26 April 2022: Regal riches; Squalid soccer; Over-active anchovies; Twitter & free speech; & Other stuff.

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza

So . . . King Felipe has a personal fortune of €2.6m. The monarch made public his personal assets and finances for the first time as part of attempts to make the royal family more transparent. He accumulated his wealth mainly from annual stipends paid to him by his father since 1998 and, later, as king. En passant . . . Felipe’s wealth is dwarfed by the Queen’s, which was calculated as £365 million. I don’t suppose either of them pays rent or has a mortgage.

Following the latest scandal around the transfer of the final of a Spanish competition to Saudi Arabia[sic], the question arises of whether the football world is even more corrupt that that of the Olympics. I can’t pretend to be up on all the details but the outstanding one is that a very famous Spanish player was involved in negotiating a commission of €24m around this ludicrous deal. Another detail is that it will benefit Real Madrid and Barcelona far more than any other club. 

Galicia has a new president, replacing the PP politico, Alberto Feijoo, who’s become leader of the national party and moved to Madrid. I confess I’ve never heard of the new chap and I wonder how many people have, even just here in Galicia.

Talking of this region . . . It’s again been moved on the map. This time to the North East, in this article on wildly fornicating anchovies in our nearby ría(estuary/bay).

The Way of the World

Twitter and free speech: 

1. From this article: In the digital age, the ‘right side of history’ no longer wants to have free information, but to curate the right message. it’s easy to see why Twitter is being so zealously defended against the threat of Musk-imposed free speech absolutism. It’s home turf for this elite, a fact that gives the platform outsize influence, despite its relatively low membership compared with (say) Facebook. And by dint of its concentration of elite tastemakers, it is a key terrain where consensus takes shape on the political issues of the day. And this consensus-making machine really doesn’t want to be at the mercy of Elon Musk. But this isn’t because he might imperil free speech. Rather, the first problem is that he might enable it, making Twitter less capable of expelling ideological interlopers and propagating a clear moral consensus. So the deeper battle over Twitter isn’t about free speech at all. That ship has long since sailed. Rather, it’s a fight for control of a key crucible of political consensus-formation, between those who prefer power to be vested in named individuals, and those who prefer to be ruled by self-organising swarm. The artist formerly known as democracy: now an aggregate of pre- or supra-political institutions so averse to individual human authority it would rather see us ruled by a Twitter consensus, or by a hedge fund. Or, maybe, the most elegant solution of all: by an algorithm.

2. Few would argue that the social media platform is not in need of new ideas. Yet it’s unclear how Musk’s promise to promote what he describes as free speech would help. Many experts think one of Twitter’s major problems is that it has become infested with bots and trolls. Musk’s crusade risks allowing them to proliferate, which would damage the Twitter brand even further. He says he doesn’t “care about the economics”, which is probably a good thing because at $44bn, his takeover risks being the most expensive political point ever made.

Social Media/Quote of the Day 

Social media has turbocharged our worst instincts to rubberneck. From the Colosseum to Depp v Heard, we have always been voyeurs, and tech is making it worse.


A townster: The name of a new car from Nissan

Finally . . . 

To amuse . . .  

For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.


Social media has turbocharged our worst instincts to rubberneck. From the Colosseum to Depp v Heard, we have always been voyeurs, and tech is making it worse: Matthew Syed, The Times

I noticed a story last week proclaiming that the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard had “captivated America”. The dispute involves two famous but traumatised people arguing about who was to blame in a dysfunctional and violent marriage. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million, but is being countersued for $100 million. Some people are said to have watched the entire trial on YouTube, presumably while eating popcorn and cheering for their preferred protagonist. One newspaper called it the “ultimate Hollywood sequel”.

In some ways, the popular infatuation with this terribly sad human story is scarcely news. We have become a voyeuristic species, endlessly scrutinising each other on social media, plugged into celebrity culture, rubbernecking at reality TV, our children indoctrinated into this consciousness-altering reality as they innocently surf their iPads. At Easter Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a sermon decrying a loss of “compassion” in the West. I think he has misidentified the culprit: our problem is the way individualism has, through the distorting influence of technology, morphed into narcissism.

The early signs were, in their way, disturbing. Jeremy Kyle invited working-class people on to his show to humiliate them in pursuit of viewing figures; programmes like I’m a Celebrity offered lucrative sums to celebrities to degrade themselves while being subjected to crude popularity polls. We looked on as the Big Brother celebrity Jade Goody lived her life in what some regarded as a morality tale of exploitation — although it was never clear whether she was victim or perpetrator. The only thing that was indisputable is that the “hook” was human misery, edited and confected into entertainment.

I don’t want to appear pious about this, by the way. Rubbernecking has a long history, a point made by Socrates in Republic. He relates the story of man called Leontius, who “coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, he observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”

We are perhaps all familiar with the popularity of the Colosseum in ancient Rome, the “high entertainment” of the stocks in medieval England, the way that crowds jostled to get a good view when Louis XVI was executed in the 18th century (they also dipped handkerchiefs in his spurting blood). The German notion of schadenfreude relates to the pleasure gained from the misfortune of others, a concept with corollaries in the high culture of the Greeks, Persians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Babylonians. We have never been above taking vicarious pleasure in suffering, hence the enduring popularity of misery memoirs and tabloid exposés.

Today, though, I fear we are seeing a new, more dangerous phase in this history, with sophisticated algorithms gamifying human suffering as a route to shareholder value. Take cancel culture, which might superficially be thought of as a way of demonising enemies or ideological opponents. In truth, the astonishing popularity of this phenomenon can only be understood as a kind of digitised bear-baiting. We watch as a new hashtag goes viral, each successive retweet taking the quarry closer to reputational evisceration. Ooh, the excitement! Concepts like due process and the presumption of innocence, central struts of the western moral order, seem almost quaint amid these online conflagrations.

Underpinning all this, of course, is what the psychologist Jean Twenge has called the “narcissism epidemic”. We have become the centre of our own universes, celebrities starring in the biopics of our own lives. Equipped with a smartphone, anyone can upload selfies and other navel-gazing ephemera in search of digital validation. One philosopher has noted that vanity and voyeurism are feeding off each other: the point is that the desire to peer at the misery of others is exceeded only by the desire to share one’s own. Tell-all accounts of suffering are now considered the highest form of therapy; it’s as if Big Brother has come into our lives not via totalitarianism but invitation.

Twenge doesn’t suggest that millions of people are becoming narcissistic in terms of a clinically defined personality disorder, by the way; rather she notes the broader cultural change taking place beneath the radar of awareness. One symptom is the way the verb “to share” has undergone transmogrification. Twenty years ago it was an “other- directed” concept related to giving a portion of something to someone else. Today, it is “inner-directed” or, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, “talking about one’s own thoughts, feelings or experiences”.

And this brings us back to Depp v Heard, which combines many of these ingredients in a toxic cocktail. I don’t wish to denigrate the trial or minimise the seriousness of the allegations of wife-beating on the one hand and husband-beating on the other. But I do think there is something tragic about the case and the way it denotes a key trend in western culture. I can’t be alone in experiencing foreboding as I see data revealing the cruelty of online interaction (the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has found a strong correlation between Instagram use and depression among teenage girls). It is as if something metaphysical is happening to our consciousness and moral psychology.

I don’t have a solution but I do at least wish to suggest a pathway towards one. Having read a number of books on tech regulation, I have been struck by how they each look at the problem through a singular lens. Economists focus on consumer welfare, tech experts on platform externalities, politicians on securing tax revenue, pundits on protecting free speech. I would suggest this is a problem that requires multiple lenses, perhaps a Royal Commission, drawing upon the wisdom of historians, anthropologists and philosophers as well as citizens, old and young.

It goes without saying that the social media giants have mastered the art of soft power, placing former politicians like Nick Clegg and Helle Thorning-Schmidt on the payroll as they insinuate that they do nothing more than “connect people” and “give a voice to the powerless”. Elon Musk, seeking to buy Twitter, was perhaps a little closer to the mark when he described the platform as “a clown show crashing into a goldmine”. What seems certain is that western democracies have ducked confrontation with the cancer of social media for far too long. We cannot afford to wait much longer.