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August

Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Which dystopian future are we living in now?


WHICH DYSTOPIAN FUTURE ARE WE LIVING IN?

If there’s one theme permeating almost every media story and trend we come across, it’s a sense that we are now living in a dystopian future. But which one? As a cheerful Friday challenge we asked Borkowski staffers to make the case for which nightmarish fictional futurescape best captures our current reality.


1984

Orwell’s epic was so accurate that it’s become a kind of totalitarianism handbook, as exemplified by several news stories this week. The idea that nationalist fervour in the form of constant war with foreign enemies keeps the populous focussed and compliant is being thoroughly tested by President Trump, most recently during this week’s rant about future wars in space, while at home CCTV cameras which can read lips have reignited allegations that we’re hurtling towards a “Big Brother” surveillance state.

People write PhDs on this stuff and we could go on and on, but the starkest illustration of an Orwellian construct which could lead to the rise of totalitarianism this week was the fluid doublespeak emanating from our own Ministry of Truth about how perfectly fine and compatible with parliamentary democracy it is to prorogue parliament…with every senior member of the cabinet having literally said the exact opposite in recent memory. The fact that we can moan about it like this without fear of censure is a crumb of comfort at least…


The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Attwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of an American state controlled by vile religious fanatics, where fertile women are forced to mate with powerful men to counter mass infertility.

The novel is no work of fantasy. In the US, conservative lawmakers are making a serious attempt to undermine reproductive rights for women across the country, not a world away from the book’s vision of women being forced to bear children against their will. For many, the United States is starting to look a lot like the fictional Gilead. It’s not just confined to the US either, abortion still being banned in Northern Ireland.
But that’s not all. Just as in the novel, environmental destruction threatens societies across the globe with complete collapse.  

And we in the UK have extra cause for concern this week, after Boris Johnson’s announcement that the government plans to prorogue Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit. The announcement, and the muted response in many parts, has an eerie similarity to a key passage in the novel: “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets.”

That’s the lesson that The Handmaid’s Tale teaches us; that society dies slowly, not with a loud bang but with a whimper. We might not even notice that we have hit rock bottom.


The Matrix / Terminator / WALL-E

Let’s not discount the idea of a robot takeover and/or humanity’s submersion into a virtual abyss. The twentieth anniversary and impending sequel to The Matrix have spawned a flurry of think pieces about how real life has begun to imitate the sci-fi classic – ranging from how machines, VR and AI distort our reality, to the film’s apparent portrayal of the trans experience.

But if we’re talking about machines rising up to overtrow humans we’re still a bit further back down the line, maybe closer to Terminator – in which we develop machines that are too clever and sophisticated and they overthrow us (top candidates this week include a shapeshifting robot in China and an automated artificial brain built to aid the US military).

In reality we’re probably closer still to another great sci-fi film, WALL-E, which fingers climate disaster as a catalyst for our increasing retreat towards spending our entire lives online. We’ve even started building the robot


Black Mirror

The anthology series Black Mirror has a clear through line – the dystopian consequences of an increasingly tech-dependent society. From mass surveillance and biohacking to V.R. and cyberbullying, Brooker paints a dire future that feels chillingly familiar.

The worst-case scenarios of Brooker’s techno-dystopian parables don’t seem too grim to an audience already living in hell.

We live in a culture defined by likes and faves in which a ubiquitous ratings system dominates society, as in Nosedive. Think of Tinder matches and Uber ratings, and even China’s ‘social credit system’ – all insidious versions of how technology alters human behaviour. Or humanoid robot slaves tortured by their own existence like in Be Right Back...and also real life. Or John Hamm’s role in “White Christmas” as a futuristic life-coach embroiled in torturing digital copies of living people.

Ultimately Brooker ties Black Mirror together by profiling humanity’s innate greed and Promethean desire to push the limits of technology for our own edification, attributes which are unmistakeably present in the contemporary news agenda.


Farenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 ‘firemen’ burn books to censor literature and destroy knowledge – a dystopian future in which ignorance breeds obedience.

The concept of retaining knowledge is gradually becoming redundant. Why read a book when we have unlimited sources of information (and alternative facts) at our disposal. We crave fast answers over genuine knowledge and the internet provides.

And just as the books burned in Bradbury’s classic, the Amazon Rainforest is burning in real life. We are totally powerless to the powers that control us. We can’t stop the burning.

Like the fires themselves, disinformation is spreading across the internet at a rate impossible to track. Brazil’s president blamed the fires on environmental activists, people are doctoring photos of the destruction, In our fast-paced world, it often feels like there isn’t time to fact check. Fake News has scorched our landscape of knowledge.

Bradbury warned us about the threat of mass media to knowledge and truth, about how the bombardment of digital endorphins was no substitute for critical thinking.

Even his alternative depiction of a world without books sounds familiar. In the novel, people interact with their “friends” through screens and listen to them via “Seashells” — sound familiar, AirPod and iPad groupies?

We have appointed Google and our social-media accounts as the custodians of our memories, emotions, dreams and facts. We set reminders to forget. Retaining information is becoming a thing of the past. A dystopian present, where non-combustible, but ever more ephemeral data is king.


Planet of the Apes

Just click here and weep at our impending doom... 
 

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Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Bear Grylls | Boris' Casual Lies | Celtic's Own Goal | Greta Thunberg marches on


Bear Grylls Finally Does Something Genuinely Dangerous

Finally, after years harmlessly playing the role of a posh, tree-climbing charlatan who quenches a thirst built on making mind-numbingly bland TV by drinking his own piss, Bear Grylls has done something genuinely dangerous and reckless.
 
After the moderate success of his fireside cuddle with the outgoing President Obama, he's decided to have a crack at another major world leader, this time India's strongman Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
 
The show took the form of a wildlife trek through a carefully stage managed segment of Indian countryside during which Grylls lets a man whose political leanings range from deeply reactionary to genocidal - and who is currently presiding over one of the world's most urgent geopolitical crises in Kashmir and on the Pakistan border- perpetuate an image of himself as a peaceful, thoughtful spiritualist. In place of any challenge, Grylls as interviewer can only offer the kind of wince-inducing sycophancy usually reserved for Donald Trump by Piers Morgan.
 
It's a propaganda exercise that would make Kim Jong Un blush (from embarrassment as well as gout) and if there's any justice, it would be career suicide from a man whose attempts to make bland travelogues look rife with jeopardy has led him to take part in an exercise which could literally precipitate world war III.
 
And he'll probably get away with it: expect unapologetic references to the sections of positive response the show is receiving in India in questions about the morality of taking part in such a stunt. In a saner age it would be a PR kamikaze mission: Grylls has show himself to be either incredibly stupid, morally bankrupt, insanely right-wing, or all three but given the current state of society, we wouldn't be surprised if the only consequence of this carbuncle is that Bear's old schoolmate Boris ends up making him foreign secretary.


Johnson in Number 10: A Proper Gander

Speaking of Boris...It’s a trait specific to weak people, and weak political leaders, not to be able to stand by, or take responsibility for decisions made problematic by the passing of time.

From enemy of the people shaped holes appearing in photos of Stalin, to the denial of laying of wreaths on terrorist memorials, it’s been a failing for generations of narcissists to be unable to stand by what they once did. The technology has changed, but the cheap habit remains. When it comes to reaping what was sown – just lie. When faced with the prospect of lying in the bed you made – just deny. It’s weak, but the more private the gaffe and the longer ago it was – the easier it is to slip into this temptation.

It takes an unbelievable level of weakness, narcissism and disregard for the intelligence of the UK electorate to sink to where de Pfeffel Johnson currently skulks. His team have released an election style video that quietly edits his opening speech on the steps of Downing Street to skip over his pledge to get more money into the NHS. It’s staggeringly cynical.

This is a Prime Minister with the winds of change at his back, soaring up the pollsenjoying an absent opposition. If this is how he casually toys with the truth when the sun is shining – what will he resort to when he inevitably hits real turbulence?


Hiring PR Firm Was Celtic's Own Goal

This week SNP MP James Dornan condemned Celtic Boys Club, a feeder club for Celtic FC, for hiring Hollicom, a Glasgow-based PR agency, for reputation management services, instead of compensating victims of sexual abuse at the club.

Keen to position himself as the heir to Nicola Sturgeon’s throne in Scotland, Dornan was quick to condemn CBC for prioritising “spin and public relations” over “putting things right”. Hollicom have since locked their Twitter account. Unexpectedly finding themselves the centre of attention, they have shut down. How the story was leaked is unclear, but Hollicom appears to have broken the golden rule of crisis management PR – never let yourself become the story.


The PR industry is viewed very negatively by most of the population, and the hiring of an agency allows all sorts of characters to make hay out of an issue that Hollicom had sought to control. When the crisis manager becomes the crisis, that is very bad news indeed.


Abuse of Greta Thunberg is awful but shows that she's winning

It’s not often that a pigtailed 17-year-old girl finds herself at the centre of the media circus. This week all eyes, ears and poisonous keyboards were trained on Greta Thunberg as she set off from Plymouth harbour to New York City, continuing her zero-carbon journey to the United Nations HQ.

She is greatly admired by her fans, but equally hated by her critics. Arron Banks, the nation’s pre-eminent merchant of myopic Little-England nastiness, implied that he was hoping for her death in a “freak yachting accident” as she crossed the Atlantic, in a widely condemned tweet.

Banks’ tweet highlighted an important fact – Thunberg is an extremely effective messenger. Everyone knows exactly what she stands for. Banks meanwhile has had his hard-Brexit-poster-boy brand stolen by a changing Conservative Party, not least its new leader. What does he stand for now?

The true reason Banks and his oeuvre hate Greta Thunberg is simple. She knows her story, and how to tell it well. That’s something the ‘bad boy of Brexit’ seems to have forgotten how to do.


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Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Edinburgh Fringe | Facebook | Guardian | Barely any Feral Hogs


Borkowski Weekly Media Trends

It's a week that started with 30-50 Feral Hogs becoming a symbol for the carnivalesque absurdity that is the USA's refusal to tackle its gun problem, and also featured an American proto-influencer cementing her celebrity status forbeing really good at eating crab, but we've also seen the world's largest arts festival stalling for media momentum, and a couple of developments that may offer rays of light to the newspaper industry...but with strings attached.


Postcard from Edinburgh: Fringe needs a fire lit under it

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival, is a third of the way through and, after a start filled with the usual optimism but tinged with concerns surrounding rising prices of producing work (and even just existing in Edinburgh during August), as well as a renewed drive to tackle the environmental impact of 3,800 shows, the whole thing seems to have reached the point of inertia.
 
Speaking of the environment, Mother Nature is the most powerful force governing Fringe ticket sales and since ‘Black Wednesday’ the weather has been sufficiently stinking to cast a shadow over the rest of the week. The city is mobbed, but the usual Fringe masses are huddled in cafes and bars while theatres remain emptier than they should. Something is getting lost in communication.
 
Thus, the rain doesn’t totally drown out the murmurs of deeper issues, and that’s where the festival’s relationship with the media comes in. Firstly, imaginative, dynamic stories are at a premium: three of the most prominent news reporters and diarists who cover the Fringe have all lamented over the past week that they’re being starved of anything with real flavour, and are instead reporting the above sociopolitcal issues more widely than anything about what’s happening on stage.
 
Our founder Mark Borkowski wrote about the need to create captivating narratives to cut through the noise of such bulk of shows and, as we witness the impact of the lack of agenda-setting stunts and campaigns, combined with a continuing trend of international and even national media outlets turning their backs on the festivals, he makes a salient point if this Fringe is to recover its early mojo.
 
In terms of raising media profile the current situation leaves reviews and recommendations, and given that the former are, on average, some of the harshest we’ve ever known, there’s a real need for the Fringe’s creatives and noisemakers to generate that crucial spark through other, more imaginative alleyways.


Why is Facebook making nice with the traditional media?

Everyone knows that Facebook has crippled the newspaper industry, but recently there have been hints of a change in their relationship. Historically, Facebook has published newspaper content for free, and then hoovered up the ad revenue generated by the readers. Newspapers can’t resist, as they rely on heavily on the readers accessing them through Facebook. It’s a good example of why unregulated monopolies are dangerous and difficult to change without regulation.

 
So, the news that Facebook are reportedly offering millions of dollars for the right to publish their work is very interesting. What’s the incentive? What is the reality beneath the vague soundbite promising ‘more high-quality news’ and a ‘business model and ecosystem to support it’?
 
Is it merely yet another cynical nod to doing the right thing (the likes of which have been rampant since a certain Mr Clegg took over Facebook’s communications operation)? Is in anticipation of some future legislation, legal battle or wave of the invisible regulatory hand? Or perhaps it’s even more pernicious than that; Facebook realise that their popularity is going to take a beating through the Presidential run, and want to ensure that they are locked into mutually beneficial contracts with major US media companies in the hope that that will inoculate them from the worst of the damage? An interesting, yet unlikely, theory. Time will tell.


Guardian's breakeven is a lesson to other 'quality' newspapers

Guardian Media Group, The Guardian’s parent company, has reported that it broke even last year, recording a pre-tax profit of £31m for the 2018-19 financial year.

How did this happen? One key reason is that a successful transition to a more digital-led model.

Unlike other major publications, GMG only relies on print advertising for 8% of its income, making it less vulnerable to the industry-wide decline in circulation. More interestingly however, is the increased contribution being made by readers, especially through Guardian US and Guardian Australia.

This is the Trump effect. As demagogues of many stripes unleash bitter attacks on certain media outlets, readers are far more inclined to buy and read those publications.

After Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of the New York Times, won the 2016 election, the New York Times sold 132,000 digital subscriptions – ten times the usual rate. As Boris Johnson exerts his grip on 10 Downing Street, that effect doesn’t seem to be going away.

This is a lesson for both newspapers and the wider media industry. If publications like The Guardian can turn political chaos and attacks on the press into enthusiasm for prestige news, they stand to gain a great deal from the new politics.


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