The bookless Mrs Beckham

Popular culture and aspirations are as closely linked as Rolls and Royce.

A recent BBC survey measured the press coverage devoted to UK public figures in 2004. This was then used to define who the popular culture icons really are in Britain today. Clear winner was England and Real Madrid footballer David Beckham with a whopping three-quarters of a million column inches devote to him. And second at half-a-million inches was his wife, the former pop singer Victoria Beckham (picture above).

The top ten popular culture icons comprised three footballers, three pop singers, three members of the Royal family, and a topless model.

Even more recently pop culture icon number two, Victoria Beckham, revealed in an interview with the Spanish magazine Chic that she has never read a book.

Popular culture is depressing aspirations. A role model is someone that people copy. Victoria Beckham is a role model, and it is a certainty that millions will emulate her bookless life style. And that means they will suffer low levels of literacy.

Reading is the basic literacy skill. In the UK 7 million adults have low literacy skills, and a survey showed that individuals with poor reading ability only have access to 1 in 50 of lower level jobs. Research by the UK Office for National Statistics found a quarter of adults had not read a book in the previous 12 months. This figure rose to almost half among men aged 16 to 24.

While popular culture and the media remain so closely interlinked aspirations can only be raised by changing the behaviour of role models. But clearly there is little scope for Victoria Beckham to extol the virtues of Tolstoy in Eurotrash magazines. And sadly the continuing popularity of reality TV shows like Big Brother shows that the impressionable have an infinite appetite to watch the aspirationally-challenged.

Short term we need a new grassroots layer of role models to demonstate that aspirations are nothing to be ashamed of. These role models need to come from the local community, from business, from sport, and from the creative world. A great example is Harry Potter author JK Rowling (picture to right). Her journey from working as a secretary to fame, money, and literary adulation is truly inspirational. Millions of kids love the books, but more importantly they also love the author.

Another great new role model is the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He has worked extensively with schoolchildren at his own St Magnus Festival in the rural Orkney Islands (picture below), and has been successful in making learning about music and the arts ‘cool’. Max, as he is known, is also not afraid to speak his mind, and has been a vociferous critic of the low levels of central funding for music education. And he doesn’t stop there, He is also an entrepreneur - which goes down well with The Apprentice watchers. Max recently started his own record company, called MaxOpus, because he didn’t think the major companies were giving his music the support it deserves.

But grass roots role models only have limited scope for driving change. Popular culture is rigidly controlled by the mass media, including record companies, TV and radio stations, book publishers and the tabloid press. The big opportunity comes when popular culture is separated from the mass media. And this is already starting to happen, driven by an exponentially increasing rate of technology change.

In the old model the big players controlled popular culture because they also controlled the high entry cost media through which it was communicated. This meant Victoria Beckham’s image was defined by mass media players including her record company, Virgin Music, and her book publisher, Penguin Putnam.

But all that is changing. Already we have seen major record companies such as Virgin brought to their knees by the new technologies of file sharing, and internet distribution. Now texting, webcasting, podcasting, blogging, and e-publishing are rapidly undermining the stranglehold that the old media companies have on popular culture. This is opening up enormous opportunities for the visionary to influence aspirations, life skills, and appreciation of the arts.

This is not daydreaming on my part. A revelatory example of technology empowerment is Wikipaedia. This collabarative online encyclopaedia started five years ago. It is now available in 200 languages, contains 1.6 million articles, and receives 60 million hits a day. The organisation that controls it, Wikimedia, has just one employee.

In the education sector the UK Government's Learndirect service uses the Internet and computers to deliver distance learning on subjects ranging from simple maths to advanced German. Learndirect uses computers to bypass the traditional delivery mechanisms of text books and broadcasters.

The new technologies give government and local authorities, educators and arts bodies a limitless opportunity to raise aspirations. Realising these opportunities requires funding and planning, but above all it requires energy and vision. Which is what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, JK Rowling and Wikipaedia founder Jimmy Wales have in bucketloads.

I want to finish with an illustration of how media and culture barriers are breaking down. Your brief asked for a ten minute oral presentation with no visual aids, which is what I have delivered (see footnote). But I am also giving out a paper copy, so it becomes a written presentation. But that hard copy is not just the text, it is created from an HTML file. And as I am sure you know HTML is the core technology of the internet.

Exactly a year ago today I created a weblog. It was part of an experimental programme to raise adult learners’ aspirations by improving their literacy. It is now rated by monitoring service Technorati as being in the top ½% of weblogs worldwide, and 90% of the large number of readers live outside the UK.

When I finished writing this presentation a few days ago I uploaded it to my web site, which is how it became HTML. It has already been read by thousands of readers around the world, and some of them have commented on it.

Technologies such as blogging offer us all the opportunity to divorce popular culture from the mass media. And that is the crucial ‘tipping point’ where we can start to raise aspirations, and help those marginalised by poor life skills and appreciation of the arts, to realise their full potential.

This post takes on an overgrown path full circle back to its origins 12 months ago as an experiment in teaching adult literacy. It is the text of a presentation I am making to a regional government body here in the UK on Wednesday 24th August on the theme of 'How is popular culture affecting aspirations'. I know many readers are involved in the education sector, music teaching and arts administration, and I would welcome any views using the comments feature below. You can also email the post to a colleague using the envelope icon.

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to A Musician with Teethinvisible hit counter


Pliable said…
The empowerment that blogging delivers is shown by the fact that within hours of uploading this post it is being mirrored round the world by high profile sites such as New Music ReBlog
Pliable said…
And a wonderful link by at Clive Davis
Hucbald said…
Awesome post. The internet promises to open up everyone's life who has access to it, but I often wonder how much internet time is spent in "trivial pursuits" (Bulletin Boards/Chat Rooms/er... "erotic image searches") versus "serious research" like good blogging. IMO, the "lowest common denominator" factor will always be present in human endeavor (As it always has been), and the altruistic will exist on the margins (Again, as always). The REALLY COOL THING about the net is that altruistically like-minded individuals can find each other, versus living in relatave isolation.
Anonymous said…
This post coincides with my looking casually at the August issue of Harper's Magazine, which as a feature article on the 2004 election called "None Dare Call it Stolen" (see link to excerpt While a main thrust of the piece is the data that has been uncovered about the political wheelings and dealings in Ohio, central to the piece is the role of media in trivializing the important and raising the relevance of the trivial. America is so market-driven in every aspect of its life that understanding any issue comes down to "does it make a buck?" and this is the height of aspirations in our culture. Some of the dot-com bust stems from the realization that these start-ups weren't making any money; technology that enriches in the form of lining pockets triumphs over technology that truly enriches.

Paradoxically, this measuring stick for what one aspires to can backfire. In my community there is a controversy over demolishing a historical mill building at a prime site on the waterfront area to make way for a Home Depot. The "selling" point that people can hear is Home Depot hires people and in a severely economically depressed area, this is all we need to know. What people are uncomfortable with or wish to debate are detailed analyses and reports that categorically show that a big box retailer like Home Depot ultimately promotes further economic decline by eroding the wage base (people cannot afford to live on the wages on offer) and the tax base (whatever gains in some taxing you get are offset by increased expense to the community by job loss in smaller businesses that cannot compete with aggressive discounters, heavy traffic patterns, pollution, and increased need for safety personnel in the form of police and firemen). But what our advocacy group hears is "don't confuse us with the facts!" "Don't make us think!"

Is it really that Paris Hilton's recently publicized tantrum in the restaurant is because she couldn't bear the burden of reading, or perhaps the fear that if she looked, she couldn't have what she wanted, despite her millions?

Blogging and other technology-created communities will most likely do just that, create communities that are not bounded physically but where one's mind wishes to go. Could they result in masses of "echo chambers" rather than engaged dialogue? I honestly don't know. It is hard to see outside the culture in which I myself am immersed, where there is less tolerance to "agree to disagree" resulting in being christened a pariah, no one of significance in the mind of the mob.

In turn it could have a dampening effect on literacy and exploring ideas, our severe co-dependence on thinking alike so we too can feel like the pop culture icons and fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved 'great things'.

My goodness, what did I just eat for lunch?
Anonymous said…
Regarding the decline of reading (if not literature itself in the uk)

Now our culture is becoming oral like all the Mediterranean countries who read far, far less than us and possibly as a result have a stronger community and family tie. Our past shows that we used to be very excitable and the Venetians say in the 16th Century we were a highly emotional and excitable bunch. Stiff upper lip? Not a bit of it.
We're becoming more obsessed with sex and open about it. Moral barriers are shifting. And Lasagne is the new No1 dish in the uk

Ohmigod we're all turning into Italians. We've got to stop the rot, WW2 etc. etc. rant etc.
Kathy said…
I cannot remember a time in my life when I looked up to or idolized someone because they read a book, and yet, I've always been a reader. I'm a reader because of the influence of my parents, and because I enjoy it. I did not realize until I was older that most houses' walls were not lined with books as ours was.
I guess I'm not one to jump on the "oh my God society is on the decline" bandwagon, because I think there have always been literacy issues, awareness issues, and less-than-stellar idols. I am not surprised at Ms. Beckham's popularity, nor do I think she's the worst example one could give.
Although I am thrilled at the popularity of Harry Potter, and I'm excited about the ready availability of information via radio, TV, and the Internet, I think literacy and awareness are only part of the goal. Unfortunately, the skill that is rarely learned is critical thinking. The ready availability of so much information, and the ability to read it means that a lot of data gets in, but sadly, not much is processed in a useful way.
If people were thinking critically, surely they wouldn't be all that excited about Posh (or Scary, Sporty, or Baby for that matter). Nor would they have voted for George Bush (who doesn't read either).
I don't think this lack of critical thinking has gotten worse, I just think that the constant barrage of information makes it more likely that people don't get a chance to make solid decisions or learn from what they've read, heard, or seen.
So, here's to more Blogs like yours that ask these questions, and encourage readers to find their own answers.
Anonymous said…
I think that Laura Bush might have once read a book, but I can't be certain. I am sure that Jenna and Barbara Bush may have been required to read a book at school. Their father, however, probably couldn't understand why they were doing it.

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