500 years of Fleet Street: a good start

If as a thought experiment we accepted the generally proffered age of humanity as 200,000 and the average age of generational turnover over the centuries as working out around 20, then arithmetic suggests that we can work our way up either parental line through 10,000 grannies to get to The First Grannie. Imagine then a team of scientists – necessarily for this thought experiment drawn from an extra-terrestrial civilisation – taking our First Grannie into their lab to determine what sort of civilisation might evolve from this person over 2,000 succeeding centuries by the year, say, 2021?

Is the only question to concern them what that distant ancestor might be capable of doing, or would it be equally important to consider what that person might be most disposed to do?

Any review of the development of the English language over the last millennium is considering a mere sliver of time against the wider sweep of humanity’s history. The 500 years of furious activity on the printing presses of Fleet Street have seen the transformation not only of the English language but of what our species knows of itself and the world it inhabits – all this achieved in less than 0.25% of the time that we’ve been at it. This fact alone should encourage humility in making claims about what Artificial Intelligence could achieve, and possibly in less time that it took us to get to where we are today.

And yet for all that progress in evolving our knowledge and capabilities, it may be that the disposition of our species remains comparatively unchanged. Housman’s Shropshire Lad pretty much nailed it, on Wenlock Edge:

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.”

The challenges faced by the Romans may have been similar to those addressed by the 19th century poet, and not far removed from those addressed by our ancient grannie. But the puzzle for her, for the Roman, the poet, and for us, awaits the AI when it comes in its turn to the prospect on Wenlock Edge: how do we still the wind? We have learned the hard way that it’s not just what you know, as the AI will discover.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro made an important point at the FT’s recently concluded FT Weekend Digital Festival, distinguishing between understanding and empathy when considering the question: could AI write a great novel? AI is much closer to developing and exceeding human-level understanding but is still some way off in the empathy stakes. If and when human-level empathy itself is exceeded, humanity’s worry will be much less about AI writing plays and novels, and far more about its crafting laws and constitutions.

Curating the very process of curation

Two weeks ago, this blog posed a question about what museums could be for, responding to a book review in The Financial Times that surveyed the landscape of museums across the world. It took as a given that whatever else will define the museum of the future, it will be a building occupying a space to which visitors will still go. While the blog concluded with another question as to whether the technologies of Virtual Reality might “rescue museums from their contentious literalisms”, perhaps the blog did not go far enough. Maybe it should have worked a little harder.

Over the fortnight that ensued, the culture media has been more than usually alert to stories that may not presage trends but certainly are shots across the bows of the global community of curators who may be thinking that, post-pandemic, they are going to “Build Back Better”. Rendered dozy by the alliterative allure of travelling backwards to some imagined Good Old Days, this complacent class of curators wants to be careful that the future does not steal their lunch.

Three stories over the last three days provide a strong indication of how museums are already evolving and will continue to evolve: how indeed the very definition of curation is rapidly moving beyond responsible maintenance to a more ethical and empathetic promotion across a far wider curatorial hinterland. Museums will acknowledge their role as global citizens in a wider world, respecting the provenance of their artefacts and engaging with their audiences in ways that are more diverse, inclusive, and imaginative.

“Universal display” is an interesting concept arising from the first of two pieces in Artnet News, describing how Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is working with Nigeria to balance the continuing appetites for display with the moral imperative of the restitution of the Benin Bronzes. Whatever new arrangements arise from what may prove to be a tsunami of negotiations between the Museum World and the “developing world”, it can be fairly imagined that the museums that move sooner and more imaginatively may fare better.

A different sort of threat is contained within another story in Artnet News, just a day older: Is the growing buzz around “non-fungible tokens” threatening the Museum World with a digital art heist of unimaginable proportions? Or is what the self-described “Global Art Museum” cheekily labels a “social experiment” just another curve that the global curator class needs to move smartly to get ahead of?

Most heartening for followers of the English cultural scene post-pandemic is an inspirational profile in this past weekend’s Observer newspaper of Gus Casely-Hayford, the appointed curator of the new V&A East – the East London offshoot of the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. Still aquiver with excitement at having recently seen the concrete being poured ahead of the opening that’s still two years off, Casely-Hayford is clearly a curator for the 21st century, aiming “to transform the visitor experience with digital technology, to address colonialism – and to bring in young people.” Thus, curator less as custodian, more as champion.

Salisbury Square is ready for the next big step

Of all the reasons for locating the new Justice Quarter in Fleet Street, character comes out top.

An ambitious construction scheme for the Fleet Street area seemed to have survived its second phase of consultation and, as the new year turned, was on course to deliver a significant new block of buildings on the south side of Fleet Street between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Court. A new “Justice Quarter” would create a suite of 18 new law courts with an intended focus upon financial crime, as well as providing a new police headquarters for the City of London.

Then came the spanner, in the shape of objections lodged by the national heritage body Historic England, who were reported in the media as variously “slamming” and “blasting” the plans for the £240 million-pound development. Their objection was that it would cause serious harm to “one of the most characterful parts of historic London”. Neither the scheme itself nor the objections to it have been widely reported: the alleged damage being anticipated is cited in The Architects Journal.

If by “character” we mean charming and evocative of tourist London in its aulde finery, then these objections are understandable, at least to a point. Between them, the Fire of London and the wartime air raids burned and bombed their way well beyond that point, and even the highest admirers of the Old Stones of Fleet Street would agree that the City of London has more characterful corners to show for its two millennia of history.

But there is another sense of the word character that applies more accurately to the City of London generally over those two thousand years and, in the more recent past – a mere 800 years – to Fleet Street in particular. The attribution of character to the behaviour of people who are resourceful, resolute, and resilient is higher praise than can be excited by a pile of masonry, however charming.

In this light it may be possible to see the proposed development around Salisbury Square as a more positive reflection of the accomplishments of the legal profession over those eight centuries. Not only were the Inns of Court instrumental in shaping the legal framework of so much of the English-speaking world, but the audience of readers among those many thousands of lawyers inspired the hundreds of printing presses that powered the Enlightenment and transformed the English language.

Today, in a post-Brexit, emergent post-Covid world, it is proposed that a new Justice Quarter be sited in the historical legal precincts of Fleet Street. This comes at a time when the country is looking anew at promoting its ideals and culture in a world that is itself contemplating significant and systemic changes. Just as Fleet Street recovered with unmatched vision and energy in the aftermath of the decade of plague and fire in the 1660s, so will the coming years require innovation and resilience in equal portion – and no half-measures.

If the City of London seeks to create a new Justice Quarter on a foundation of character, it has come to the right place in Salisbury Square.

What could museums be for

Too much of the commentary on the purpose of museums is one-dimensional, prosaic, and entirely uninspired by what excites the human imagination.

Controversy has been swirling recently over what we now think of as identity politics: how do we define ourselves in terms of what we think about other people, and how we act towards them? And how do we memorialise the evolving present of our lives as it slips behind us in the rear-view mirror and disappears into the past? What statues do we erect? What do we display in our museums? Aside from whatever we might do or say as individuals, what do we establish and maintain as totems of our collective will? What speaks for the community of “us”, as opposed to the foibles or fears of any single one of us?

Amidst all the well-intentioned circumspection as well as the more illiterate virtue signalling, an article appeared last week in the Financial Times, reviewing a quartet of recently published books examining what it is that museums do, as well as how and for whom they do it. It is an enlightening read and at least one of the books is a strong candidate for “drop everything and buy it” status. Unlike the other three more obviously didactic and polemical books, “The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues” is a wide-ranging series of interviews with a community of museum directors from 14 countries around the world.

Writing in The Art Newspaper, the curator of these interviews, New York-based Andras Szanto identifies six key ways in which the world of museums might innovate in addressing the post-Covid world. All six adaptations are thoughtful, sensible, and are variously directed at a future of greater accessibility, a keener community orientation, and a more discerning sensitivity to the messages conveyed by the objects they curate.

One point in particular advocates that museum spaces and resident technologies should be made more accessible and entertaining for everyone. Broadly underpinning all of these assumptions about why the modern museum actually exists is the idea that all guesses at the future of the museum accept the physical space that it inhabits – the pile of bricks that it is – as an enduring given.

But technologies that prove to be the most transformative over time tend thrillingly to exceed, rather than simply enhance, the enduring givens of everyday life. The printing presses of Fleet Street are one of the best examples of this that English history has to show. It wasn’t just its colossal impact following its appearance at the end of the 15th century. Its advances over succeeding centuries pulled the rest of the economy along with it, lifting London clear of the disasters that struck in the 1660s, powering the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and ensuring that there was only going to be one place where English journalism was going to establish itself in the 19th century.

Whatever might be done to brighten the experience of their visitors, tomorrow’s museums will not wholly address today’s challenges if they don’t solve the problem of place: where they actually are In Real Life. Virtual Reality could be the device that rescues museums from their contentious literalisms, elevating them to their proper and more enduring place in the human imagination.

Step away from the technology

Too much focus on the gizmos distracts from the simple truth that the market for Virtual Reality lies in the market, not in the technology

Every time there’s a big new thing in the world of consumer technology, the initial breathlessness is invariably followed by a long sigh of disillusion before a more sensible middle ground is achieved. Some shiny new toys may lose the shine to some extent but become well established in the consumer mind anyway – often for reasons that are some way from their initial conceptions. Desktop publishing and digital printing, artificial intelligence, and the “worldwide web” promised to redefine “the way we live now” as we moved into the 21st century. Then came the long shrug of mehhh, and now we see the promise rekindled beyond the dreams of a generation ago.

Either side of this middle ground are the initially hyped devices that die a death and (so far) have stayed dead – Google Glass and 3D movies come to mind; and at the other end the devices that start out popular and just get better – mobile phones, for example, and personal computers (this last maybe turbo-charged particularly when Steve Jobs got hold of them).

In none of these examples is the innovative cleverness in any new technology sufficient to overcome negative or even absent market sentiment. Where people cannot see the value, or even the point, beyond the sheer novelty of the gizmo, the inventor usually collides with the implacable rules of the market: change yourself or change the product, but don’t think you are going to change the market.

Usually. Usually, the inventors can collect their pensions before the market changes to oblige them.

It does happen, however. No better an example exists in today’s market, with the endgame now playing out on the worst pandemic of the past century, than with the technologies associated with Virtual and Augmented Reality. These have been around for a while, with small armies of funsters groping their way through forests of threats and wonders in their headsets and prosthetic gloves. Yet before the pandemic, there were more industry commentators ready to see this particular industry going the way of Google Glass than were anointing Virtual Reality as the Big New Thing.

So what has changed? This: the pandemic is threatening several long-established industries associated with tourism – primarily those engaged in long-haul, global travel. Airline and cruise companies are lining up for compensation relief as if there were a Normal Life to which they could return with the alacrity of any other businesses for which life and commerce have been put on temporary hold. They will come back to an extent, but their Good Old Days are gone.

What Virtual Reality is offering, with technology that is well advanced since the early days of Oculus headsets, is a rapidly improving quality of experience. What are key are significant compensations for not actually being in a place: no travel hassle and less danger, diminished environmental impact, and the allure of travelling not only across landscapes, but across time.