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Let Them Eat Code

The UK Government’s latest attempt to persuade those involved in the creative industries to shift to IT-based professions smacks of cultural ignorance and elitist hubris

by Jonathan Hart | 27 October 2020

Illustration by Jago Henderson

A ballet dancer pensively laces her shoe in anticipation of her next recital. Her next job could be in cyber, declares the poster bearing her likeness, but she ‘doesn’t know it yet.’ An image captured by a photographer, fonts devised by typographers, and a layout created by graphic designers: all cynically used to promote the notion that the subjects should cease working in a profession founded on creativity. Even by their usual standards, the latest missive from UK Government’s Cyber First program (which on this evidence may as well be retitled “Don’t Fool Yourself – You’ll Never Amount to Anything”) scans as positively dystopian in mood, and arguably sets a new high-water mark for tone-deafness at a time when morale could hardly be lower.

Taken from a purely critical point of view, it is a hopelessly contrived and misguided campaign. Had you only read about these images in writing, you might reasonably expect that the people within would be portrayed as hopeful, glowing with anticipation at the prospect of a highly-employable career in information security; in contrast, none of the subjects look enthralled with the notion of abandoning their current vocations, and indeed some look as though their pictures may have been taken without their consent (more on that later.) More bizarre still is the choice of terminology: why does Fatima not know where her career path will branch next? Are we to assume that she is uninformed or ignorant, too preoccupied with whimsical ideas of her ‘creative calling’ to secure a job which the governing classes deem relevant? Is she perhaps to be forcibly bundled, blindfolded into the back of a blacked-out Ford Transit, and subsequently thrust into the fluorescent-lit office cubicle where she will finally be able to make an appreciable contribution to society? And what exactly should Fatima need to 'rethink, reskill, reboot', as if she were either a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal or an unreliable operating system?

So widespread and vocal was opposition to the adverts that they were removed from circulation a mere week after their publication, with Oliver Dowden offering a diffident mea culpa on Twitter in which he decried them as crass but deflected the blame from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, all within the same sentence. Unfortunately for him, the damage had already been done. Photographer Krys Alex took to Twitter to express her ‘devastation’ that her image of Fatima (who is, by the way, Desire’e Kelley, an aspiring ballet dancer from Atlanta, GA, and presumably uninterested in a British cyber role) had been appropriated for such pessimistic purposes, and that she would not have consented to its use had she known it would be deployed in such a manner.

It is not necessarily fair to say that the government has totally failed to acknowledge the danger that COVID-19 presents to the arts, but the execution of its bailout strategy has been hopelessly inept. Notwithstanding the fact that the government’s undertaking to provide £1.57bn to arts organisations and venues through its Culture Recovery Fund was first proposed some three months after lockdown, only two-thirds of applicants so far have received enough to see them through the next six months. Some unsuccessful candidates, such as Manchester’s Frog and Bucket comedy club, have been informed that their application was not being taken further on the grounds that their offerings are not ‘culturally significant’; evidently, there is no room for humour in our new, cyber-centric work spheres. No mercy has been offered to freelancers, the self-employed, or smaller, emerging institutions. The message is abundantly clear: unless you’ve already been admitted to the highest echelons of your practice, abandon all aspirations of a future in these industries and start brushing up on Excel.

Dishearteningly, this dismissal of the arts as a worthy career choice is not an anomaly. After all, what could we have expected from a Culture Secretary who has previously threatened museums with funding cuts because they dared to remove controversial statues from view? Or whose predecessor, Nicky Morgan, recommended that A-level students ought to be discouraged from pursuing the arts and should instead study STEM subjects so as not to limit their career prospects? It is of course difficult for a student of a small, prestigious, arts-oriented university to say this without accusations of bias or the suggestion that they should have lived a less-sheltered life, but how are we to see these words and actions as anything 'other than disparaging our value in British society?

Let’s be perfectly honest: the chiming of Big Ben at midnight on 31st December is hardly likely to give rise to a surfeit of social media collages proclaiming ‘omg 2020 best year eva!!!!’ ‘Onwards and upwards’, some will say, possibly accompanied by cod-philosophical platitudes from Marie Kondo or Eat Pray Love or whichever trite self-help creed is currently de rigueur, but with the majority concurring that surely 2021 can’t be any worse than the unmitigated shitstorm which preceded it. Of course, we can’t even be certain that these are accurate predictions, but that’s besides the point. What we need now is hope, any kind and no matter how slight, that the situation might abate, and that we might find ourselves able to return to something approaching normality.

There are few places where that is more true than in the arts. Nobody aspires to a career as an academic, curator or conservator—or indeed a musician, graphic designer or comedian—because they’re conscious of their inherent expendability, the overwhelmingly-competitive market, and the meagre recompense, and haven't thoroughly considered the consequences. We don’t need Eric Berne’s critical parent admonishing us for our professional profligacy and declaring that we should look for ‘proper jobs.’ Don’t tell us that we can simply ‘try something else’ until things fall into some sort of satisfactory order. Don’t devalue our chosen professions and insinuate that we don’t know why we’re pursuing them. We are all capable of recognising when we are at the bottom of the tree and evalour prospects of reaching the top, without being made to feel like second-class citizens for looking up. In these alien times, we’ll settle for being afforded some kind of optimism. Who knows, at some point in the not-too-distant future, Fatima’s next job could be in a museum – and hopefully, she will know about it.


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