My approach to the passing of Elizabeth II

13–09–2022

It’s not something you might expect to read about on a technology blog, but then I’ve always tried to put a little bit of heart into my posts — it’s an essential ingredient. Queen Elizabeth II passed away on the 8th of September and I think, despite your position on the monarchy, that there might be something we can learn.

Republican or Royalist?

This is something that always comes up. People tend to, or at least appear to, fall into one of two categories: Abolish the Monarchy or Flag Waving Royalist. The first thing we can take from this is that I’m neither — I’m a reformist. It’s not because I’m contrarian — the reasons will become clear soon. I do think this is a good example of how tribal our society and culture seems to have become. I remember reading the phrase “It’s more important that I’m right, rather than the truth”. Understanding why such tribalism has come about is a task beyond me at the moment — maybe it’s been with us for longer than we might admit?

I know plenty of Republicans and a few Royalists. I get the impression that folks in my circles, and perhaps the technology, hacker circles more broadly, lean Republican. Still, we’ve managed to brush along well, and have some pretty good discussions. I suppose there’s hope yet?

Scale

Lets go small scale first. Regardless of anything else, this is an individual who lived a long life then died. For these who knew her well, the Queen’s death will be brutal. Sure, the Queen will get way more attention than someone’s Grandma living down the road in a bungalow. Nevertheless, on some level, nothing changes. These closest to the Queen will no doubt, feel things in a way not dissimilar to the children and grandchildren of our archetypical grandparent.

Liz was the reigning monarch for a very long time — just over 70 years. In that time, so much has happened in the world. No doubt the media has been buzzing with this and you’ve probably had enough. I suppose, from a technology perspective, we’ve seen massive change. I wonder if I’ll see the same level of change once I get to 70?

Something about the scale though reminds me of another hacker-ish incident: the Occupy movement. In London, where I lived at the time, Occupy had taken over one of the city centre squares and a disused UBS office, called the Bank of Ideas. Protests were big, and taking place in various parts of the world. It felt big. I was compelled to go and visit it — to bear witness to what seemed at the time a seismic shift in culture. I’ve done the same with the Gun Control march in Washington D.C. and the first Extinction Rebellion protest in London. It doesn’t matter whether you support the monarchy or not — something has shifted and it feels big

I didn’t know the Queen — I’ve never been fortunate enough to meet her. Arguably, none of us did. We’ll no doubt hear a lot on the news about how she worked tirelessly and served the nation. This brings us around to the next part — figureheads…

Figureheads

Something for the tech-bros to consider, and indeed, something I’ve considered a lot of late — figureheads. I get the impression that tech folk like to think they aren’t affected by celebrity — “oh, we aren’t like that — too smart for that” or something along these lines. Thing is, we aren’t. I’ve seen it.

In my personal life I’ve seen one of my nephews talk wildly about Elon Musk. Of course, the two have never met. It’s the idea of Elon that Elon himself fabricates that my nephew has latched on to. Steve Jobs anyone? I mean sure, he was quite an innovator, but someone who serves the public good? Apparently, he was a bit different in person shall we say. Closer to home, EMF camp has it’s own figurehead that people have begun to worship. I know, I’ve been to every camp and seen it develop. I’ve even been a part of it myself.

The thing to take away here is that when you think you might be invulnerable to this sort of thing, chances are you aren’t. You just haven’t seen it yet.

But why do we have figureheads? Is it the same thing as celebrity? Is it a human thing, part of how we function, built-in at the hardware level. Probably. We project onto these folks our own hopes, fears and emotions. For many, me included, the Queen’s death makes me wonder about my own Grandma’s passing. I expect others will be feeling the same.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to this. It’s partially the reason I’m more of a reformist. I think we need figureheads. Perhaps, in accepting that, we should figure out a way to do it better?

Faustian Bargain

The Royal Family has a lot of privileges and soft-power. The Queen, at least, seemed to have it a bit different though. Her life was not really her own. She was forced to meet nasty people, sit around in cars, eating food she might have hated, dealing with all the troubles her family brought, and presiding over a tumultuous period of change for the UK. I’m not sure I’d make the same bargain if I’m honest.

Where this gets more interesting is what about her children? There’s a sense a few folk have gotten, that her children don’t really understand the bargain — don’t understand service. They take the benefits of position, and don’t really pay it back. I suppose, throughout history, the royals have been a bit of a crap-shoot; you might get a good one or you might not. As far as it goes, I think we were lucky to have Liz as our sovereign if we are to have one at all.

How did I approach this?

Well, for starters I’ve avoided social media like the plague. I’m willing to place a reasonable amount of actual cash money (with Liz’s face on) and bet that it’s full of snark, hot-takes, ill formed opinions dressed up as fact, rage, bile and all other sorts of negative things that social media brings — no change there then. But it will be worse than usual, and specific.

I’m not one for joining the big crowds, looking at a coffin or anything. I decided that I’d like to photograph the funeral cortege and tell a story. As I live in Scotland, I had the unique opportunity to catch the procession as it moved down from Balmoral to Edinburgh. Rather than visit Dundee, Balater or Edinburgh itself, I decided that Kinnoull Hill would make the perfect spot. I love the Scottish landscape; the area around Perth is beautiful. With some careful planning using Google Earth and a bit of detective work, I knew when and where the procession would be, so off I went. I expected a few people and a quiet time to arrange my thoughts.

This did not happen.

The hillside began to fill up pretty quickly. I was lucky to have my spot! In the end, the cliff-side was packed, which was a scary prospect at there are no fences — just signs saying how dangerous the cliffs are! I ended up having long conversations with several people I’d never met. All were lovely and quite fulfilling. Not what I expected at all.

As the cortege went past, an eerie silence fell all around me. A silence that lasted even as folks walked away, despite the folks who had brought bunting, prosecco and the like.

But it didn’t feel sombre in the aftermath to me. I’d met some lovely folks, chatted about various big topics with locals, met an astrophotographer who seems ace, and managed to get the photos I wanted. It was a melancholy day, but it was also laced with a lining of positivity.

While I don’t think the two photos I picked are representative of my best work, I do think they tell a story. In one photo, everyone is looking at a tiny speck in the distance, despite the landscape around them. In the bigger image, your eye is drawn to the tiny spot in the bottom left, then bam! You see it and understand what it must be. The photo with the motorway has some nice aesthetics to it, but again, on the bigger image you can see all the folks getting out of their cars, snapping away with their mobile phones.

There’s your technology blog post for you — #modernmourning . You weren’t there if you didn’t get a photo of it.

What happens next?

I’ll be honest, I probably agree with folks who say that the news coverage is too much. I know why it’s there, but it’s easy enough to ignore. I understand that important stuff might get covered up, as Charles Stross mentioned on his blog, so it’s definitely worth keeping even more of an eagle-eye on things.

For my part, it was a case of finding my own way to the event, mixing the technology of photography, google maps and an electric car, with the need to tell some sort of a story. With that done, I know that the next real thing will be something small but profound. It might be when I pull out a bank-note and see Charles’s face, or when I post a letter and the stamps are different.

Regardless of which side you might be on, or even if you aren’t on a side, I think you might agree this is the last thing the UK needed right now.

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