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young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Professor Selwyn maintains the Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference

Many local authorities can and should be doing more to help the young people they have looked after. Large numbers of care leavers (aged 18-25) report anxiety, loneliness, and lack of support, according to a long-term research project funded by the Hadley Trust and led by Oxford Professor of Education and Adoption, Julie Selwyn CBE, and Linda Briheim-Crookhall ( Coram Voice).

Among a host of appalling statistics, the most shocking finding in the recently published research on care leavers, is that the lives and futures of care leavers is genuinely determined by that over-used expression, a postcode lottery - see illustration 'percentage of care leavers with low well-being', below.

The lives and futures of care leavers is genuinely determined by that over-used expression, a postcode lottery

While care leavers in some areas report a positive experience and go to university alongside their peers, life for young people in other areas is horrifyingly different.

The report shows these Local Authorities are providing insufficient support with some young people feeling abandoned. Concerning, was the percentage (24%) of care leavers who recorded they had a disability or limiting long-term health problem: twice as many as their peers in the general population. This group of care leavers frequently reported feeling isolated and not having even one good friend. Many had high stress scores and 35% felt lonely always or often - see illustration immediately below for report findings.

Professor Selwyn's report contains some horrifying data

A report on 11 Nov from the Children’s Commissioner, showing that young people in care are routinely being failed, accorded with the findings from the care leavers’ report.

Professor Selwyn says, ‘The variation in Local Authority can be stark. Nearly 80% of care leavers living in the best performing Local Authority area report that they feel safe but, in the lowest performing area, about half tell us they feel unsafe. They may be living in hostels, with  adults who have problems of addiction and who are much older than them or living in a flat on their own.

‘But some young people feel that being in care has been a very positive experience. A quarter of care leavers in our surveys had very high well-being and many have gone to university. Some care leavers are here, at Oxford in our undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral programmes.’

In the lowest performing area, about half feel unsafe. They may be living in hostels, they may be living in hostels with adults who have problems of addiction and who are much older than them or living in a flat on their own....but some young people feel that being in care has been a very positive experience. A quarter had very high well-being

The report states, ‘There was an association between very high well-being and care leavers feeling that they had been treated the same or better than other young people. This suggests that services that actively seek to compensate for the additional challenges that their care leavers face are likely to help make their lives better.’

All this goes to show that young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Professor Selwyn maintains the Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference.

Care leavers benefit from the Local Authorities’ policies in terms of housing and financial advice and support. Leaving care workers play an important and unsung role in helping young people transition to independent life. Care leavers also need to understand their histories but, surprisingly, 23% still did not have a full understanding of why they had been in care.

The care postcode lottery

According to the report, ‘When the state steps in to look after a child, it is down to the state as their corporate parent, to step up to support care leavers to reach their full potential. Local authorities should want their children to do (at least) as well as other young people. When we compare how care leavers feel they are doing to other young adults, the difference is stark.’

Young people leaving care can have good outcomes, but Local Authorities’ procedures are critical in making the difference

Professor Julie Selwyn

 The report shows that care leavers are much more likely to be struggling financially, with housing, or just with having someone they can trust compared with other young people. Care leavers with low well-being often felt afraid, they were more likely not to have a person in their life who listened, praised or believed they would be a success compared with other care leavers.  

But the report insists, ‘Corporate parents should not accept that their care leavers do worse than other young people.’

And it recommends, ‘Address the continued postcode lottery by each local authority systematically measuring care leavers’ subjective well-being and identifying where their care leavers struggle and where they do better.  Share the practices that promote positive experiences.’

Dr Selwyn’s report is based on 1,800 surveys of care leavers. Every Local Authority which takes part does so voluntarily and 50 out of 152 nationally have participated since 2017.

Game of Thrones' Iron Throne

By Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor, Department of Experimental Psychology

Writing long novels is a pitfall for the unwary, as many an over-ambitious novelist has found to their cost. It’s very hard to maintain the reader’s interest even through 1000 pages of text, never mind keep this going over a series involving several books. Tolkien, of course, famously achieved it in the Lord of the Rings. And so has the American novelist and screenwriter, George R.R. Martin (once referred to as the American Tolkien) in A Song of Ice and Fire. As one of the most successful fantasy series of all time, it achieved iconic status when it was turned into the astonishingly successful TV series Game of Thrones. It has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 47 languages.

Just consider the enormity of the task Martin set himself. In the five volumes published so far (we are still waiting for the promised sixth and concluding seventh), three separate main stories, with many subplots, are interwoven over the course of 343 chapters, more than 4000 pages and nearly two million words. There are more than 2000 characters who, between them, engage in over 41,000 interactions, with nearly 300 deaths – all crammed into the space of a mere handful of years of storytime. That’s more than enough to baffle and defeat even a Shakespeare – and Shakespeare was a master at tailoring his plays to suit the psychology of his audience.

The problem lies in the way the human mind has been designed by evolution to cope with the social world in which we typically live. That world is much smaller scale than most people realise. We can, for example, only hold four people in a conversation at the same time (and Shakespeare never breaks this rule onstage). Sixty percent of our social effort is devoted to just 15 core friends and family, and our entire personal social networks (the people we have meaningful relationships with) average just 150.

Yet, like Lord of the Rings, the Fire and Ice stories are gripping despite their size and have an enthusiastic international following. How did George Martin do it?

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, a team of physicists, mathematicians and psychologists from Coventry, Warwick, Limerick, Cambridge and Oxford Universities have used network science methods to unpack the secrets behind A Song of Ice and Fire.

It turns out that Martin has very carefully mapped the structure of his storyline to fit the psychology of his readers in two crucial respects. First, the team found remarkable similarities to real life in the way the interactions between the characters are arranged. So much so, in fact, that the sprawling narrative neatly fits into the type of societies for which evolution has designed the human mind. Second, although important characters are famously killed off seemingly at random as the story unfolds, the underlying chronology is not at all unpredictable. Instead, Martin uses the literary device of making each of the chapters an integrated story and then randomly intermingling the stories out of chronological sequence.

Despite the enormous cast of characters and the fact that new characters are added at a constant rate in each of the 343 chapters, the typical number of active characters in each chapter is just 35, about the same as Shakespeare has in each of his plays (and, incidentally, the size that optimises research productivity for English language and literature departments in UK universities). The average number of contacts that each character within a chapter has is stable at between 12-16, about the same number that we would have in our close social circle (our so-called sympathy group).

Each chapter revolves around a central character who provides the “point of view” for the chapter. By virtue of their function as point-of-view characters, of course, these individuals necessarily interact widely, but none of the point-of-view characters has a complete network across the volumes that is significantly above 150. This is the same number as the average human personal social network, known as the Dunbar Number.

In other words, Martin keeps his characters’ networks within the limits that his readers’ human minds were designed by evolution to cope with.

While matching mathematical motifs might, in the hands of a lesser writer, easily have resulted in a rather narrow script, Martin keeps the tale bubbling along by making deaths appear random as the story unfolds, thereby maintaining the suspense for the reader. But, as the team show, when the true chronological sequence of the chapters is reconstructed, the deaths are not random at all: rather, they reflect exactly how non-violent human activities in the real world are typically spaced in time.

Game of Thrones has invited all sorts of comparisons to history and myth. In this respect, the social structure of Game of Thrones is more akin to historical texts that describe real events, such as the Icelandic family sagas, and quite unlike fictional mythological stories like Beowulf or the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge. Giving the story the characteristic of real life ensures that it stays within the cognitive limits of the reader, thereby making it easier for the reader to track the story without becoming confused. The trick in Game of Thrones, it seems, has been to mix realism and unpredictability in a psychologically engaging manner.

As part of the Coventry University-based Maths Meets Myths Project, the marriage of science and humanities in this paper opens exciting new avenues for comparative literary studies. The computational power of network science has not yet been applied to humanities projects of this kind. Nonetheless, as this project demonstrates it offers the prospect of probing behind the tsunami of detail to provide novel insights into the patterns that underlie stories. As such, it offers a potentially valuable addition to the literary scholar’s analytical toolkit.

Richard Ovenden might seem an unlikely cyber campaigner. But the latest holder of the historic post of librarian of the Bodleian, fears ‘knowledge is under attack’ from the impact of the online world on public discourse and decision-making

In a wood-panelled office with an enviable view of Oxford’s most iconic sights, Richard Ovenden might seem an unlikely cyber campaigner. But the latest holder of the historic post of Bodley's Librarian (chief librarian of the Bodleian) fears ‘knowledge is under attack’ from the impact of the online world on public discourse and decision-making. And preserving such knowledge is very much Professor Ovenden’s business.

Listen to Richard Ovenden's frank interview here:

In his recent work, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, he has taken to the metaphorical barricades over the challenges of ephemeral digital discourse to the work of libraries and archives. But his concerns go far wider – and he warns of the impact on society more broadly of digital communication. One aspect in particular is a current concern: when communications between Cabinet Ministers and civil servants and special advisers take place on digital platforms, with end-to-end encryption, where, he fears, will the checks and balances be?

Burning the Books signage in officeBurning the Books marketing material leaning against book shelf in Richard Ovenden's office
How can history judge, he asks, when decision-making is absent from the annual release of official papers? But, critically, Richard asks, what will it mean for accountability, when public figures act with a sense of impunity given by secret digital platforms? Will the only sources available to future historians be self-serving memoirs?

What will it mean for accountability, when public figures act with a sense of impunity given by secret digital platforms? Will the only sources available to future historians be self-serving memoirs?

As Bodley's Librarian, the 25th in the library’s 420 years, he takes a long view of such things. Tech may be a very modern threat, but Richard sees it as the latest in a long line of attacks on knowledge. He notes this included the destruction of Oxford’s University library at the time of the Protestant Reformation, which led to the creation of the Bodleian - an ‘Ark’ to save knowledge from the ravages of the era.

To restore accountability – and to ensure libraries such as the Bodleian can carry out their historic record-keeping role – Richard argues new measures are urgently needed to preserve communications, many of which are currently only available to big tech firms. It is a massive task. We are writing more than ever – with email and social media often replacing conversation and more formal correspondence.

Richard argues new measures are urgently needed to preserve communications, many of which are currently only available to big tech firms. It is a massive task. We are writing more than ever 

Not everything needs to be kept, though. Libraries are already maintaining huge amounts of data, but many records are being lost – because they are undertaken on platforms controlled by the commercial tech industry. Considerable extra resources and a combined effort from libraries and archivists will be needed, and Richard has mooted a ‘memory tax’ on the tech firms, to pay for it. But, it is essential if we are to preserve knowledge that is now created and managed on digital platforms. Many of these are currently set to be lost to posterity – along with all those family photos on smart phones.

It will not be possible, or desirable, to keep everything, says Richard. But, in addition to communications between government officials, there is a real purpose in maintaining samples of communication on social media platforms. Just as the public records today include fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past, because of chance remarks on the margins of official documents, social media provides insight into 21st century life – warts and all.

Richard Ovenden was in conversation with Sarah Whitebloom; audio recorded and edited by Ruth Abrahams

Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit. You need a human translator for that

What’s the rudest thing you can say to an award-winning translator? Probably, ‘What’s the point, I’ve got Google Translate?’ It’s got to be in the top 10. As an opening gambit, it is unlikely to impress someone who spends hours each day, carefully reworking a text for an English-speaking audience. But translators are nothing if not patient and indulgent.

Indeed, despite the advance of technology, translators are now (belatedly) receiving greater attention in their own right. The International Booker prize now recognises the ‘vital work’ of the translator, dividing cash prizes between the author and the translator. But the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for translation is in its 21st year – and recently announced a strong and diverse 2020 eight-book short list of European language literary translations - from German to Greek, Slovene and Finnish into English.

What’s the rudest thing you can say to an award-winning translator? Probably, ‘What’s the point, I’ve got Google Translate?’ It’s got to be in the top 10.

‘Google Translate might be becoming more accurate and efficient,’ says Dr Eleni Philippou, of Oxford’s Comparative Criticism and Translation research centre. ‘But translation has a human element to it, which cannot be replaced by a machine.’ She adds, ‘A machine (at least for now) cannot discern tone, nuance or humour. Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit. You need a human translator for that.’

Previously, translations would find their way into tourist shops overseas, hoping to capture the interest of travellers. But, increasingly, translations are being published further afield. In reality, translation is going through something of a renaissance, with writers such as Elena Ferrante, author of the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’, and Han Kang, who won the 2016 Man Booker prize for The Vegetarian, becoming global literary sensations. Translation is a very small part of the British book market, though, just some 3-3.5%, but translations have featured on best seller lists in the last few years and publishers cannot afford entirely to ignore them.

Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit

No-one knows this better than Dr Philippou, who has administered the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for almost five years, and has seen a range of translation submissions from publishers, both big and small. ‘Over the years, I’ve enjoyed cataloguing literary texts from the most commonly translated European languages – Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Russian – in addition to books from less-commonly translated languages, such as Modern Greek. It has also been interesting to track fashions or trends when it comes to translations. For example, Nordic Noir is currently in vogue: it has been popularised by various Scandinavian television series.’

It’s a bit like writing a book from scratch...there is no way a computer could do that. It’s very personal and it is necessary to match the tone of the original...translators have a significant role

Creativity is very much part of the translation process, according to Oxford Classics graduate, Joshua Barley. With David Connolly, he co-translated a poetry collection from leading Greek author Michális Ganás’s, A Greek Ballad. Joshua, who has lived in Greece for eight years, was delighted to be among the 2020 Oxford-Weidenfeld short list.

‘It’s a bit like writing a book from scratch...there is no way a computer could do that. It’s very personal and it is necessary to match the tone of the original...translators have a significant role,’ he says. ‘It’s really rewarding.’

A Greek Ballad - shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize

The Prize’s judges said of their translation, ‘It is a jointly translatorly and poetic tour de force that proves to be a mesmerising exploration of genres and styles. Connolly and Barley’s pioneering enterprise responds effortlessly to the range of challenges Ganás’s oeuvre presents for the translator: their renditions are inventive and formally exact when needed and stripped back when the original is elegantly succinct.’

Like Joshua, the winner of this year’s Prize, David Hackston, lives abroad and brings the literature of his adopted home to an English-speaking audience. A foreign languages graduate of UCL, he has lived in Finland for 20 years. Finnish was a minor subject for him, but David now finds himself a Finnish translator.

‘There are a lot of people translating from Swedish...Finnish is a smaller field,' he muses. ‘I'm glad my degree [in Scandinavian languages] didn’t go to waste.

You need to create a context and a voice. A passing comment might just need one extra word to make it understandable to a reader in another language. The words are only the starting point

His translation, Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci was highly-praised by the judges, ‘David Hackston’s impeccable translation never falters in the voices he gives to the characters. He switches effortlessly from Bujar’s father’s idiom of legends and fairytales to the obsessive, runaway sentences of the protagonist’s inner reflections. This is a heartbreaking novel that addresses some of the most urgent questions we face, but refuses to give any simple answers.

Crossing: The Oxford-Weidenfeld 2020 winner

The judges’ praise points to David’s attention to detail; he does not underestimate the translator’s art, ‘You need to create a context and a voice. A passing comment might just need one extra word to make it understandable to a reader in another language. The words are only the starting point.’addresses some of the most urgent questions we face, but refuses to give us any simple answers.’

Does he choose the books he translates? Not really but, he says, publishers do take advice.

‘You have to know what will work in English. It must have universal themes. It doesn’t matter where it is set, if the story is relatable,’ he says. ‘Publishers may have never translated a Finnish book before, so they have listen to people they trust. Translators have read more literature in their respective working languages than publishers have, and our perspectives can be valuable.’

Of course, Pushkin Press, which published Crossing, was founded with the explicit aim of bringing literature in translation to the UK, and could not be happier about the win.  As for David, he was delighted to win the prize – and also to translate Crossing.  David says, 'It was a novel in Finnish, about events in the Balkans [where he has travelled extensively] and with LGBT themes. It was the jackpot.’

Carrisa Véliz: 'It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.'

Online data is far more of a problem than irritating personalised ads for embarrassing products and dodgy loans. The sheer scale of personal data circulating on the internet cannot be underestimated, and it is undermining equality and democracy, according to a new book from Oxford’s Dr Carissa Véliz. She argues that we are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control. Privacy Is Power calls for the end to the data economy. Personal data, she argues, is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to be bought and sold.

We are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control

Every time you engage with tech, or tech engages with you, the data economy intrudes into your life, according to Dr Véliz, who warns about the vast amount of data now collected on everyone. It is not just your likes and dislikes, and your purchases, it is who your friends and family are, what time you get up in the morning, where you spent last night, how much money you have in the bank, whether you are unwell, how much you drink, how much you weigh, what you search for online. A virtual avatar of you can be created from every key stroke you make on your computer or your mobile phone, accumulating information about you. That data is then used to try to influence your behaviour - from what you buy to how you vote.

‘It is a perverse business model,’ says Dr Véliz. ‘We didn’t have a choice. If we wanted to have an email address or look at some content, we had to agree to give our data...no one explained the trade-off to us. By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed.’

 By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed

Personal data is a toxic asset, argues Dr Véliz. It is poisoning individual lives, by exposing us to harms such as identity theft, discrimination, public humiliation, and more. And it is poisoning society, by jeopardising equality and democracy. Citizens are not treated as equals, but on the basis of our data. We are shown different opportunities, charged different prices, and shown different pictures of the world, all on the basis of what our data says about us.

More action is needed to regulate data companies. Privacy is Power suggests several regulatory measures:

  • Ban trades in personal data;
  • Ban personalised content – it contains risks for democracy by fracturing the public sphere into individual spheres;
  • Implement fiduciary duties - to make sure our data can only be used in our own benefit and never against us.

But regulation will only be implemented when there is popular demand. If data were regulated appropriately, individuals would not have to spend much effort protecting their privacy. But, until we get there, it is important to protect your privacy.

First, because it can save you from bad experiences, such as unfair discrimination. If you have been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be because of what is in your data file. Second, because protecting your privacy will also protect others. Your data contains information about other people. Third, because by protecting your privacy, you make a statement that you care about your own privacy. It creates public pressure for governments and companies to respect privacy and it creates a paper trail, so that regulators can punish institutions which do not comply with our data rights (e.g. if you ask them to delete your data and they don’t).

If you had been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be on account of your data file

In her book, Dr Véliz maintains there are basic steps we can all take to resist the data economy. ‘Always change the defaults,’ she says. ‘And make sure you use the strictest privacy settings, so only your friends can access your information.

‘Choose privacy-friendly alternatives. Instead of Google Search, try DuckDuckGo, for example. Try to say ‘no’ to cookies. Ask companies to send you the data they have on you and then confirm they have deleted it.’

She maintains, ‘Some 92% of people have had a bad experience online related to privacy...The individual risks are considerable.’

Dr Véliz says, ‘To collect as much personal data as possible and keep it for as long as possible is reckless. It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.’

‘Before the Second World war, the Netherlands kept careful records of its population’s religious affiliation. It meant that the Nazis, by looking through the registries, were able to locate and murder some 73% of the Jewish population. But, in France, by contrast, where they did not keep such records for privacy reasons, it was not as easy to know who was Jewish, although the Nazis were able to find and assassinate some 25% of the Jewish population in France,’ says Dr Véliz.

Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more

‘Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more. During the Second World War, there was a largely unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the Amsterdam registry. The Dutch made two mistakes: they collected too much personal data and they didn’t have an easy way to delete that data in an emergency. We are making both of those mistakes on an unprecedented scale.’

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, and a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

See Dr Véliz in conversation with Professor Rasmus Nielsen, Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on Misinformation, Science and Media discussing Privacy is Power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVLMnRE0HY4&feature=youtu.be

See the book launch at the Institute for Ethics in AI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giQmtJ7LjMY