“The true measure of all our actions is how long the good in them lasts.”
So said Queen Elizabeth II who, if the Platinum Jubilee’s celebrations were anything to go by, will be remembered for the lasting good she has done.
According to recent (but pre-Jubilee) YouGov figures, the Queen is "liked" by 75 percent of the British population. She is "disliked" by just nine percent and only 13 percent feel “indifferent” toward her. Aside from some short periods of disquiet, notably after the death of Princess Diana, the respect we have for her has remained undiminished through a very long reign.
In 2015, when Elizabeth II became our longest-serving monarch, a Sky News poll suggested that 70 percent of Brits believed their country should remain a monarchy "forever" - probably in no small part because of people’s love for the current incumbent. That the Queen is still the object of public affection is a testament to her personal resilience and resolve, plus her sense of public duty. She sees her role as a vocation rather than a profession.
Another key to her longevity is her considerable skill in managing the relationship between public and private spaces. She has been accessible, up to a point, yet usually on her terms.
Unlike Queen Victoria, our next longest-serving monarch, Elizabeth II has remained a relatively public sovereign. She is keenly aware of the need for the monarchy to seem accessible – even if it is, for the most part, not.
Queen Victoria died in the year that Guglielmo Marconi conducted the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission, more than twenty years before the invention of television. Yet there's every reason to believe that even if she had lived through the digital revolution, Victoria would have chosen to remain an aloof figure. She certainly kept the press outlets of her time at arms length.
By contrast, Elisabeth II stepped into her role just as mass media became global phenomena. She could have seen this as an immense intrusion and something to be resisted at all costs. After all, the news cycle would seldom be within her control and the press and media would always speculate, often wrongly, about her beliefs and opinions. Instead, she has walked in step with changes in media technologies – or, at most, no more than a single cautious but interested step behind.
Watching the Queen “meeting” people via Zoom calls during the pandemic reminded us of her keenness to look forward and adapt to change. She showed signs of this in 1953 when she allowed her coronation to broadcast live on television. An estimated 27 million people watched in Britain alone. Eleven million more listened on radio.
Like her Christmas speeches, her “We Will Meet Again” lockdown address proved to be inspirational for many Brits, partly because such speeches from her are rare. Though not always quick to speak publicly, the Queen has always been visible. She knows that, as she put it, “I must be seen to be believed.” Little wonder that 97 percent of the British public have, at the very least “heard of” her. (Have the other three percent been living under the proverbial rock?)
Over the years, there will have been times when media interest in the royal family seemed to the Queen intrusive and offensive. Yet her actions and demeanour suggest that she accepts the public interest in her and maintains a measured level of accessibility. She has not compromised her privacy, even when under great pressure to do so.
This is an important lesson for the rest of us, facing as we do the temptation to incessantly promote, through technology, our own personal “brands”.
The ability to recapture some control over our personal digital output will be an important aspiration for us all going forward. Recently, Apple announced that the latest version of its operating system will allow users to edit or recall recently sent messages. It's a small step perhaps, but also a signal that BigTech is aware of a growing taste for user control. Looking ahead, the need for mastery over our data will burgeon with the development of the much-touted metaverse (or metaverses), where every online activity is encompassed within one platform and the number of digitised activities explodes.
Since it was first drafted in May 2021, the British government has fine-tuned its Online Safety Bill, which is said to be one of the toughest regulatory projects of its kind in the world. It aims to increase levels of protection for internet users, by holding big technology companies accountable for harmful or fraudulent activity on their platforms. At the same time, it aims to protect free speech.
However, as we rightly raise the bar of accountability for the “technokings”, we also need to reconsider the amount of data we willingly hand over to their hungry multinational corporations.
Facebook alone maintains a total of 52,000 data points on each of its users - that is, it can classify 52,000 traits for each one. It does so using algorithms, pieces of code built to perform very specific tasks. These data points are like gold for marketers who pay big money to access and analyse them.
As we try to negotiate a post-lockdown environment, we are generating more data about ourselves than ever. The pandemic led to a sharp rise in our use of cashless payment systems, which took digital data generation to new levels. Meanwhile, lockdowns boosted our use of digital communications tools, such as Zoom and TikTok. Each call, each dance video generates bytes of information about us.
In May 2020, a poll of 2,000 Brits found that they spent almost 5,000 hours per year glued to screens of various kinds - that’s around 13 hours per day! Most respondents freely admitted that much of this time wasn't very productive. Granted, this survey was conducted at the height of the pandemic, but five years before, an Ipsos-Mori report suggested that British adults, collectively, glance at smartphone screens 1.1 billion times every 24 hours. (It’s worth remembering that even eye-balling a screen can generate data).
In all of this, we add to the databases of some of history’s most expansive companies and near-monopolies. As we do, we blur the line between what we consider private and what we regard as suitable for public consumption. Some of us seem unable to cope with the notion that, at any given time, we might be unrepresented in the collective stream of consciousness that is social media.
By proclaiming our everyday activities and publishing our opinions, we potentially expose ourselves to identity theft, which affects 220,000 people in the UK every year. Perhaps even more concerning is that digital engagement shrinks our private thinking space. The internet is an ecosystem for distraction and without making time for focused reflection, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to process information and garner wisdom.
By living so much of our lives online, we may unwittingly compromise our self-respect and the respect others have for us. Familiarity may not always breed contempt but it can, at the very least, produce ho-hum complacency. During the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were wise to keep a low profile. Ironically, considering the open ways in which they’ve shared their opinions of late, their relative absence from view might create more positive interest in them going forward.
Perhaps we should all withdraw a little more, thus allowing our opinions to carry more weight when we do have something to say.
In her approach to public versus private life, the Queen has demonstrated that we can be accessible to the outside world, without pandering to rampant voyeurism. In this, as in so much else, she has set a fine example for us all.