General scratchings. 

The Resistance - An interview with Franklin Foer about Big Tech and the fight for our minds

My latest, published in Neighbourhood Paper on 23 March, 2018.

Franklin Foer knows what it’s like on the coal face of journalism’s struggle with Big Tech. Formerly the editor of the small-but-prestigious New Republic magazine from 2006 to 2010, he was invited back to the helm in 2012 after the publication was bought by Chris Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and one of Facebook’s founding employees.

Since 1914, New Republic had been an institution for liberal thinking and political analysis – the authoritative sceptical voice between Republican and Democrat ideologies. Hughes was just 28 years old, a booster for Barack Obama and a UN advocate for HIV prevention. Foer was charmed, even “exhilarated”, by the changes Hughes promised and the fresh generational idealism he brought to New Republic as a media institution.

Two worlds collided, and – after a honeymoon period that lasted two years – the acrimony began. Hughes wanted to reinvent the New Republic as a “vertically integrated digital-media company”, Foer resisted, and the guy paying the bills won the fight. Foer was forced out, and two-thirds of his staff quit with him.

As Foer wrote later in the Atlantic (where he is now a staff writer), “The bust-up received its fair share of attention and then the story faded – a bump on Silicon Valley’s route to engulfing journalism.”

In his latest book, World Without Mind, Foer widens his argument: Silicon Valley is not only engulfing journalism, he writes, but fundamentally changing the way we think. In the same way that the Industrial Revolution automated physical processes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Digital Revolution is attempting to automate our mental processes today, and to replace the art of quiet contemplation with notifications and algorithms.

So far the tech giants are winning this war on our minds: so we’d better wake up and start thinking, Foer argues, before we no longer can.


NBHD: Hey Frank, is now a good time to speak?

FOER: Yeah, I’m actually driving to rural Virginia to this elite evangelical college, and I’m debating this libertarian guy about Big Tech. I love these debates, they’re so much fun. It’s also like a wild-card audience. Being able to try and persuade cultural conservatives that this is something they should care about… I love the challenge of trying to bend them around.


You’d think that culturally conservative people would be into your message of slow contemplation, trust in institutions… or have I got the U.S. wrong?

You’ve got the U.S. wrong. I’m sure this is like a place that went, you know, 70, 80 per cent for Donald Trump.


Before we start talking too much about Big Tech, your book is, in part, about quiet contemplation and a love of reading. Do you remember the first book you ever had?

The first book I ever had as a child… my uncle gave me his set of encyclopedias from the 1960s, and they were done by this television personality called Art Linkletter. And they were kind of absurdly popularised, with all sorts of information, and very colourful… which is kind of the pre-digital internet, right? It was just such a good thing to get lost in that trove of knowledge and to have that sense of mastery, but also just the endless surprise that comes with the discovery of each new entry. And to me that was the greatest – the Platonic reading experience.


And do you remember when you first decided that you wanted to work with books? That you wanted to become a writer?

When I was at university I dreamed of becoming a historian. And I discovered journalism, which was academia through less crazy, esoteric means. Journalism as a profession is really such an incredible privilege – to be able to be kind of an amateur expert, who’s constantly shifting from subject to subject. I mean, it’s a bit like reading the encyclopedia, where you never get stuck on one entry for too long, there’s always a surprising next entry to be found.


When did you get serious about writing and journalism?

My senior year of university I interned at a now-defunct magazine called Lingua Franca… a bit of a legendary magazine that was actually about universities, but it had a real mischievous, witty way of writing about them, where they did this puncturing of a lot of the pomposity, and writing about the sacred characters in the university as if they were celebrities. There were quite a few New Yorker writers who started there, it was really an exhilarating place, and short-lived, so it lends itself to mythological treatment.


My editor here is a big fan of your first book, How Soccer Explains the World, about the connection between soccer and globalisation. How it was that you came to bring those two topics together?

As a political nerd I couldn’t help but find part of the thrill of soccer to be the fact that it was rife with politics and geopolitics, and that rivalries had this added dimension of carrying histories of imperialism and war, and that was part of the reason why the game was so authentically intense. I always actually viewed the game through a somewhat political lens. I was a terrible soccer player as a child, so I did what nerdy kids do – which is, you set out to master intellectually the things that you fail at physically.


Who’s your team now?

Arsenal is the team I’m most devoted to, which is a source of constant pain.


A lot of your new book World Without Mind deals with your experience at the New Republic. At the start you say that you’re writing was fuelled by a certain amount of anger, and I want to know: was that anger directed at Chris Hughes or at the C.E.O. [Guy Vidra] or more towards the general crisis of the media at the moment?

I actually don’t have any real anger to any of the individuals that I know in particular. My anger is more directed at Facebook and Google and Amazon, because all these industries – these professions that I love dearly, writing and media and book publishing – they’ve become so intensely dependent on a few big platform companies for their economic health and survival. And so the dictates of the big companies end up having this hugely distorting effect on everybody who depends on those companies.

I see it in media all the time, where when Facebook decides that it wants to switch to video, it wants to prioritise video, all of a sudden every media company in the world makes these incredible investments in producing video, even if video isn’t the thing that they do well. And it comes at the expense of money that would otherwise be spent on the written word.

Or to step back and look at it more generally, it’s that these platforms suck up advertising in a way in which media simply can’t compete. Some of that’s fair wins on their part, but we have to think about these guys also as parasites, who are media companies who don’t produce any actual media. They manage to skim the process without making any of the investments or expenditures, and the result has been a famine in media over an extended period of time.


So the anger that you had when you were writing the book, you still have that now?

Yeah, you know, I didn’t really achieve catharsis.

What advice – if you could go back and talk to 2012 to 2014 Frank or if you saw someone in the same position that you were in over that second period at the New Republic, pushed by the business side to create digital content or snackable content, what advice would you give them?

When I go back and I revisit the New Republic experience in my head, the thing that I wish I did differently was spend less money. When Chris Hughes came I was totally seduced by the prospect of becoming something bigger, shinier, and better. That rather than having a saviour who would save the New Republic as it had existed, I got suckered into the vision of transforming the New Republic into something closer to the New Yorker, which was just an entirely different scale of expenditure… And in retrospect, I wish I’d just preached restraint. Because, I think if we hadn’t lost quite so much money I don’t think Chris would have ever gotten antsy, I don’t think we would have ended up in a crisis – or I don’t think he would have perceived there to be a state of crisis, as he did in 2014.

I just think it’s always the temptation that when you have a new patron… We tend to associate success with scale, whereas excellence can exist in niche forms. And I would have been a lot better off, Chris would have been a lot better off, if we had curbed our pursuit of scale.


Do you think there’s any case to be made for publishers trying to outright reject or turn their back on digital metrics, or perhaps even turning their back on Facebook, focusing on print editions perhaps?

Yes, I think it’s actually happening. It’s a long, slow parting of the ways, but I do have this sense that Facebook is shifting its emphasis away from journalism, because journalism has turned out to be so fraught for Facebook itself. Journalism, politics, these are the things that bring controversies over what’s real and what’s fake, over how the platform could regulate itself for the good of the citizenry. And those are questions that Facebook ultimately doesn’t want to have to address because they’re so complicated and there’s a lot of risk involved.

So I think Facebook is going to peel away from journalism. It’s going to hurt journalism in the short run, but journalism is going to have to accept the fact that its traffic numbers are going to drop, that its digital advertising is never going to be what it hopes it’s going to be. Over the long run that’s healthy because it’s going to force journalism to refocus on subscriptions, and it’s going to enable journalism to liberate itself from some of the pernicious metrics that Facebook uses and which have come to govern journalism.


And so you think there is a sustainable model for writing and for magazines?

I do – but I fear that we’re going to experience greater pain in the transition to that sustainable model. That journalism will probably shrink – shrink even more – before it reaches the point of sustainability. It’s a pretty terrible thought to entertain, but I’m guessing it’s inevitable.

We’ve started to see this here [in the U.S.], where some of the big digital publishers have started to shed employees, kind of in the aftermath of all Facebook’s shifts. So like Voxfired 50 people last month. It’s attributable to the fact that Facebook had started to downgrade journalistic content.


There’s not just a tension between media companies and publishing, and Facebook – I was interested in this connection I noticed with Amazon. Your author bios on Slate and the Atlantic, when they mention your new book World Without Mind the link they provide is to Amazon. I’ve noticed this as well with book reviews on the New Yorker, a lot of the time they’re linking to Amazon. And I was just genuinely curious, is there an explanation for that?

Because it’s the unthinking choice that American consumers make when they purchase basically everything. Has Amazon amassed that kind of dominance in Australia?


They opened their first warehouse in Melbourne only a couple of months ago, just in time for Christmas, and there was a small – it was actually quite a small news item. I don’t think people, especially businesses, quite understand what’s coming for them in the way that Amazon has consumed the States. I get a lot of books off Book Depository and I think the brick-and-mortar stores have certainly felt some of that, but I haven’t seen an independent bookstore close… yet.

Lucky you. If Amazon decides that it wants to win in Australia, it will win, because its ability to sustain losses is so deep. Can I just give you a word of warning about Amazon?


Yeah sure, please, I’ll pass it on.

Okay, so, you know this guy Donald Trump? I think that if you look at a lot of the sense of displacement that so much of America feels right now, it’s attributable in some ways to Amazon. Because, a long time ago, our main streets were decimated, and then we had these malls, and we had Walmart, but they’ve struggled to survive. Well, malls have struggled to survive in the face of Amazon, and even Walmart hasn’t quite figure out how to respond to the power of Amazon.

What happens when you lose commerce, when commerce becomes so concentrated, is that people stop going to stores. And you lose all of the social interaction and sense of community that comes with that, and you start to lose jobs, as well. You can’t attribute all of that damage to Amazon, maybe you can’t even attribute most of that to Amazon, but Amazon has played a role in eroding something fundamental about the fibre of the nation.


Can we switch back to Facebook and publishing – I’m sure you’ve read the Wired piece about the last two years at Facebook. That piece, I thought it concluded on a note of optimism. The journalists, Nick Thompson and Fred Vogelstein, they believe that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have finally come to accept that they’re not just a platform, they’re also a publisher. What do you think about the idea that Facebook and these companies might just govern themselves appropriately according to their moral compasses or because of their own sense of duty?

I don’t buy it. I think that ultimately you just can’t count on these companies to govern themselves. Too many of their incentives push towards increasing the boundaries of surveillance on their customers, and this is what we’re constantly learning anew. So we have the scandal right now over Cambridge Analytica, which is a company that was working with the Trump campaign to come up with psychographic portraits of voters that were going to be exploited on Facebook, and they were tapping Facebook in order to get data about users. And unfortunately I think that Facebook’s comparative advantage is its data, and it’s always going to try to protect that, and the way that it will protect it is by finding new, invasive ways to find out more about you.

This is separate from the problem of whether Facebook can regulate fake news, but what I’m getting at is that, you know, Facebook is never going to be able to regulate itself. It’s almost inevitable that we’re going to arrive at the day when government regulates the technology companies. The fact is that we’re only belatedly understanding the abusive tactics used by these companies, so it feels like each month we awake anew to some different horror. And all these horrors will add up and will take their toll, and the only reason to be optimistic is that they’re going to lead to government finally providing a counterweight to these companies.


I’m sure you’ve also read John Hermann’s book review of World Without Mind, and in that review he uses the words – when he’s talking about your calls for government regulation – he uses the words “idealistic, plain crazy, or just plain impotent”. What do you think of his assessment?

[Laughs] I always place myself on the spectrum between idealistic and plain crazy. I think the thing is that everything is changing so quickly, and the sense of what’s politically possible expands almost every day. So when I first proposed my book, I felt like this was a very strange subject, and it felt like a very quixotic pursuit. And when I tried to explain it to people I felt like they gave me funny looks. But then, over time, calls for regulating the tech companies are shifting closer and closer to the centre of American political discourse, and certainly European political discourse. We’re not there yet, but I don’t know that we’re that far off. Does that just sound plain crazy?


It certainly sounds idealistic, although what the Europeans are doing is good. I notice there’s a lot of talk of thresholds in your book, and the big threshold, the threshold above all the other thresholds, is this concept that we’re going to get to a point where thinking is eroded so much that we can’t actually claw ourselves back… I have a friend who’s got this joke about footballers, rugby players, who play one game of rugby and after that no longer have enough brain cells to realise that playing rugby is bad. Are we in danger of the same kind of lock-in happening with Big Tech?

[There’s a point at which] tech becomes a barrier to being a present human being. And the presence that we have in conversation is not disconnected to the presence that we have in our states of contemplation. And if we’re always connected to the machine, we really do surrender some core element of our mental processes.


This is a question that’s not really unique to issue of the tech giants and the digital age, but it is certainly made more pressing by it: how do people who are engaged in intellectual life, how do they reach across to people who don’t care so much about ideas? How do you reach across the aisle, so to speak?

It’s funny you mention that, because, as I said before, I’m actually kind of engaged in doing this right now as we speak, on my way to the evangelical college, where I want to try to have this type of conversation with people who are hostile to elitist thinking. I think part of it is that we need to be unabashedly elitist.

The temptation of intellectuals over the course of the last generation is to try to dumb it down, fun it up, popularise, decamp from the little magazines and the ivory tower to become public intellectuals – and having intellectuals writing in accessible prose and the like. But I also think it’s important that we don’t degrade the core of what we do in the process. One of the things that we may need to do is nurture the life of the mind in an almost counter-cultural way as we go through these transitions. The life of the mind is something incredibly precious, there’s this gorgeous heritage of ideas that we have, and it’s important that we don’t let it fall into disrepair.


On the last page of your book there’s a similar sentiment. You say that “we need to protect ourselves”. I wanted to ask you what that looks like: what does protecting ourselves from the tech giants involve?

There’s a measure of self-awareness that’s critical: we need to understand the addictive powers of the technologies. To protect ourselves from them there are all sorts of mechanical things that one should do as good intellectual hygiene, you know, in terms of shutting off the notifications on your phone, stripping Facebook off of your phone, not sleeping with your phone.

I make the case for why continuing to read paper books preserves a sanctuary in our lives where we’re not being surveilled, where we’re disconnected from corporate stores, and where people are not trying to steal away our attention. And I think it’s that spirit of resistance, of trying to maintain the quiet spaces in our lives, that helps preserves us as human beings.

In Defence of Thinking - Ann Mossop and the UNSW Centre for Ideas

My latest, published in Neighbourhood Paper on 20 March, 2018.

You’ve been lied to.

I mean, of course you have. We live in a world of power, and truth is often an impediment to its raw exercise. There’s a reason why tyrants burn books – to the most cynical and the least principled, an unthinking public is a blank canvas. Onto this canvas, they (the tyrants, the salesmen, the virtuous-but-ignorant), can paint any narrative they wish. Think Scientology. Think Donald Trump. Think Facebook.

At a time of painful transition for the media industry, Ann Mossop – formerly of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and recently appointed head of the University of NSW’s new Centre for Ideas – believes that it is universities which have an increasingly important role as forums of public expertise. Mossop has curated a series of talks on the areas where this knowledge is sorely needed: technology, inequality, and truth itself.

Franklin Foer was the editor of the New Republic when the publication was bought by a Facebook co-founder and transformed it into a “vertically integrated digital-media company”. Foer was eventually fired and two-thirds of his staff quit in protest. Unsurprisingly, Foer has some views about technology. In his recent book, World Without Mind, he urges the public to see tech companies how they see themselves, as engineers; and he argues that in the same way the industrial revolution automated physical processes, so too is the digital revolution automating mental processes.

Mossop knows that technology is an issue esoteric to most, and frightening in its complexity: “Which one do you have to worry about? That the iPhone is rotting your child’s brain, or that the robots will take your jobs, or any of the potential doomsday scenarios – there’s an awful lot to think about.” Foer gives us a framework to begin that thinking.

Andres Serrano’s exhibition, The art of homelessness, gives us truth in the form of photography. Serrano’s portraits of homeless around New York and Brussels are blown up to giant proportions, so large that it’s not possible to turn away. The artist is known for transgression: along with Mapplethorpe, Serrano was a major figure in the fight to save the U.S.’s National Endowment of the Arts from defunding in the ’80s, and his work Piss Christ (1987) has never stopped attracting controversy.

But Serrano’s homelessness exhibition will be controversial only if you think it’s a faux pas to talk about those who are fuel (and then refuse) of the engine of wealth. The issue is dire: homelessness in NSW jumped by 37 per cent between 2011 and 2016. (In a previous Centre for Ideas event on democracy, A.C. Grayling argued that it is inequality – and the resentment that it breeds – that is the better explanation for the rise of demagogues, who create scapegoats to explain this unfairness. Populism is the wrong word; the right word is manipulation.)

Michael Sandel is a philosopher so popular that his course at Harvard was turned into a TV show – he has been called “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star.” His political philosophy is a model of clarity, and his event on ‘truth’ will offer a rigorous defence of the value of seeing the world clearly.

In his earlier work Sandel parsed the difference between outright lies (which impermissibly coerce or manipulate the listener) and white lies, which, if told with the right intention, are acceptable. He illustrates his point with the question, ‘would Kant have defended Bill Clinton?’ While Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” was still wrong because Clinton intended to deceive, it was at least better than an outright lie. In the very act of crafting an evasion Clinton showed respect for truth, “however oblique”.

It’s clear that Sandel will disapprove of Trump’s intentional, outright lies, but the question remains: how can and should we act in the face of such blatant deceptions? Mossop is glowing about Sandel: “He’s really doing this work of bringing ideas to life, and bringing an audience with him, and that is really special.”

You can see the connections within Mossop’s curation. Truth is essential if we’re to address problems like inequality, and these problems need to be addressed if democracy is to function the way it should. At the same time, these public searches for truth often occur on the internet, where they’re hampered by hidden algorithms for groupthink, bullying opinions, and constant distractions. We need a more even playing field if the best ideas are to prevail.

Mossop wants to germinate these ideas in the forums she is organising with UNSW. “Nobody wants to tell people what to think, but what we want to do is create an environment where we can bring those conversations to a broader audience.”

Neighbourhood Paper, 2017

This isn't exactly a best-of-the-year list, only because we haven't yet been publishing a year. The below are my personal picks of the very-very-best pieces since we launched in May – the diamonds among the gems.


Of Will Self's regular dispatches from London, his letter about the city's "architecture of fear" following the three terrorist attacks was his most savage, delicate, and re-readable. Colin Gore's coverage of the Martin Place Tent City was leagues ahead of the Guardian's and the SMH's, and Tug Dumbly's elegant, humorous report of a couple in love was the most dignified response possible to Australia's disgraceful plebiscite. For tight, propulsive, and local writing, see Nadia Bailey's elegy to Parramatta Road and Clint Caward's contextualisation (evisceration) of the gig economy. For fun, you can't go past Jack Marx.


I'm obviously biased, but that doesn't make it any less true that our features were some of the best in Australia this year. Jack Cameron Stanton's access to a young man recovering from video game addiction (and his compassionate treatment of the story) cut a skylight into a dark subject, as did an anonymous feature on Benzodiazepine dependence (the drug in Xanax). It was a treat to see how Ross Duncan's story (pitched as an 800-word short piece) bloomed into a 2,300-word feature as he heard more and more about the incredible lives of the seafarers passing through Botany Bay. I loved Madelaine Lucas's penetrating reminiscences of the Sydney anti-landmark, Parramatta Road's Olympia Milk Bar.


We published more Culture pieces than any other sections this year, so this selection was particularly tough. Sebastian Smee's anecdotal yet expansive review of Kader Attia at the MCA is the first to make the list (there's a reason why he won a Pulitzer). Lauren Carroll Harris could and probably will write for The New Yorker, and her essay on the art references in Lynch's Twin Peaks did in fact get some love from editors in the States. I'm so pleased we got the chance to publish Joseph Earp's retelling of the last love of John Cheever; likewise, it was an honour to print Rochelle Siemienowicz's sideways look at what makes a relationship through the lens of Blade Runner 2049 (the best piece of movie writing anywhere this year).

The Local

Every single column from Kye M.R. Bleaux-Hall is the best column we published this year.

Next Door

Who wouldn't want to be Jimmy Barnes's neighbour, after Adam Gibson's profile of him? This section was where our best video content lived – I also recommend watching our editor's profile of Izzi Manfredi, for the beautiful videography, and for the brilliant clarity with which Manfredi speaks.


Margaret Barbalet has given us a piece of fiction that feels just as real as any of the non-fiction we published this year (better than real, in fact; it reads like truth). 


Best till last – Fiona Wright's return from hospital to Newtown was sensual and intelligent, using the temporary alienation from a place as a crack through which to slip and observe the way a 'place' is constructed in necessary antagonism with other places. Ben Giles's discovery the work of a famous Sydney architect trace the contours of Giles's own history lead to a true gem of a piece. A few days before we packed up for the year, Jack Marx (again) gave us this piece about a dog named Laurel: a story of family and love – uncomplicated, and, at the last, eternal.

An Interview with The Bear Pack

With no script and no preparation, Bear Pack comedians Carlo Ritchie and Steen Raskopoulos take two suggestions from the audience – an item and a location – and improvise an hour-long story.

When I meet the pair one morning at Scout’s Honour Cafe in Redfern, Ritchie tells me, “It’s always fun at festivals because some people don’t believe that it’s different every time. So they come a few nights in a row just to see if there are things that happen twice.”

I’ve seen their Bear Pack show more than twice, and it’s still difficult to believe that the plots and dozens of characters are invented on the spot. Surely they rehearse?

Raskopoulos pinches his thumb and finger together into an O: “Zero.”

Ritchie (thin, moustached): “Yeah, we don’t rehearse. I always say that if the show we did was planned, it’s terrible planning.”

Raskopoulos (taller, curly hair) laughs.

The pair have come to be known as Australia’s best improvisers. I tell them I remember the show they did at the Enmore last year, where there was a subplot about an ineffective bridge-troll, who, by the end of the show, had to tell his troll-family they were being evicted from under the bridge because he couldn’t pay the rent.

Both smile, as if hearing about it for the first time.

The secret, they say, is that there’s no secret. Improv theatre is a process of constant reaction – just like a good conversation, but with shifting characters.

Raskopoulos emphasises the absolute trust between the pair; Ritchie calls the process “kind of like waking up, really… sparking”. Their show operates in a highwire mental state almost beyond conscious thought – to the point where they say it can be difficult to remember the show even minutes after it ends.

“Sometimes we’ll come off stage,” Ritchie says, “and I’ll be like, Oh man, you really cracked me up tonight! And Steen’s like, Which bit? And I’m like, I can’t remember man…”

Raskopoulos: “There’s a thing where people come up to you and say, I saw the one where you played a guy, and you got on a horse… And that’s like every fifth show, man.”

Ritche: “There are only so many ways to travel.”


Raskopoulos and Ritchie first performed together in 2009 at a locally famous improv night at the old Roxbury Hotel in Glebe. Raskopoulos had met Ritchie at Sydney Uni, and taught him improv. “And I’d call him little bear and he’d call me big bear,” Raskopoulos says – hence, the Bear Pack.

At this point Ritchie breaks in: “I wanted to call it the Hammer Hour, but it just never got off the ground….”

Why the Hammer Hour?

Ritchie: “Um, there are no hammers in the show – we have a strict no-hammer policy on stage, so it was kind of a dumb name really, but I tried really hard. We had some test groups, it didn’t play well with the test groups, yeah… But, you know, that’s life sometimes, you just gotta go with the punches.”

In 2011 the pair started a comedy night at Hermann’s Bar, and began performing in their current format of a fully improvised story – what they call a yarn. They moved the show to a bigger stage – the Chaser’s Giant Dwarf Theatre, on Cleveland Street in Redfern – and added a third member, cellist Ange Lavoipierre, who improvises a soundtrack for each show. Since then they’ve taken their show to festivals around the world, and last year sold 1,200 tickets when they played the Enmore Theatre.

Improv is designed to look seamless, but, like all skills, it can be learnt with effort. Three years ago Ritchie and Raskopoulos founded Sydney’s Improv Theatre School. As with their show, the growth of the school was exponential: from 16 in their first class to over 200 current enrolments today.

For the first time since sitting down Raskopoulos gets a tiny bit shy, and I hear the word “proud”. Ritchie talks about how, before their school, he could have named every improviser in Sydney: “And then that very first time we had a [class graduate from the school], I just thought, Jesus, all of a sudden there are 20 new improvisers. And now there’s, like, a hundred new improvisers every three months, it’s just crazy…”

Raskopoulos: “Yeah…”

Ritchie: “… it’s wild.”

Raskopoulos: “We get all different walks of life. We get lawyers and doctors and–”

Ritchie: “Carpenters, midwives–”

Raskopoulos: “Business types who just want to get more confident, wanna get better with their social skills.”

When I tell them that they’ve given me more than enough to write about, and that my piece can only be 800 words, Ritchie widens his eyes, incredulous, and Raskopoulos joins in a second later.

Ritchie: "Well, you’d better double that–”

Raskopoulos: “And then halve it again.”

'Autumn' by Ali Smith

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Ali Smith’s Autumn is the second. Her novel, set in Britain in the months following the June 2016 Brexit vote, was published just three months after the vote in October of the same year. On the surface, it’s the story of an old, old man and his thirty-something platonic lover – a simple story of deep mutual affection between two people. But Smith writes with a “step-back motion” such that the tide of the story is constantly flowing backwards, and in pulling us back she creates a vantage point from which to see the present. While the current-day story moves in increments, we learn about old TV shows and historical migration and Britain’s first female Pop Art painter. Smith is obviously appalled at the Brexit vote, and at one point in Autumn has the narrator waiting for a cab at the airport when two Spanish travellers are heckled by locals. “Is this what shame feels like?”, she writes.

Smith makes no claims of impartiality (“Fiction is political. Fiction can’t not be,” Smith told the Paris Review recently), but her book is never propaganda. Autumn is an elegant, playful story about true emotions, and reading it feels like washing soot out of your mouth. Today’s politics is a battleground of abstract stories (the story of nostalgia; the story of dispossession; the story of external enemies) but Ali Smith’s Brexit novel reminds us, really reminds us, of the richness of human-to-human connection.

There’s a beautiful quote that gives you the heart of Smith’s book, and, though long, it’s worth reproducing:

“Hope is exactly that, that’s all it is, a matter of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they are and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair … and we have to know we’re equally capable of both, and to be ready to be above and beyond the foul even when we’re up to our eyes in it.”
The Other Guy: an interview with Matt Okine

Break-ups can have strange consequences. As a more-or-less direct result of a bad split a few years ago, Matt Okine is now on the phone with me, explaining how he put his genitals in a drawstring bag. Okine is the writer and star of a new TV drama, The Other Guy, based on his award-winning stand-up show of the same name – which is in turn based on the discovery that Okine’s girlfriend of 10 years was cheating on him with his best friend. Out of pain came art. Also, sex scenes.

“I have to get nude quite a lot for the show – like, you don’t see my bits on the TV show, but they were definitely out too much for most of the crew’s liking,” Okine tells me. “Sometimes you’re squeezed inside this tiny room and you’ve got the focus-puller’s head about three inches away from your crotch, and that’s not good for anyone, you know? You’ve got to wear this little modesty pouch – and it’s not even like a cool, slick, cup – it’s like this pathetic, cream-coloured large earring purse. You know those little sacks you put earring in? It’s like that.”

I tell him I’m not entirely familiar.

“It’s like this little hessian bag,” he elaborates, “it’s got a drawstring, so it’s like you’re choking your penis. And you’re supposed to be doing this sex scene and pretending that you’re real into each other and that it’s this hot, sexy moment – and then you look down and you’ve just got your dick in a bag, you know what I mean? It’s like, this is pathetic.

“I tell you what, it’s definitely not a how-to guide for people on how to deal with a break-up, that’s for sure.”

All six episodes of The Other Guy are streaming on Stan from August 17. Okine, primarily a stand-up comedian, hit the national spotlight as the co-host of Triple J’s breakfast slot. He co-wrote the show with Becky Lucas, also a Sydney comedian, and the episodes turns over gags with the familiar rhythm of a stand-up show. There is serious material in the show – body insecurity, a gambling addiction, alcohol abuse – but the sense of comic possibility is always there.

Even as Okine’s character, AJ, falls deeper into the emotional sinkhole of his ex-girlfriend’s manipulation, the show retains its optimism. Okine told me over the phone that the show was definitely not “a step-by-step mirroring of my life,” but that it is accurate in its depiction of the ping-ponging emotions of a relationship in its death throes. AJ also makes excruciatingly bad decisions, while knowing exactly how they are going to end: and in that, too, the show is true to life.

Okine is an exceptional performer, as is Harriet Dyer (who plays Stevie, AJ’s best friend). The show is also worth watching for the beautiful shots of Sydney’s Inner West.

This piece was written for Neighbourhood Paper.

George Orwell's '1984' at the STC

A version of this piece was published in Neighbourhood Paper.

Why resist? Why, when evil and bigotry and greed are relentless, insidious? This is the question asked in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, an adaption of which is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. It’s not a pleasant watch – so why go see it?

A poster leading into the theatre claimed “To understand 2017, you have to see 1984”. It’s not a particularly convincing claim, considering that this production has been on the West End since 2014. This play isn’t tailor-made to explain Brexit, or Trump, or Jobik. Orwell’s vision is of a totalitarian state well advanced, whereas the current political malaise is still germinating – the rigid organisation of a state of terror has not yet come. Rather, the lessons in ‘1984’ are universal ones, and, at the risk of sounding idealistic, lessons that we should always bear in mind no matter who is President.

The first of two key lessons is that thought can be controlled in more ways than simple brainwashing. The first part of the play is carried by a frenetic, unnerving energy – scenes will be cut short by other scenes, timelines are hacked apart, explosions of light and sound punctuate moments of the play. Often, the theatre is thrown into pitch black for a few seconds, after which the light come on to reveal an entirely new scene. Other methods are used to wrong-foot the audience; at random points and for no apparent reason, the cast will simultaneously pause and swivel their heads in unison. An actor in the background will pull a face of pain, or will pour and scull a glass of wine. The result is genuinely unsettling, and leaves you unable to grasp the threads of story. That’s the point, of course: a totalitarian leader can never destroy an individual’s ability to think, but they can take away your ability to focus – which achieves the same result. 

The second lesson is more overt: the play is a dramatisation of the immense personal cost of taking a stand. The last 45 minutes of the production is an extended torture scene. Winston Smith sits strapped in the middle of the stage, the evil O’Brien paces around him, and three figures in white sit on either side. By this point Winston’s relationship with Julia – as flimsy as it already was – has been shattered. His body, too, is about to be violated. Winston will refuse to submit to O’Brien, and the figures in white will stand and walk to the table of implements. They’ll stand by Winston, and O’Brien will name a body part – “fingertips” – and the lights will plunge. They come up again and blood is smeared all over Winston’s hands. Some people left the theatre at this point, which was just as well; next are the teeth. 

We don’t go to the theatre for realism, and I’m not going to suggest that speaking out in 2017 will have consequences as bloody as this. But one measure of social domination is the extent to which people fear to voice a different opinion. You don’t need to cut out the opposition’s tongues if the opposition keep their tongues in their mouths; you don’t need to rebuke someone if they’re already too afraid of the rebuke. The powers that be have won when the personal cost of speaking out, of holding a diverse opinion, becomes too great. Genuine political dissent can never be monolithic; encouraging diversity of thought is itself a form of resistance.

The play version of ’1984’ coincides with a the release of a new edition of the book, published by Black Inc. and introduced by Dennis Glover. In that introduction, Glover tells the story of the book’s lasting ambiguity, which revolves around a scene towards the end of the book. Winston has been tortured and released, and is sitting in a cafe awaiting his rearrest and execution. "Almost unconsciously," Orwell writes, "he traced with his finger in the dust on the table …" The first print edition, published in 1949, has Winston writing ‘2+2=5’. The sum signifies his utter domination; his beliefs align with Big Brother’s, his submission is soul-deep.

George Orwell died in 1951, but not before a second edition of the book was released. In that version, Winston writes ‘2+2= ‘. The ‘5’ is missing, and the human heart has not capitulated. For a long, long time, it was unknown whether this revision was deliberate or accidental – the going theory was that the metal block of type for ‘5’ fell out during the reprint. In Glover’s introduction, he makes a strong case for the missing ‘5’ being Orwell’s intention; the idea being that Orwell died hopeful that the spirit of humankind was indomitable. But I prefer the ambiguity; it allows us to decide if we’re an optimist or a pessimist; it allows us to decide if we think the victory of evil is inevitable, or whether the uphill battle towards openness and tolerance and love is worthwhile. The choice is always up to us. 

Alex Tigheorwell, 1984, theatre