Engrossed in Football represents an exciting new intervention on the football cultural landscape. Its central objective is to curate written content from renowned football writers around the globe, providing a forum for the exchange of knowledge and perspectives on some of the game's most thought-provoking issues.
This article was published in the special World Cup 2018 edition of Engrossed in Football - the magazine's first issue. The piece is printed in the middle of the issue and is entitled "Half-time"; it is an editor's opinion piece which sets out the core values of the publication and explains the thinking behind its creation.
A lot has changed since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. These last four years have borne witness to political and social upheaval for which it is difficult to find comparison in the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. What we have seen most recently are the ructions engendered by fundamental shifts in social relations and the way societies access and consume information. There is historical precedent for this, although the most remarkable characteristic of the moment we are living through is the sheer pace of change.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century in Europe, the proliferation of printed literature that followed the adoption of movable type and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible caused great societal change, as the transfer of the scriptures from the hands of the clergy into wider literate society democratised religion. Moreover, print publishing allowed Martin Luther to disseminate his criticisms of the Catholic Church, expediting the Protestant Reformation. The publication of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517 was followed less than a decade later by the violent Great Peasants’ Revolt, an unprecedented popular uprising in Europe.
Much as religious institutions were disrupted by the spread of print publishing in early modern Europe, the growing influence of the internet – harnessed by giant social media companies – has now disrupted politics the world over. “The global impact of the internet has few analogues in history better than the impact of printing on sixteenth-century Europe. The personal computer and smartphone have empowered networks as much as the pamphlet and the book did in Luther’s time,” comments Niall Ferguson in his 2017 book The Square and the Tower.
Yet while the stated aim of corporations such as Facebook is to empower networks and connect people, the consequences of their dominance are somewhat different, as revealed in an exposé last year of Facebook’s machinations. Author John Lanchester doubts that “there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.”
What nobody could foresee is how economic forces have allowed networking tools to be distorted into agents of segregation and radicalisation. Algorithms have herded human beings into self-affirming groups through confirmation bias, while critical thinking has become an undervalued commodity. Around the world democratic elections and referenda – state-sanctioned or not – have borne out this distortion over recent years. The political climate continues to indicate the formation of “thought bubbles” resulting from the preponderance of social media use in society.
If we were previously uncomfortable with – albeit resigned to – the notion of consuming tailored advertising and being “told” what to buy based on our personal preferences, the spectre of our thoughts, predilections and even voting intentions being swayed by social media is a step too far for many of us. We now live and work in an attention economy, where advertisers are customers and consumers are the product. The maxim that “if the product is free, you are the product” resonates with many, since valuable personal data is given up in return for that which ultimately sustains this radical new economy: content.
From one perspective, it is a dynamic that inevitably leads to the debasement of that content; be it political commentary, football writing, or an independent blog. A more positive perception is that it will slowly lead to the production and curation of more high-quality content as part of attempts to carve out a place in the market. Football writing is a field where both these processes are already in play. There is no cause to highlight on these pages the many digital outlets that have embraced the culture of churning out content in return for lucrative clicks, and which have turned many football fans away from the game in recent years. Yet many new ideas and independent titles have also emerged, resisting the marginalisation of quality journalism.
At EiF it is our conviction that considered, reflective writing and engrossing reading about the game we all share shall win the day. By no means do we disavow the importance of the internet and technological progress, which have allowed us independently to produce and promote this magazine in an open marketplace where once we would scarcely have been afforded a chance. In the world we now inhabit, however, the consumer’s precious attention is all too often scattered in a myriad directions as soon as it has been acquired.
The central idea behind Engrossed in Football is to re-focus attention, paring away distractions and privileging the written word. Our aim is continuously to represent and promote key values of inclusiveness and critical thinking, and – invoking T. S. Eliot – to welcome you the reader into the still point of the turning world.