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Google is everywhere, keeping watch on children. I hope the little beasts subvert it

Melanie McDonagh - The Tablet - Sun, May 5th 2019

Google is everywhere, keeping watch on children. I hope the little beasts subvert itOne of the most delightful productions in London right now is Simon McBurney’s take on The Magic Flute at the English National Opera, in collaboration with the theatre company, Complicité. It seems to capture some of the music hall atmosphere of the theatre for which Mozart actually wrote this preposterous piece. In the programme, there’s a fine essay by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the way Mozart used numbers in the opera for their symbolic value, overt and covert.

For, as most of us know, Freemasonry and its rituals and values and numbers is the unacknowledged subject of the opera, with Tamino’s quest for Truth and Love being a take on the masonic project. And in this production the Central Committee that decides things in Sarastro’s Temple really is like a board meeting; a gathering of self-regarding men in suits.

It reminds me of the one time I went to a Masonic temple, the central one in Covent Garden when, for the first time the Freemasons opened up their centre for outsiders and gave guided tours. It was, I may say, a disappointment. Having been fascinated by Freemasonry precisely because it was forbidden to Catholics on the basis that you must swear obedience to an unknown authority, I was rather looking forward to scenes of arcane ritual and mysterious symbolism. In fact, the centre of the place, known as the Boardroom, looked exactly like it said, a boardroom, or perhaps a 1930s-style cinema, only with an organ. It may as well have been the centre of operations of the Rotary Club, except with lots of protractors and triangles.
Really, I think the Masons should have kept its mystique hidden; that way it would have preserved its exotic allure.

THERE is a hellish new development from Google: a so-called home monitoring system that will enable absent parents to supervise their children. The features it is developing under a European patent include “detecting child mischief”, followed by a verbal warning to the child from a smart speaker, and monitoring children via a network of devices and then warning parents via smartphone about what’s going on (it can identify bad language). Sensitive microphones can detect whispering to warn parents that their young are plotting among themselves. You know that bit in Proverbs: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good”? Well, it’s now Google that’s everywhere, keeping watch on children on behalf of their absentee parents. I hope the little beasts manage to subvert it.

It was obviously unwise of the polemicist Jordan Peterson to be photographed with his arm round a man with a t-shirt bearing the legend: I’m a Proud ISLAMOPHOBE. It’s designed to give offence, and it has. Professor Peterson has paid a price, though: the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge has withdrawn its offer of a visiting fellowship this Michaelmas on the grounds that – according to the Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope – the “casual endorsement” of the message on the t-shirt was “antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding. Some difficult decisions will always be necessary to ensure that our universities remain places of robust, often challenging and even uncomfortable dialogue, while balancing academic freedom with respect for members of our community”.

Excuse me? What I think this convoluted prose means is that the faculty will in fact not be a place of robust, often challenging and even uncomfortable dialogue, because anyone with views that may challenge the consensus will simply not be admitted. Peterson was intending during his stay to write lectures on the Bible stories contained in Exodus – which, I would have thought, would be pretty challenging. And, doing so, he would have profited from the exegetical expertise of the faculty. 
And indeed, he might have engaged with the Islamic members of the faculty. As Peterson says: “I thought that I could extend my knowledge of the relevant stories … and that doing so would be useful for me, for faculty members who might be interested in speaking with me and to the students”. 

Well it would have been. Instead, cowardly dons are closing debate, and minds.

Melanie McDonagh is senior writer at the London?Evening Standard.

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