. Technically feasible but nobody’s going to buy it. And that’s because places sometimes are deemed to have a certain kind of significance. And you can run the arguments about why that is the case: some of them appeal to the significance that these places have in terms of history and culture and the ways that we’ve interacted with them, and that’s certainly the case with Ayer’s Rock. Ayer’s Rock is this sacred site, so you don’t get to muck about with that, any more than you get to muck about with Stonehenge. And if somebody says, you know, it’s just a rock, or if somebody says, these are just bluestones at Stonehenge, so I’m going to take them and use them in a nearby building, nobody’s going to buy that.

TM: So when you get into the detail, if somebody asks you to… If somebody’s asked, what is your ethical theory, then you’ll probably reply in terms that make it seem that humans—or perhaps, on an extended account, humans and other sentient creatures—are the only things that you can have ethical concern about. But then when you look at the way in which they actually respond and the way in which people lead their lives, then you see a much broader patterning. A wider range of things turn out to be ethically significant to beings of our sort.

So when it comes to the Moon, for example, you’re talking about something that’s been culturally significant for a very long period of time. But you’re also talking about one of the few places within the Solar System where we could actually go. A limited number of planets: one of them is just too close to the Sun, you’d just… It’s a nice way to get cremated. If you go outwards to the further reaches of the Solar System then you’re reaching gas giants. Now we don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to do anything even with the gas giants. And the reason for that is that you start to get to… Because they’re enormously big compared to the Earth, you start to get really big gravitation problems. These are big gravitational wells that, if you fall into them, it’s going to take a lot of energy to get back out.

So that means places like Mars and the Moon… These are the big candidates for other large-scale bodies within the Solar System that we could actually envisage human beings settling on. So we don’t necessarily want to turn them into quarries. Or we don’t want to use all of them as quarries, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of future humans.

Now there’s a thought there that, well, that’s just limiting ourselves to thinking about the Solar System. When we get out and beyond that, as Star Trek so repeatedly informs us we will, then it’ll be hunky dory. There’ll be all of these worlds for us to explore, and complete with Arabesque civilisations and things like that. But the reality is we don’t know that we’re ever going to be in a position to get beyond the Solar System. And therefore, even in terms of what is of value for humans, in terms of our human future, in terms of what there will be for future generations of humans to enjoy and to utilise and to live as part of, you’re talking about a very, very small, limited resource, and limited resources of a valuable sort, of the kinds of things that you cherish.

So I’m going to kick the argument that, well, these are just rocks—I’m going to kick that into the long grass, and say, that doesn’t understand… It’s just a lack of understanding of what we are and a lack of understanding of what’s available to us.

RS: Say, damaging the Moon… The way the Moon looks—the culturally significant way the Moon looks—there’s a plausible case for thinking, it’s already been damaged and defaced, hasn’t it? What more could a quarry do?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting question… Suppose we take an ethical concept is sometimes applied to the Moon, and that’s the concept of integrity. Now, if you look at Futurama: they turn the Moon, I think, into a golf course. And it’s the incongruity of the Moon just being used as this mundane object, as a lunar golf course… Or is it Mars they do that with? They do something. It’s a theme park in the Moon… Anyway, it’s inappropriate uses, and it’s the way in which the comic utilisation is so out of keeping with the character of the of the place which makes it a kind of funny thing.

But does that mean that, even if we think that certain kinds of uses of the Moon, or of Mars, would be, as it were, not just change but damage—in some way violate the integrity of these places—that doesn’t mean to say that all change is wrong. Nor could all change be ruled out, for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. Even though the lunar surface is to a large extent, as it were, four-and-a-bit billion years ago, there’s impacts upon the Moon all the time. So then we have to develop some kind of ethical theory about the kinds of changes that would seem reasonable, that would be permissible. And the kinds of changes which would rob future generations of the opportunity to experience the Moon in particular ways: to rob them of that opportunity to have, as it were, wilderness experiences.

RS: Are there any changes that could be seen as positive? I’m thinking of the idea—which perhaps you’d want to reject—that someday we might terraform Mars and make it more Earth-like: turn a dead world into a living one.

TM: I’m not sure if it’s a dead world… We tend to use terminology that loads the bases. So if it’s ‘dead’, then obviously, if we reanimate then that’s a wonderful thing. But we don’t know if there was ever life there, and if there wasn’t life there it doesn’t make that much sense to speak of it as a dead world. Another one that’s used is ‘barren world’.

TM: But there are different ways of speaking about these places. To say ‘dead’ and to say ‘barren’ suggests one thing; to point out that the biggest volcano in the Solar System is on Mars: you’ve got Olympus Mons… To point out that you have the Valles Marineris, which would have… You could fit the Grand Canyon into the Valles multiple times. You have the unique geology. You have the awesome landscape of the place: features that, for example, would be as significant, perhaps, to humans who settle upon Mars at some point in the future, as, say, Ayer’s Rock or Stonehenge are to us. Now, do we want to rob them of that kind of opportunity? Do we want to preserve the opportunities of encountering the most striking environmental features of Mars, which are features nowhere reproduced within the Solar System? They’re unique.

RS: Some of the biased language we use, even in relation to wilderness on Earth… We call it pristine, untouched, unspoilt. It seems to be quite sceptical about human involvement. And I think there’s something similar, sometimes, in relation to space: the idea that we haven’t always been responsible stewards of our own Earth, that we’d better get it right this time, that we might risk polluting space… that we already are, perhaps?

TM: Well, we already have done. We’ve got all of those… to improve telecommunications, back in the Sixties, all of those millions of little dipole antennae. They blasted them out into space with the notion that it helps to bump the signals back. But of course they’re an absolute menace out there now, and all the space junk that we’re developing industries to try and cope with. Of course space seemed really open and really free at first, but when you get to cislunar space, when you get to just beyond the medium atmosphere of the Earth, things can get really pretty crowded pretty quickly when you’re continuously firing things up there.

But when you go beyond that, there are reasons why we don’t want to contaminate. One is the science: so you don’t want forward contamination, because we want to know what we can about life, and we would like to detect rudimentary forms of current or historic life somewhere else. But in order to be sure of the results we have to make sure that we didn’t bring it there—and we have done that kind of thing before. Somebody sneezed on one of the camera lenses of the Apollo mission—the Moon landing missions—and on a different world that could have had very different consequences. That stuff wouldn’t happen now; but we want to protect these places for the science.

And we want to make sure that certain kinds of irreversible changes are done in the right way. So for example, you speak about terraforming. Now, if you’re going to terraform Mars, then you have to melt some of that water and carbon dioxide ice at the polar caps. That’s a one-shot deal: if you do that the wrong way, then you just end up with a more-or-less evenly, or unevenly, distributed package of ice round the rest of the planet. So if we go in gung-ho, and mess it up, then the possibilities of a successful, viable process of terraforming might be compromised for hundreds of years, perhaps even permanently.

So we’ve got an ethical responsibility to make sure that if we’re doing these things, then we’re doing them in a reasonable manner: that we’re not just guilty of impatience; that we actually have the technologies to succeed in reasonable projects. Now, I’ve spoken about the nature of these environments—something that merits ethical consideration and certain kinds of protection—and of course the same is true of the Earth. But what’s interesting in relation to—one of the many interesting things in relation to—discourse of protection down here is that the more Nineteenth Century ideas that wilderness means complete virgin territory, never touched by human hand, never impacted upon by humanity: that doesn’t work for anywhere on the Earth now, because of the way in which humans have impacted upon the atmosphere. There aren’t places that are free of the human stain, as it were, or the human impact. And that’s not necessarily, in all cases, a bad thing.

So we have a more modest conception of what wilderness is, which is that there are certain kinds of impact that are not allowed. So if something’s wilderness, then, yes, people are allowed to visit, with certain constraints. Yes, we accept that the volumes of carbon locked into the rocks will be impacted by industry elsewhere. But it’s wilderness by virtue of the fact that we’re not allowed to use it as an industrial resource, for example. Wilderness in that sense. And that’s much more modest. So when we translate that much more modest conception of wilderness to the Moon, or to Mars, again, it doesn’t exclude all human activity. It doesn’t exclude all human industrial activity. But it does mean that there are ethical constraints upon the ways in which that can legitimately be done.

And there has to be discussion about how much impact we can have and where that impact should be. Obviously there’s a strong case for keeping impact away from the most distinctive areas of the Moon or Mars. If one wants a complete protection, a hands-off attitude, I don’t think that’s a viable ethic, given the nature of our society, in that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. I don’t think we can protect these places in those ways, even if we wished to do so.

RS: A lot of what you’re saying sounds like environmental ethics; but the way environmentalism’s developed on Earth, generally, is that it’s basically summed up in the one word ‘green’. It’s about ecosystems, organic life. The green movement. And obviously space is, among other things, not at all green. (Until terraformed.)

TM:  So here we make a distinction between ecology and environments. Ecology’s about systems that contain living things and how they function as integrated wholes. Environments are just the surroundings; and sometimes the surroundings have life in them, sometimes the surroundings don’t. You can go places in the Earth, and on the Earth, where you don’t get life, but you still have environments.

So the thought then is that we need an expanded conception. And many environmental ethicists already have that kind of conception. They think of, say, rivers ethically considerable in various respects. Now of course rivers have life forms within them, but even if they didn’t, then you’d have environmental ethicists who would say that the Colorado River has to be… we have to think about it in particular ways.

RS: The commercial exploitation of space: I’ve seen particular concerns about the possibility that this is basically just going to benefit rich people, big companies… everyone else gets left out. Is that a moral problem or just a political concern?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting concern. It’s the concern that you get, sometimes in environmental ethics and sometimes in science fiction. Which is… I’m going to pitch my science fiction screenplay to you. I personally have one but I’m going to invent one to yourself. So, this is copyright: if anyone hears this…

RS: I hope some people will hear it!

TM: If Spielberg’s out there he could get in touch with me, definitely: we have something to talk about… But: here is the rogue individual who finds themselves caught up in a mining operation which is run by The Company. The Company is so large that they wield vast political influence as well as having economic power both in space and back on Earth. This is a model we’ve iterated numerous times. How likely is that in relation to space?

Well, if the only place where you’re getting development is going to be on the Moon or on Mars, then monopoly-type systems might operate. But if you start talking about the asteroid belt, which is really where you want to go if you’re going to build large-scale structures off planets—and there’s no reason why, because of the small number of planets and moons that you can work with, there’s no reason why you would want to simply restrict yourself to that—plus there’s all those metal resources which are out there in the asteroid belt… It’s really, really big. Asteroids are very far apart from one another. Space is a big place. It’s not a place which lends itself particularly well to monopolies. Quite apart from the political ramifications and repercussions of having power concentrated in a small number of hands. You certainly wouldn’t want that.

If you’re talking about settlements, you have to remember that authoritarianism generates its own counter-culture, and monopoly systems are inherently authoritarian. And counter-cultures, beyond a certain point, in space can be quite… It’s quite dangerous: what do you do? Do you stop producing oxygen? There’s a whole range of things that you can do, that you’re at liberty to do in terms of protest here on Earth, that would just be absolutely lethal if you tried them in space. So the kinds of settlement, political structures that you need to evolve into, I think have to be ones that are non-authoritarian, where you have redundancy built into the system. You can’t have one oxygen supplier. This is crazy: that’s just giving your lives over to the boardroom. You have to have redundancy; you have to have multiple suppliers; you have to have multiple sources coming in.

Now I’m not denying that the first settlements that we have, if we manage to get to the point of settlement, will almost certainly inherit the command systems that they went with. So you have that initial element of authoritarianism there.

A great many things really militate against anyone being allowed to monopolise. Yes, in the early stages, big players will merge, and they will be SpaceXes, just better: bigger, better, more efficient than anyone else that’s around. And they’re likely to be bigger, better, and so on, for quite a while to come. So lots of smaller players will lose the shirts off their backs. There will be big players, as there are in these emerging sectors. But once you develop the technology it’s very, very difficult to stop people from piggy-backing off that and developing rival commercial interests.

NASA Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbitting the planet earth.

So if The Company story is true then our future in space is just going to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But if you can get beyond that, to multiple players, multiple stakeholders, then you are much more in a position to have a sustainable process of development. And you’re also in a much better position to have a viable dialogue and practical impact in terms of the environmental ethics of space. If you go up against one big player it’s really, really tough: we’ll tend to think it’s a tough opponent to go up against. If you’ve got multiple players bidding for the ways in which they would carry out processes, then you get move leverage.

RS: We’ve been talking largely about ethics as a source of constraints: it tells us what not to do, what we mustn’t do. But I wonder whether you think ethics might also play a positive role, give us things to aim for in space?

TM: I think so. I’m not wildly convinced of a whole heap of arguments about why we should go: we should go because there is a biological imperative to explore and to move into new frontiers… I’m not sure that there is. Maybe that’s a species trait; it doesn’t look to be an individual trait. People will stay at home until you kick them out. That’s pretty much the human history: you don’t think, hmmm, well, I’ve got enough to eat here, and we’re well catered, for, and so on; I think I’ll go over there, where there’s a reasonable chance of me starving and dying a horrible and gruesome and protracted death. Humans don’t do that, but as a species we have tended to expand: not always a good thing.

But I guess I’m going to say that I quite like the intuition—and it is an intuition; I’m not sure how I would begin to build a rigorous ethical argument for it—I quite like the intuition that perhaps we do have a duty to extend either human life or life as such. I think that the presence of life is by and large a good thing. And that doesn’t mean to say that you have to have life everywhere. It does mean that, for example, we don’t know how much life there is out there; we don’t know, really, if there is life out there… We would like to believe that there is; we have some reasons to believe that there is; on balance there probably is—but we don’t know that. And through our neglect and negligence of possibilities for extending life: it would be a bad thing, it would be a dereliction with that kind of duty if we allowed life to die out through that kind of failure. So there is the expansion of presence of life, or possibly of human life, to other worlds.

Plus there is the growing sense that we’re running out of terrestrial resources. That does seem to be happening: you can see it in terms of the metals. Now the Earth’s got a dirty big metallic inner bit—but, but, but we can hardly haul out there… The metals that we can extract: a limited resource, many of them due to run out over the next few hundred years. Yes, we will have new technologies; yes, we will be better at extracting; and that will extend the time span a little bit. Yes, we will have new materials and so on, but it’s difficult seeing us doing without metals. So I think there’s a good case for having a graduated shift to a more balanced system which is not restricted to one planet which we happen to have messed up in some quite severe ways. That’s a decent picture of the future to me.

RS: A sentiment I sometimes see is: we’ve already got as far as the Moon, and then we’ve currently stopped sending human beings there; wouldn’t it be a huge disappointment for our entire species if we never went back?

TM: Well… It’s disappointing, maybe not for the entire species… Maybe for me, maybe for you, maybe for a lot of people. I’m guessing a lot of people have more immediate, pressing things on their plate. I guess it’s what we do: we can go and do things badly. We can go and do the same, make the same mistakes. I don’t think that’s necessarily the outcome that will happen, because we’re starting in a different way, and the dynamics of living in space impose restrictions and constraints upon us which we cannot ignore. I don’t mean to say that they’re morally inescapable; I mean to say that they’re physically inescapable, that there are certain aspects of the sheer nature of space that impose certain ways of doing things and certain needs for humans to work with one another to get different kinds of jobs done.

RS: Thank you for talking to Pod Academy.

Main photo: NASA Goddard space flight

Sep 28 2017