Layers of change in Ireland

It’s been grim reading in the mainstream Irish news recently: the economy is screwed, the peasants are revolting and banking scandals abound.

A couple of other things have happened against that backdrop. They’re not as serious by comparison, but I think there’s a common thread linking these stories that’s worth pointing out. Everyone else in the country has been blogging like mad about these other things[1], but here’s a brief catchup for those of you that haven’t been around or paying attention.

Last month IRMA (the Irish Recorded Music Association, our version of the US’s RIAA) reached a settlement with Eircom (Ireland’s largest internet service provider) in which Eircom agreed that they would not oppose any court orders filed by IRMA requesting that they block all access to certain websites. IRMA said that they would start with the Pirate Bay and proceed to other sites that they disagree with, and sent letters to all Irish ISPs asking them to follow suit. In effect, Eircom has agreed to censor any website on the internet that IRMA tells it to censor. An online protest group was quickly established and no sites have been blocked so far.

The next one reads like more of a joke. On March 7th an anonymous Irish artist walks into two different Dublin art galleries and hangs his own work on the wall alongside the portraits of Yeats and Bono. The paintings are cartoonish nudes of Brian Cowen, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Everyone laughs, except perhaps Brian himself, who one hopes is busy fixing the country. On Monday of this week RTÉ, the state-owned broadcaster, runs a short story on the paintings on the main evening news. The following night, having been contacted by a government press officer, the state broadcaster issues an on-air apology for the story and removes it from their website[2]. Meanwhile Today FM, an independent commercial radio station broadcast that they have received emails from the guerilla artist and know his identity. The day after that the police show up at the radio station’s office asking for access to the emails, explaining that “the powers that be want action taken” in response to this piece of political satire. Today FM refuse and are told that a search warrant may be served for access to the emails and that the artist is being investigated on suspicion of committing acts of public indecency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage (for hammering a nail into the gallery wall). The artist turns himself in to the police. Crickets, tumbleweed.

So what the hell is going on here? Well, most likely some unsavoury backroom dealings that we’d rather not think about right now, and a serious lack of understanding of how to deal with new types of problems. On a broader level all of these stories simply reflect changes in our society, but different types of change in each case.

The first paragraph of this post is about the relationship between long-established institutions and the government, both of which are being forced to react to something; they are adapting slowly to unexpected environmental change, and are struggling to steer their extremely large and cumbersome boats. The driving force behind this environmental change, the economy, is a nebulous and somewhat unpredictable beast that changes a bit more readily. In the Eircom and nude painting stories, there’s a similar change going on, but at at a faster pace. A more open culture is forcing change upon the infrastructure of society (media distribution, art galleries, radio stations) by undermining how it previously worked. The agents of change here are large or autonomous groups of people who are starting to operate outside of the normal boundaries that had previously been established for how we access information or think about the presentation of art.

Both of these things – the economy and culture – are a bit like the weather, with many different indefinite signals going into a system, and a tangible result coming out. Sometimes we’re prepared for the changes that this system can throw at us, and our buildings can withstand a storm, and sometimes things get washed away in a flood.

One of my favourite books ever is Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. In it he presents a diagram representing the “shearing layers” of structural change within a building. These layers range from the “stuff” on the inside that can change easily and quickly through to the core “structure” of a building, which resists change and adapts slowly. So a building is really made of a number of different sets of components sliding over each other, changing at different speeds.

Shearing Layers of Change diagram, from Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn

I don’t know about a direct mapping of layers, but it seems to me that this diagram could also apply to changes in society.

  • In the center we have the fast-moving layer of culture, the stuff that changes as fashions come and go. Here anything new like an industry-toppling website or a piece political satire can pop up out of nowhere.

  • Outside that is the space plan, or how we rearrange this stuff around us individually to be a fun or comfortable part of our lives, such as new ways of easily consuming content or poking fun at politicians.

  • Another layer out is the infrastructural services like centrally controlled telecommunications networks or curated white cube galleries, which can’t always keep up to contain the fast-moving progression of culture within them. Resistance to change starts to creep in, and hacks are required to make our latest stuff work. Services that fail to keep up will become obsolete before too long.

  • Structure is a combination of cultural norms – what is acceptable and what isn’t – and the laws that reflect and encourage those norms to be abided by. This is the most resistant layer to change, because it requires a long-term shift in thinking and sometimes a tearing down of old parts of our composition that previously served us well, like laws against stealing property or an unquestioning reverence for our leaders.

  • The last layer, skin, is more easily changed though. It’s like government, defining our appearance and how we are represented, but it’s really just a public face for what we would currently like to project ourselves as. It is easily changed once we tire of how it makes us look.

The outer layer – site – is the only truly immutable, eternal one. That’s Ireland.

  1. More blog coverage about the Eircom thing, and the nude painting thing.

  2. Satire, an essential part of a functioning democracy, has traditionally had a hard time on Irish television and radio: Scrap Saturday was cancelled by RTÉ at the height of its popularity (Dermot Morgan blamed political pressure, and went on to create Father Ted in the UK with Channel 4), and last week the writer of the RTÉ sketch show Nob Nation was told to “go easy” on the Taoiseach. Go figure.

— 27 Mar 2009