Joining things up

Sometimes, it seems like we’ve not yet worked out how to talk about the Internet.

One example is the idea that “social media” is a somehow separate entity, removed from normality and happening inside our phones, but for lots of us, it’s a normal part of everyday life.The Internet can be brilliant at connecting people who might, in the real world, be both close and very far away from one another. (For instance, this community Go Fund Me page to support the family of a woman and child killed in a hit and run accident.)  

The author of this article in The Guardian, which tries to give an even-handed view of how social media can help and hinder maternal mental health, makes the classic mistake of forgetting that lots of people behave roughly the same online as they do in real life. If the words “social media” were replaced throughout the article with examples of things that happen in the real world, the message would be roughly the same.

For instance,

“What role does social media play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

works equally well if you recast it as:

“What role do Boden catalogues play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

“What role do parents with close social ties in their community play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

“What role do baby yoga classes/all parenting books ever/unhelpful articles in The Guardian play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

People who look like they’ve worked it all out and are having a brilliant time can be found as often in the café at the end of your road or your local playground as on “social media”. And looking like you’re having a brilliant time isn’t the same as actually having a brilliant time. So rather than creating false partitions between our online and offline lives, we could talk about people supporting each other and joining useful communities, how people can be empowered by being connected to one another, how feeling unsure and as if everyone else has worked it all out is a natural part of a new and frightening life stage.

What’s the new community infrastructure if local churches and coffee mornings and playgroups aren’t available to the people who need them most, but Facebook groups and impromptu meet-ups are? One way to understand this is to use language that represents our lived experience – the WhatsApp post that’s read while waiting to cross the road, the advice asked at 2am when there’s no one to call, the happiness of seeing a geographically distant friend or loved one pop-up on Instagram – and think about building bridges rather than setting things apart.


Cats and Curiosity

This is a slightly edited version of the words that I meant to say at Playful last Friday. It’s about what we may or may not learn from activity tracking and the “quantified self”, told through the medium of cats and jazz flute. 

Cats and Curiosity

I’m going to talk about two small diary projects of mine. One is a bunch of photographs I’ve taken of my cats, and the other is a notebook in which I noted music I listened to while I travelled to work. The reason for both of these projects is that I wanted to understand whether I could start to spot patterns and trends in the more ambient parts of my life. Rather than just tracking what happened when I put one foot in front of the other with a FitBit, I wanted to know if I could learn anything from the seemingly more random layers of data.

In particular, the two questions I had in mind were:

  • Is the place my cats sit every day anything to do with the weather?
  • And how can I listen to more music?

I’m going to start by telling you a bit more about my cats.

Shirley and Dolly are sisters.

Two black and white cats looking a bit silly.

They’re named after two folk singer sisters…

Folk singers Shirley and Dolly Collins

… are about nine years old and, as cats go, they’re pretty unexceptional.

cats plotting murders

The other important headline is that – like lots of cats – they are creatures of habit.

When I was on maternity leave last year, I was at home during the day a lot more than usual, and I noticed they had a tendency to sit in almost the same place for most of the time. Ordinarily, this kind of observation might be the sort of thing you dwell on for a moment, before moving on to other, more challenging matters – but in the immediate period after having a baby, things can be a bit deranging. I wasn’t getting out a lot or having a great deal of sleep. And it’s fair to say that, other than looking after my child, my main areas of productivity were:

  • watching every single episode of House, in order, to the extent that I almost wondered for a little while if that would qualify me to be a doctor
  • and, wondering if the arrangements of where my cats sat would be a useful way of forecasting the weather.

Now cats’ fondness for routine is fairly well established, and is a reassuringly consistent presence in our news media. One of my favourite cat routine tales is the story of Sgt Podge, who pops out for his morning constitutional every day and – through who knows what cunning – has somehow trained his owner to drive 1.4 miles to a golf course every morning to collect him. You can see Podge below, supervising some human driving, before – as this piece of BBC journalism importantly points out – he goes home for breakfast and a sleep. But most importantly, Podge has made it clear to everyone that it’s not his fault. It’s the fault of the woman who used to give him sardines, who is now forcing him to walk to the golf course every morning. Just in case.

Podge gets a lift

My cats’ routine is obviously a little bit less dramatic than that. For a start, no transport is involved. But don’t let that put you off.

At this particular time, I noticed my cats’ spot of choice happened to be on the back of the sofa, which has the advantage of being both next to a window (for sun) and a radiator (for heat) – but what I started to notice was that the exact arrangement of how they sat was liable to change.

Cats sitting down

Sometimes Shirley sat on the left, sometimes Dolly. Sometimes they were symmetrical, other times not.

More cats sitting down

Having watched 7611 minutes of House, I felt I was practically a scientist now, so I started to wonder whether it was possible that the place my cats sat might have something to do with the weather. And I did what all good scientists do. I started a Tumblr. And this is more or less what I observed:


Shirley has a mild preference for the left side of the sofa

There appears to be no correlation between where my cats sit and the weather

They just like a bit of variety

In spite of this being a largely fruitless exercise, it did make me think a bit more about why we track so many different things, and I started to wonder what exactly it is we’re trying to understand when we quantify ourselves.

Human beings have long been preoccupied by the idea of self-knowledge. Understanding and rationalizing our conscious existence has not only given rise to religions but to centuries of philosophical debate. And it feels as though – currently – the deeply empiricist nature of tracking everything might lead us to the same fairly bleak sense of self that the 18th Century philosopher David Hume outlines here:

I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may be truly said not to exist

David Hume, “Treatise”, Part 6, Of Personal Identity

The key part being –

When my perceptions are remov’d for any time Imay truly be said not to exist.

Which could be interpreted to mean, roughly, I track therefore I am. But it seems likely – or at least, desirable, that there is more to life than this. And a part of me definitely remembers a time – before I had a smartphone – when I used to gaze out of the window more, aimlessly wondering about stuff.

Currently, our health, wealth and energy consumption are becoming so easy to comprehend that they have a tangible, and addictive, sense of both progress and failure. I work in an agency, so I add my working hours to a timesheet everyday. My phone tracks my every move, I have a FitBit and a savings goal on my bank account, and all sorts of reminders that my online supermarket sends me knows how much I drink and reminds me when I need to buy more gin. I can see at a glance the books I’ve downloaded and read and find a record of the music I’ve played. One outcome of this, is that it’s suddenly quite easy to set all sorts of goals that we don’t really need. For example, a man recently cycled 301 km to draw a picture of a bike on Google Maps.

This goal and activity gives rise to another question about our personhood, which to borrow the words of philosopher Eric Olson is broadly:

What have people got that non-people haven’t?

And how can we start to convey the sorts of things that people have through the data we collect and share about ourselves? What about the secret signals that we forget to send when everything is automated?

Which brings me, albeit very briefly, to OkCupid. OkCupid is full of words that people think make them look attractive to other people.

I’m currently reading the book by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OkCupid. One of the strangest things in it – and there are a few – is a bunch of tables that itemise the words people from different genders and races are least likely to use in their profiles. Of all the data points at which Rudder could have subdivided people – age, location, employment status – he’s chosen one of the most sensitive and offensive, in order – I guess – to make a point about stereotypes. And I’ve pulled out the ones here that are, apparently, most relevant to me.


But actually this list does something more complicated than that: it’s a list of the things that people think the people they want to attract don’t find attractive, aggregated into race and gender groups. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty complicated social artefact. It’s like an infinity mirror of preference.

Now OkCupid is probably closer to identifying the intangible qualities of human attraction than many other dating services just because it asks so many questions. But in reality, human attraction is about more than actualising a bunch of specific preferences and prejudices that we might have – or crafting our own image so that it meets the supposed criteria for people we think we want to attract.

Western love and marriage has had a relatively brief period of informality, less than 100 years in which we’ve been untrammeled by social norms and expectations. But there’s an extent to which services like OkCupid are bringing a new kind of formality: by matching people so exactly based on type and stated preference, these services will end up creating new norms and expectations about who people like you are supposed to find attractive – perhaps ultimately changing who you do find attractive, and the signals that you chose to send to them and to the word at large.

If we go back to “What have people got that non-people haven’t got?” it seems possible that non-people could have quite a lot of the same attributes as the people described in OkCupid profiles.


And what is our ability to get what we want all of the time doing to our sensibilities as humans? What resources do we need when everything that we want is available to us all of the time?

It seems to me that the ability to take short cuts and clear paths to the things that we think we want is most likely to change and challenge is our curiosity.

I can see this in how iPlayer has changed the way I listen to Radio 4. One of the most delightful things about speech radio is the way it’s possible to zone out for a little while and then, suddenly, start listening again. But now I can choose exactly what to listen to, I very rarely just turn the radio on – instead I might spend several minutes looking for something that meets my exact requirements, rather than allowing myself the opportunity to idly listen and discover. And because I’m so used to getting what I want, when I can’t do that there, I go somewhere else. I’m so used to following my own desire paths now that I don’t have the patience to discover something more unexpected that might be hiding down a different route.

Which brings me to my other small project, about listening to music on headphones.

Andreas Pavel invented the first version of the personal stereo just over 40 years ago. He called it the Stereobelt, and it was made up two fairly large cartridges that you strapped around your body on a belt. So it was, quite literally, a stereo on a belt. Pavel realised almost straight away that there was an unexpected side effect of listening to music through headphones, which is that you feel like you’re in a film.

And he had this particular epiphany while standing in St Moritz listening Herbie Mann, play jazz flute – an experience you can try to recreate here by listening to the audio on this YouTube video:

while looking at this picture of St Moritz:

St Moritz

Now I haven’t seen any films that combine jazz flute solos with alpine forests, but I’m assuming Mr Pavel had, because he said,

It was like a dream. It is the pleasure of the music combined with the vision of your environment. You are putting a soundtrack to life so that it becomes like a film.

And while I might not share Pavel’s taste in music, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

But in reality, most of of the time when I listen to music on headphones, the real reason is to block other things out – either the chatter of other commuters, or the many ambient distractions at work. I realised earlier this year that the only time I really properly listen to music with any concentration is when I’m alone, walking down the street – and then I’m probably going somewhere. It’s a fleeting distraction, not a considered appreciation. I can carry 10,000 songs in my pocket but I never have time to really listen to any of them.

One of the things I wanted to do was make my journey to work better. It’s an average of about 43 minutes each way, is one of the few reliable stretches of time that I can definitely call “my own” and is reliably repeatable enough to mostly not have to think about. I get the Victoria Line to King’s Cross, where I change and go one stop to Farringdon, and then I have a short walk. And I do it all again backwards on the way home. It’s the same journey, at almost the same time, 470 times a year.

For a little while, I’d been quite into counting my steps and encouraging myself to run upstairs. And while that was great and everything and will probably mean I won’t die quite so soon, it didn’t necessarily make it a happier journey. But I noticed that paying attention to what I listened to – writing it down with a paper and pen – meant that I generally chose the next morning’s music with greater care, and the more care that went into the choice, the better the journey to work.

The things I wrote down with a paper and pen were:

  • Day
  • Date and time of journey
  • Route
  • What I Listened ToMusic To Travel To notebook

(I made a Google Spreadsheet of everything I listened to in July, hoping I’d find the time to do some fancy visualisation. But I didn’t, so never mind.)

In actual fact, the first three variables made the least difference to the quality of the journey. The thing that made the biggest difference was what I was listening to at these three, fairly unpropitious spots along the way:

These two at King’s Cross – one is the interchange for the Victoria Line, and the other the interchange for the Metropolitan line:

KX Victoria Line interchange


Metropolitan Line interchange KX

And this one walking down towards my office:

Great Sutton Street

And if I happen to be listening to the right kind of song at the right moment when I look up and see one of these views, for some reason I feel a surge of optimism and adrenalin and as if it’s possible that day might turn out be a good one. I don’t know especially what that might mean, other than that mildly open space and a stirring song are all that it takes to make me feel cheerful. But knowing that feels more useful to me than the metrics I get in iTunes or from

From what I can gather, the simple act of listening to music isn’t sufficient to stimulate endorphins or dopamine. Perhaps it’s the combination of the music with the speed I’m walking and the things I can see. Or perhaps it’s a little glimmer of discovery and curiosity about the new day. But I’m pretty sure it’s improved by making a careful choice, and writing it down.

I’ll finish now with another clip of music ­– this one is a song that makes me feel happy when I walk down the street, or make one of those exciting interchanges at King’s Cross. I hope it does the same for you.

I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”

There has been quite a flurry of announcements and papers and policies about “digital culture” in the last ten days.


Taken collectively, these documents indicate a direction of travel for digital arts policy. There’s a palpable enthusiasm for populist arts broadcasting, which stands out amid a more general confusion with the ubiquity of and implications of technology.  A generous analysis is that the emphasis on broadcast and reach is timely when a value-for-money ethos is sweeping through government; a not-so generous one would see the prominence of broadcast as seizing on a known and understandable quantity.

There is also a crisis of vocabulary. Most of these documents are haunted by the idea of broadcast, which becomes reinterpreted as “simulcast”, “live streaming” and “digital distribution”. “Digital” and “technology” become interchangeable, and “data” equates to marketing information about audiences.

This lack of fixed terminology allows non-specific innovation speak to creep in: The Space will be “even more innovative, dynamic and interactive”; in 2.6.1 of the R&D report, the cloud is credited with “improving accuracy” (although the organisation quoted seem to say it’s the data-management tool, rather than the means of storage, that is responsible for the change). Section 2.2 of the same report states “the distinctions between born digital and digital distribution are necessarily imprecise, with the phenomenon of streaming live performances online and into cinemas leading in some cases to new works created specifically for this channel” and the strategic framework promises to “respond to new ways of working, such as creating new digital services, involving communities and assisting digital users” (pp. 55-6). Meanwhile, the PDF of the strategic framework is illustrated by both an infographic and a trailer, but there isn’t a searchable summary, and a whole new bit of jargon – “cultural digerati” – has been coined to describe those organisations who use like to do stuff online.

The emphasis on broadcast is particularly surprising given the evidence of the R&D report: only 15% of the surveyed organisations currently offer live streaming or cinema broadcasts, and there is an obvious bias towards the performing arts. It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896.  Whole new art forms, such as contemporary dance and performance art, have been accepted into the canonical idea of “art” during the same period, yet “things on screens” retain an air of novelty and innovation.

Another recurring theme is the idea that operations and content creation are natural bedfellows. In a physical venue, it would be pretty unlikely that the facilities manager would also be the artistic director, but the lack of nuance in the use of “digital” and “technology” makes it unclear where the responsibility to ensure organisation-wide data-protection compliance ends and creative digital programming begins. And the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Most unusual is that the term “digital distribution” relates to sending filmed content pinging off satellites, rather than to making sure every funded body has a working, maintainable website.

A relatively small amount of the millions spent creating “new kinds of digital art” could be redirected towards useful cost-saving and sustainability measures: perhaps a shared infrastructure to provide reliable, scaleable ticketing systems, non-proprietary CRM and DAMS, or a set of repurposable templates to serve the ten most common use cases. Some policy directives could be introduced: perhaps making all publicly funded software open source would allow a small gallery to reuse the Tate’s codebase, or a commissioning framework that could help arts organisations work productively with small creative businesses.  The intention of this is not to create a new level of bureaucracy, but to share the relatively meagre resources more efficiently, and to create a minimal viable digital arts product – taking inspiration from Government Digital Service to deliver not just financial savings but an exponential increase in the quality of service.

Our funded arts organisations should be equipped with the tools to respond to the modern world. The Tate collections data is available on GitHub and there are 42,000 ebooks on Project Gutenberg, yet the opportunities of networked culture are barely understood. Digital staff shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time a “donate here” button is added to a web site and we shouldn’t assume that every audience member wants to eat popcorn while they watch a former Doctor Who perform Shakespeare. There’s a whole new adventure to be had, and a strong Arts Council digital strategy could help the cultural sector to lead the exploration.

On Going to Conferences

I really like white men who are aged between 35 and 45. In fact, I like them much so that I live with one and number many of them among my best friends. They’re great, some of them are brilliant, visionary practitioners, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m having a downer on them. But – and this may come as a shock to some of you – they aren’t the only people in the world, and they certainly aren’t the only people who work in design or technology.

I know – right?

There are young people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds – all sorts of crazy stuff is going on in work places all over the country and, more shockingly, all around the Old Street area that either doesn’t include or isn’t the sole preserve of this fairly small group of people. And the thing is that everyone knows that except for some people who organise conferences.

Now, I’ve organised quite a few events and I know how easy it is to ask your friends to do stuff. For a start, your friends are your friends because they’re brilliant. They’re your friends because they’re the best people you know. So it seems quite tempting to think, “I’m going to organise an event and just ask my friends, or people like my friends, to speak, because they are all totally awesome and everyone else will think so too.”


Well, no. Not right. Or at least, not for me.

I’ve stopped buying tickets to things that are just talks by long lists of guys with one-syllable names. And that’s a shame, because lots of these guys with one-syllable names are completely brilliant, and I want to hear what they have to say. But I don’t only want to hear what they have to say. Obviously I could deal with this myself by going to a wide range of events, but – frankly – who has the time? I say “hurray for established practitioners who happen to be men, but they aren’t everyone in the world who’s doing interesting stuff, so please can we stop pretending that they are.”

Lots of stuff is changing, and I feel that technology events are, slowly, becoming more equal. Or at least, I feel that people in my bit of Twitter who talk about them are aware of the need for equality – but then, of course, I’m friends with people like me, so they would think that. So it’s quite a shock when I see a brilliant looking conference* that I really want to go to and I scroll down the list of speakers and there they are, one after another, man man man man, and then I think – no. I’m not going to go to that. Obviously sexism is only one part of the equality jigsaw, but it’s the part I’m most interested in and affected by. And one of the reasons I won’t go is because it feels as if the vision of the event as a whole will be limited. Clearly I don’t think that all men in the same age bracket think the same thing (I mean, duh) but it may very well mean that whoever has organised the event hasn’t fished very far outside of their immediate pool, and – in my experience – that will make it, in totality, an ultimately less interesting event.

This post is a knee-jerk reaction to seeing it happen again – and again. I’ve been having this debate for so long now that I actually find it quite boring, and can’t really believe I’m having to say the same things again. And lots of other people are saying them as well.

At Caper, we’re working with some partners to do something longer-term about this, which we’ll be announcing later in the year (and please, get in touch if you’re interested in partnering or funding something in this area), and after Playful last year, Greg Povey started a directory of women speakers that people can add their names to if they’re interested in speaking. But in the meantime, I’m going to continue being baffled and confused by this sort of thing, but – more powerfully, I hope – I’m also going to vote with my money and my attention, and stop attending events that don’t even attempt some level of diversity.

*Updated: I was linking to a specific event, but I’ve taken that out, for the sake of even-handedness, as this applies to a lot of events and singling one out seemed unfair.

I Miss The Guardian Editors

I bought The Guardian yesterday for the first time in months. It was a bit like bumping into an old boyfriend and finding that the years have been unkind: recognisably the same, but thinner, less interesting and still going on about the same things it had been five years ago.

My love affair with The Guardian (which, until then, I had read for nearly 20 years) started to wane about a year ago. First, The Observer became a shadow of itself; then the editor of the “Weekend” magazine appeared to go on extended leave, leaving the magazine to replicate the same edition every week; and slowly the newspaper – particularly the Saturday edition – started to lose substance. And by substance I don’t particularly mean pages: it began to feel as if all of the editors had left the building. As if no one was putting care and attention into choosing what went onto the page; no one was returning articles to columnists that had clearly been dashed off over lunch; and no one was thinking anything more than “will this do?”.

The thing that bought the relationship to a staggering halt was the iPad edition. It seemed to have been designed with no thought to what was good about a newspaper. For a start, there wasn’t a crossword. The category headings were strangely ordered, giving – for me – undue prominence to sections like Obituaries, a section I never seek out but often read, because it appears at the right point; an opportunity to reflect and look backwards after the hurly burly of news and current affairs. It appeared to lose the idea of serendipity that a really good newspaper (like a really good radio station) offers as a matter of course: while I will happily continue turning the pages of a paper to the end and allow a Business article to catch my eye, I will almost never click on a tab marked “Business”. My self-identified interests are narrow, and I want them to be challenged by a good newspaper editor who shows me the things I should care about. And, most sadly of all, it didn’t feel as if there was anything to read, the layout of the pages confirming the sparseness of the content. On the ultimately paginating and scrollable device, it felt as if there was nothing longer than three-or four-hundred words.

I still look at The Guardian homepage most days, but I’m clicking through less and less often. While my requirement for rolling current affairs in one place has been lessened by Twitter, my interest in comment and analysis (the sort of article that is still interesting to read the day or the week or the month after an event) certainly hasn’t. My interest in what I will now lazily call Proper Journalism and Good Editing certainly remains, and it’s lack of a sense of an editor that pervades both the website and the newspaper.

A 5-minute visit to The Guardian site on Friday afternoon – while I was putting off the last email of the day at my desk – allowed me to glance at a whole slew of articles that I found again in the main newspaper on Saturday. A rather charming piece by Zoe Williams about the town with the lowest male:female ratio in Britain (not exactly a time sensitive scoop) was on the homepage at 5pm on Friday afternoon and in the newspaper on Saturday. A little bit of scheduling could have sent the online version live at midnight on Friday; putting it there on the afternoon of the day before felt like an admission that there was nothing much interesting to say, that they needed to fill a gap so were doing it with whatever came to hand. Surrendering to the importance of churn without having anything of substance to churn.

I notice I’m reading more of The New York Times, which still publishes longer articles filled with investigative reporting, comment and debate. The fact that I’m a reasonably avid reader of Twitter means, I think, that headlines pass before my eyes throughout the course of most days: I’m absorbing the ebb and flow of the news cycle without often needing to click through, so I have more time to read proper stuff. I don’t need to spend 30 minutes each day finding out what happened the day before, because the intake of that kind of news has sped up to almost the pace of my heartbeat. So I have a spare 30 minutes to engage in proper analysis, compelling storytelling and long-form discussion.

The sort of thing I would like to read needs good commissioners – the sort of editors who challenge their contributors and look at the ways stories unfold over the time, the sort with the courage to sack their columnists and find someone new, the sort who commission long-form articles for the magazine rather than simply take extracts from books. I have spare attention and want to use it up; I want to be challenged and provoked by big crashing waves, not provided with additional flotsam that I need to push out of the way.

I cannot, as yet, bring myself to spend my money with Murdoch or succumb to The Telegraph, so I don’t read a newspaper at all. A Tory government of the kind we have now should provide an easy heyday for liberal journalism, so I hope The Guardian editors come back. I miss them.

Will Ebooks Ruin My Love Life?

Lots of people have been complaining about “frictionless sharing” lately, those posts added to your Facebook or Twitter stream telling you that someone has read so-and-so, listened to something else or checked in at the end of their road. Posts like this are the equivalent of sharing your implicit personal activity bot, and they are made all the more curious by the actual selection process behind every (allegedly frictionless) share. No one ever checks in to say they’ve been to the toilet or read a particularly shaming bit of gossip in The Daily Mail. We only seem to be casual with the good stuff, the things that shape our reputations and build our approved sense of self.

I’ve travelled on a lot of tube trains this week, and have twice been surprised by the books I’ve seen people reading: the first was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the second was William and Mary, by I can’t remember who, but in the exact same edition that was in my school library. Both readers seemed gripped and delighted, oblivious to the train full of overcoats and commuting armpits, despite neither book seeming likely to be a passport to enthralled escape. Both covers stayed with me, a nice change to the sea of One Day and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Book covers are the ultimate in frictionless sharing, a mixture of the accidental and intentional. After the moment of purchase, it’s as if the cover was made for the people sitting opposite you on the tube to admire, leaving their vapour trails behind them, making a literal post in the activity feed of your life. The choice of what to read, and how to angle the jacket, is created by the same mix of overt and covert intention as allowing Spotify to publish your playlist to Facebook. It’s a very British kind of showing off.

Meanwhile, The Guardian tells us that, “Ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction”. To my knowledge, the easy availability of paper has never made Bend, Sinister a sensation on The Sunday Times bestseller list, so it would be peculiar if difficult literary fiction was made more popular by the existence of Kindles and Nooks. Difficult books provoke difficult thoughts, and people’s willingness to think those is unlikely to be changed by the surface that the words appear on.

But the popularity of genre ebooks might indicate that one-click purchasing is more instinctive, more closely connected to pleasure seeking; less oriented towards our intention to improve or impress and more aware of our need for gratification. A secret read of a Robert Ludlum ebook doesn’t take up any space on your bookshelf or post to your activity feed. It’s traceless, more intimate, intended only for the eyes of its reader.

Who Reads Exhibition Catalogues?

This presents a challenge for high culture, which has long relied on the status inferred from physical souvenirs.

Since we haven’t installed tracking devices in exhibition catalogues or opera DVDs, we don’t know if anyone ever opens them once they get home. We know they buy them – possibly in a moment of well-meaning excitement, as a souvenir or a promise of future intellectual engagement – but we don’t know if they ever sit at home and watch The Ring Cycle on a Tuesday night. A minority will, but the majority will let the DVD linger reassuringly on their shelf while they watch Downton Abbey. It’s either a comfortable reminder of cultural aspirations or an awkward guilt trip, depending on how you’re feeling that day.

If you’re anything like me, then CDs of difficult modern music and hardback editions of The Letters of ee cummings are the kind of purchases you make for the life you wished you had: the one in which you had more time, were less tired and less interested in who was going to win The Great British Bake Off. In the digital world, these tokens are more difficult to negotiate. In fact, any one who has ever bought a Penguin Classics mug (“look! I can even make literary allusions while drinking a cup of tea!”) is a model of this mode: defining and identifying themselves through cultural products, signifying themselves through a range of overtly stated preference.

This system of signs is difficult to recreate in a world of frictionless sharing. It’s the sort of thing MySpace was made for (“here are all the cool bands I say I like, but really I’m listening to Christina Aguilera”) but which has been lost by the specificity of activity posts, and hidden by the anonymity of digital artefacts. So while we can certainly edit out our trips to the toilet and our glimpses of The Daily Mail, we don’t yet have a way of editing in the things we haven’t done or of motivating ourselves to do better. For instance, while you might allow an unread copy of Sorrows of Young Werther to languish prominently on your bookshelf, you would probably (I hope) draw the line at tweeting, “I’m thinking about reading some Goethe at some unspecified time in the future.”

For arts organisations who trade in high culture, doing a brisk(ish) trade in art books and monographs and six-hour opera recordings is a little like trading in dreams. It’s selling things that people might get round to experiencing in the future, but which in all likelihood will stay wrapped up. It seems possible that that market will get smaller as the intention gap starts to close, as the things we want right now are delivered to us with greater immediacy.

Besides making money out of pretension, there’s an opportunity here to create some new souvenirs. Perhaps a Kindle cover with a built-in LED to show the title of the book you’re reading or a Global Hypercolour t-shirt that lists the playlist from your iPod. Rather than filling your activity feed with drab lists of the coffee shops you’ve checked in to, it might be fun to share small, unimportant details ambiently and accidentally with the people in the coffee shop you’re in right now.

Apart from anything else, if everyone’s reading things in secret on their Kindle, it will be a lot more difficult to develop random crushes on strangers. And if we only share what we think are the good bits, then the real good bits – the things might be charming or funny or pompous or all of the above – might get lost in our ruthless self-curation. If no one can tell what you’re reading on the tube, then we may as well let our implicit activity bots take over. So we should remember to leave more accidental clues.

Vanity Fair

I bought Vanity Fair for the first time at the end of last year – primarily as an alternative to killing myself during a four-hour wait at Atlanta airport. At the time, its principal attraction was that it contained some quite long articles, and – frankly – there was only so much time I could spend rereading the copy on my burrito wrapper.

For a reason I can’t explain, that magazine has hung around my house ever since– just in case I find myself procrastinating so intensely that I want to read “When Margaret Thatcher Wore the Pants in England” or wondering just how sassy Matt Damon really thinks Scarlett Johansen is.

But the thing that has slowly hypnotised me is the magazine’s sense of self, which is reified by almost every piece of writing, every picture, every advert. It’s a master-class in inhabiting a brand. The tone, the content, the glossy Annie Liebowitz photography combine to give the feel of an Upper East Side bluestocking, the kind of girl who might jot poetry in her leather Smythson notebook: bright but not sarcastic; stylish but above fashion; a lover of art who goes to see Leonardo di Caprio films; and – above all – the type to take everything very seriously, but who just might be secretly having a laugh.

For starters, it’s called Vanity Fair. The original Vanity Fair, in Pilgrim’s Progress, was a never-ending sale of meaningless tat, where the pilgrims had a really bad time. It’s the sort of name that wouldn’t get past a focus group these days, let alone on to the newsagent’s shelf.

For seconds, its editor is a man called Graydon Carter, whose hairstyle is a homage to 1980s Margaret Thatcher and who writes sentences like, “Christopher [Hitchens] was the beau ideal of the public intellectual.”

For thirds, it covers an unusually broad range of topics: from celebrity galas to the decline of the Murdoch empire, by way of loooong articles about the Kennedys in the Hamptons and interviews with movie stars. And it uses the same tone for all of them. The cover of this month’s edition bears the baffling “LET US NOW QUIZ LEADING MEN” over a picture of George Clooney, Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. It’s like the strapline to a High Church game show – transfixing in its portentous meaninglessness. An article on Lucien Freud describes the subject of a painting as having “vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits” – like art history through the accidental gaze of John Inman.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of the tiny C19th print of the New York Times, or the Harvard graduate I used to work for, who wore a Homburg hat and couldn’t believe English people with degrees watched EastEnders. But in others, you suspect it might just be having some fun.

My whole reason for writing this is because of the following extract from an article about Ladies Who Lunched. It’s set largely before Second Wave feminism sent the lovely hairstyles of the rich and famous off to work, featuring remarkable photos of socialites with names like “Babe” and “Slim” and “Gayfryd”. It ends on an uncertain note, like an episode of The Simpsons that can be interpreted a dozen ways. And I honestly couldn’t tell if the following was serious or satirical, but either way, it made me laugh out loud.

“This past summer in Southampton, Donna Karan had Peggy Siegel round up 50 women … for a lunch. … ‘Today, it’s very rare that ladies just lunch … Ladies lunch for a reason, for a cause.’ … Before we could eat, Karan spoke at length about her mission, which was inspired by her father’s death from lung cancer 10 years ago: ‘I started Urban Zen because I had so many women I was dressing, but I realized what I needed to do was ad-dress them. It wasn’t what we were wearing on our outside but what we were wearing on our inside … We can no longer sit around and have lunches as we used to. Our lunches have to be proactive, and let’s get things done.’

Karan then introduced Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, the yogis who run the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program at Southampton Hospital … As the waiters bought out bowls of burrata mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, Saidman announced, ‘I’ll just lead you through a little bit of meditation. Set both feet on the floor …. And then maybe, for the first time today, actually go inside and realize you are in fact breathing.’

And at the end of the meal, Karan had a small fashion show of Urban Zen’s latest clothing line, which consists mostly of tank dresses, pajama pants, and tunics in shades of brown, olive and gray. She herself was wearing a khaki-coloured stretch-wool dress, gladiator sandals and a huge necklace made of leather tassels and African masks. ‘My fashion philosophy is: If you can’t sleep in it and go out in it, I don’t want to know from it,’ she pronounced.”

It’s like a ray of sunshine from Planet Zoolander: the clink of Karan’s necklace of African masks heard just above the sound of “real breath”, while everyone lolls around in mud-coloured $800 leisure wear, talking about how they “really have to do something”. I also like to think Karan might have said, “Do you see what I did there?” after her dress/address pun, “I’m playing with words.”

But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps there’s no ambiguity and it’s a straight bit of reportage from the frontline of the super-rich. But I don’t think a proposition that ambiguous would survive in the UK, and it certainly wouldn’t be allowed to take itself seriously or address such a range of issues in such a bizarrely antiquated tone.

And I’m not recommending for a moment that anyone else do the same – I mean, there’s already a Vanity Fair – but it’s a great lesson in editorial vision and brand execution, and a reminder that confidence and firm rules of engagement are often the best  license for breaking the rules.