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August 17, 2009

The Kellogg’s Optivia Question and Guilty Clicking

There’s currently an TV advert for Kellogg’s Optivia, where renowned chef Aldo Villi (I don’t know the world of celebrity chefs well enough to know whether to put sarcastic quotation marks around either or both of renowned and chef) strides purposefully into an outdoor market, where he is met with calls of “Morning, Villi!” from a ethnically diverse group of marketholders – their diversity presumably necessary so that you know that Optivia isn't one of those racist cereals you've heard about – and as he marches through the market, Villi embarks on a list of stupid diets and boring, boring dietary warnings. Finally he stops and poses an exasperated question: “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what you should eat, instead of what you shouldn’t?”

I’m sure you can guess where the advert goes from there – and that alone is a clear reflection upon how inspired Villi’s question is, simply in terms of the pure rhetorical legwork. In one fell swoop, one glorious phrase, Aldo Villi effortlessly presupposes and draws us into an ethereal, impossible world. Is this instantaneous re-ordering of our world not artistically up there with Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning... and with When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug...?

Though, of course, while Kafka presupposed worlds of perpetual and insurmountable injustice or worlds in which clerks suddenly transform into emotional, misunderstood insects, Villi instead constructs a world where we care who he is and really do want him to tell us which cereal to eat. Yet taking Villi as the philosopher which we know he must be, perhaps there is something that does speak to the zeitgeist in his question... The Optivia Question.

In the European elections last June, remember how the main political parties really shot themselves in the foot, droning on and on about how people shouldn’t vote for the BNP, without ever getting into the minutiae of why the BNP are wrong and, more to the point, why their own political party is right? Really it just added to the apathy because after all, we don’t vote against people, we vote for them.

In those weeks it certainly would have been nice to hear what we should vote for, instead of what we shouldn’t. We want strong opinion from our leaders, even if we don’t agree with the opinion. We want things to differentiate them from each other, we want something to get our teeth around and really we want to be led, but that’s something that only a strong leadership would ever find out because if asked, that’s not what we would say that we want.

People always say that the public should have more say in policy, but do we actually think that? Wouldn’t we rather have brilliant politicians with brilliant minds introducing brilliant ideas? It seems like when we say that it would be better if politicians looked to us for direction, we haven’t really thought carefully about it; but that’s not our fault either, it’s their fault for asking us, because of course we haven’t thought carefully about it – that’s not our job.

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In the Totnes by-election a couple of weeks ago, the Conservatives held the first ever open ballot in UK politics. They gave the electorate a list of candidates and let everyone choose who the Conservative candidate would be. The reasons why it worked are obvious, but what’s extraordinary is David Miliband talking about this political homogenisation being the future.

Since the party still select the shortlist, the open ballot doesn’t really offer more choice or any more connection with the voters. All it does is generate some publicity and an entirely false connection with the public. It’s essentially just a little reality show. (Actually that’s not a bad idea – a 2012 by-election, ten prospective Labour candidates face off on ITV1 running through a series of increasingly tenuous tasks whilst living in a house together and trying to avoid elimination – it's Politics Idol!)

It’s not for the public to decide on who the Tory candidate is, that’s not when we come in. It’s each party’s own job to vet the right people and then pick them, either in private or at party meetings. Then we know that each candidate was picked because they represent the party. Under the open system, who knows what you represent?

The winner in Totnes, incidentally, was the only candidate with no political experience. Now, of course there was more to her winning than her not being a politician, but I wonder whether a single circulated flyer on the candidates could really have conveyed any sophisticated differences between the candidates; it just peddles easy answers. And would enough people be interested in a sophisticated argument anyway? It doesn’t take many minutes of trawling through YouTube comments and the Have Your Say forum on the BBC website to hammer home quite how many inexplicably angry, borderline deranged shouty people there are in the country who feel that their opinion is absolutely worth sharing.

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One of the tools on the BBC website is a real-time Top 10 Most Viewed Stories Right Now list. This is a fine, useful, interesting tool. What worries me is a recent article in the BBC Magazine, where one of the editors explained how the BBC have a practice of analysing this list and the number of “clicks” articles receive in order to see which stories most interest people so that the BBC can thus decide which stories they cover in the future. Again, the danger here is of us ourselves defining our own landscape.

The fundamental misunderstanding as far as this one is concerned is that too much faith is being put in our click. Clicking on an article doesn’t necessarily mean you’re interested. You might click on an Amy Winehouse story – that doesn’t mean you care about Amy Winehouse or think that Amy Winehouse stories are in any way a thing to be encouraged; it just means that you’re bored and you’ve read everything that interests you today (and that if she’s going to die soon, I suppose that might be glanceworthy). Yet as far as this click system is concerned, you’re absolutely interested in Amy Winehouse. As interested as you could possibly be. Online newspapers do not offer us the opportunity of the guilty glance across the page at the lightweight stories before we return to sober things; your guilty glance has become a guilty click, has been duly logged and will now go towards making all news media more lowbrow.

The same problems face the open candidate selection. Whatever state you think politics and the BBC are in at the moment, over-reliance on the consumer is only going to make them worse, but I can’t help but feel that the superficial bounce of loud people of thwarted ambition being pleased that they are being listened to might blind the producers to the fact that in reality, picking a box doesn’t mean we like the box.


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