When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security. Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime. Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust. Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea. These arguments are persuasive to some.
But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone. And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed. What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea? What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people? All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade.
Readers of this blog will know how irritated I get with the quality of parliamentary and government papers online. Transcripts and other documentation are frequently uploaded as PDFs, as if the only thing a researcher or campaigner plans to do with the document is print it. The online version of the Houses of Parliament Hansard still retains references to columns and pages, and linking to excerpts of text is a laborious process.
So imagine my delight to see the launch of Say It, a new tool from MySociety. It provides a tool to put transcripts of debates, court cases, and official inquiries online. The tool has been launched with a searchable, linkable version of the Leveson Inquiry sessions.
It is this sort of thing that empowers grassroots campaigns and catalyses democracy. And by ‘democracy’, I don’t just mean voting, but the idea that citizens make the decisions together.
Last week, I published two e-Books for English PEN.
The first is Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer. This is a fantastic piece of literary campaigning for three prisoners of conscience. The government of Vladimir Putin, in collaboration with the Russian Orthodox church, have sought to censor the satire and criticism directed at them by the punk art collective Pussy Riot, by convicting three of them on a charge of ‘hooliganism’.
There is little English PEN or I can do to help with the legal battle. But what we can do is ensure that the feminist poetry and the dissident message is not suppressed. Catechism amplifies what Putin sought to silence.
The other project is PEN Atlas: 10 Literary Dispatches from Around the World. It has been published to coincide with the international translation day conference taking place today in London. It is a re-packaging off some of the best content from our PEN Atlas online project.
In creating these publications, I applied some of the lessons learned during the course of my Insignificant Woman project. I also advanced my knowledge a bit too.
I had been using the EPUB conversion cool within Lulu.com to create my e-book files. This tool is simple and easy to use (you just upload a Word Document) but is somewhat limited. For example, when you want to place two headings adjacent to each other in the text, it creates unnecessary page breaks. However, by good fortune I happened across the Sigil tool on the Google Project Hosting repository. It is not an entry-level program, but it is perfect for someone like me, who has basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. I used it to tweak an existing EPUB file for Catechism, but then used Sigil to create the PEN Atlas file entirely from scratch. Later, I used Calibre to convert and EPUB file into a Kindle ready eBook.
Its the London Book Fair this week, and China is the controversial ‘market focus’ country. To mark this, English PEN staged a day-long forum on Chinese literature and invited artists both from inside China and in exile.
One of the visitors was Ou Ning, who introduced his film about forced demolitions in Beijing, ahead of the 2008 Olympics. During the Q&A I asked Ou Ning about remix culture in china, and then followed with a rather loaded question about film vs literature. You can watch the event below or see my particular question on YouTube.
There wasn’t time for me to engage him in a debate, but I’m not sure I agree with Ou Ning’s assertion that film beats literature. Both are important. In the short term, I agree that film and video are superior in showing fellow Chinese people, and the rest of the world, what is actually happening. However, I’m not sure that providing that enhanced knowledge is sufficient to bring about lasting change. I think literature has an essential role in bringing about change, whether that is through an Arab Spring style uprising (a ‘Jasmine’ revolution?) or a kind of Chinese glasnost. A fundamental shift in mindset is required for either kind of reform, and I think the depth and nuance that long form literary work brings is essential to inspiring such a change.