Future Imperfect – Tomorrow, Today
Looking out from the 31st floor balcony, it doesn’t seem high until you look down. Shenzhen stretches 80 kilometres east to west, but is only 10 deep, North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta, like a badly kept concrete lawn, with clumps of seventy and eighty story towers sprouting like steel weeds. The 115 story Ping An Tower, the worlds 4th largest, the town’s own tall poppy. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river is filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. They’ve phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out with QR codes and digital wallets. Cashless, silent, sleek.
This is not ‘The Future’, but it is ‘A Future’. Two days a week I commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The journey takes around an hour and a half, but the time travelled is greater than the distance covered. After getting stamped out of Mainland China and into Hong Kong at the vast Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, coaches and cars spiral up onto the five-and-a-half-kilometre bay bridge to cross over to the New Territories. As we roll up the overpass onto the bridge, the plaiting of concrete weaves carriageways from right-to-left and left-to-right. The first sign that they do things differently here. At least for now.
Hong Kong, like Tokyo, represents a certain obsolete near-future in the collective imagination. Having had its image and form repeatedly appropriated by Hollywood as a stand-in for numerous dystopias, the familiarity can make it seem almost underwhelming. Hong Kong looks exactly like ‘Hong Kong’ – a trait it shares with New York. It also feels like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. The stuttering neon signs and diesel-streaked streets, PoMo towers and marble-lined lobbies are a particularly sharp contrast with Shenzhen’s unironic modernity. From its peak in 1993, Hong Kong has declined from twenty-seven to less than three percent of China’s GDP. But beyond the numbers, it feels like a city in decline. Slowly, megaprojects such as the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and the China High-speed Rail Link are stitching the territory together with the mainland, bringing Hong Kong’s greatest fear ever-closer, becoming just another mid-sized Chinese city. With the perceived erosion of its Rule of law, the Special Administrative Region has become a contested space. The acute confrontation over the ‘two systems’ principle, is also representative of a bigger conflict between two ideas. Two visions of what the future could be.
Words can be problematic; they are both the obstacle to articulating a thought and the best way to try. This clash of ideas, in which Hong Kong is just one front, isn’t easily reduced to opposing pairs as the Cold War once was. Capitalism’s ‘victory’ over Communism was always an artificial, lexigraphic binary that pitted an economic system against a total political, social and economic order. ‘Capitalism’ is synecdochic, an easy shorthand for ‘democratic capitalism’ and the free and limited, markets, open societies and shared small-L liberal consensus regarding the primacy of the individual. Democratic Capitalism is Limited Capitalism. And it was ‘Limited Capitalism’ that ‘won’. The front line crossed by the arcing span of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge is not the battle between capitalism and communism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is Capitalism unencumbered by Democracy. It is the front line between Total and Limited Capitalism.
Limited Capitalism was never an outright winner, but in its rhetoric, it strived to achieve the illusion of permanence. The rights of the individual – the societal sidekick to the economic superhero – has never been inevitable and maybe not even natural. Increasingly this relic of our post-Enlightenment experiments feels like a humanistic blip. In the face of Brexit and Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban, I have found myself increasingly having to defend the ‘pragmatism of the primacy of the individual’ to friends not just in Singapore and Shanghai, but Boston and Berlin. Yes, it is the freedom to screw up, but it is also the freedom not to be screwed with.
When measured in terms of human development Limited Capitalism has been a great success. But ‘Capitalist Democracy’ is a productive tension, not a synonymic pair. Capitalism privileges results, Democracy, the process. One is fast, the other is slow. The market is majoritarian, while the democratic enshrines the individual, not merely responsible to a simple majority. This makes elections, perversely, the least important aspect of a democracy. Limited Capitalism is an uneasy hybrid. You are free to consume, you are free to participate, but the between the two there is no equivalence. The human flourishing this has propagated cannot be measured by statistics alone. It is this tension that universalised the franchise, enshrined judicial independent and – aspirationally -declared Universal Human Rights. Less tangibly and more significantly it gives each of us a hope of genuine human dignity and all of us some faith in a societal-level trust. Maybe it was easier to win hearts and minds in the late 20th century with Right to Buy than the Rights of Man, but failing to promote the civil alongside the economic conflates consumption with participation, creating the opportunity for Total Capitalism.
Shenzhen’s subway tunnels are lined with motion-synced LED screens that animate adverts outside the carriage windows selling pizza and pet food station to station. My connected TV won’t switch on without first showing me a short film promoting the latest toilet paper or plastic surgery procedure. Pop-up ads and promotions are a pervasive part of every single product or service, physical or virtual that I use. Upsell, cross-sell, resell. The imperative to consume is everywhere, the Chinese Dream constantly reinforced as the route to individualisation and self-actualisation. Judged by the old Communist clichés of a “decadent West,” focussed on temerarious consumption, contemporary China is the most “western” place I have ever lived or been. One where I am no more and no less than the sum of my purchases. I buy therefore I am.
At the same time deep integration of seamless technology has evolved a new species of human as consumer, Homo Emptus. The local branch of KFC lets me buy a Family Bucket with nothing more than my face, using cameras linked directly to my virtual wallet which holds my credit cards and fictive cash. Recently I was walking through the precinct by my block, when a young woman ran up to me, apologising. Her cleaner’s phone had stopped receiving transfers and she didn’t have the cash to pay. Did I have any? Pulling a handful of 100 yuan notes out of my pocket, she pulled out her phone, scanned my wallet and transferred me the 300 kuai which I had in cash. In less than a minute I had become a human ATM. It was demeaning and thrilling at the same time, I imagine not dissimilar to the excitement felt by the freshly humiliated submissive.
Sometimes living here can feel like magic. But if you only immerse in the wonder, you miss the cost. Recently, a group of cyclists in Shanghai rode past a police officer, stopped by the side of the road, deep in an animated discussion with the driver they had just pulled over. The group, aware the policeman was otherwise occupied, slowly rolled through the red signal ahead, traffic light on a quiet Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes later by the time they had reached their café stop and pulled out their phones to pay, they had all been fined. Facial recognition cameras mounted on top of the police car had ID-ed them and then allowed the officer digitally ensure justice was done. When we are defined only by our consumption, this make complete sense, our economic life is simply ‘life’, giving the state unprecedented control in return for our convenience. Seamlessness may be fast, but to protect Limited Capitalism, we need seams.
The reality is though that our willingness to conflate commercial choice with civil freedoms has makes it easy for us to walk backwards into Total Capitalism. Using ‘Capitalism’ as a shorthand for so long has meant a lack of focus on the social and political dimensions that has allowing the market to perform as a poor stand-in for the whole. This has led to declining trust in the very institutions that underpin both our societal freedom and our consumer choice. The recent World Values Survey shows a minority in both Europe and the US of people born after 1970 believe it is ‘essential to live in a democracy.’ If this is the case then we have collectively failed to remind ourselves what ‘democracy’ really entails. It has also led to the bizarre inversion for many on the neoliberal right who see any democratic limit placed on the market as ‘undemocratic’
The rising indifference to the democratic can be seen in part as a consequence of Limited Capitalism’s success. Just as a fish does not know that it is wet, we take for granted the protections afforded the individual. We have collectively and systemically failed to remind ourselves of the importance of the water we all swim in. Political leaders and populist demagogues who owe their very existence to the small L liberalism that underpins Limited Capitalism have failed to give credit, choosing instead to pee in the pond for short term gain. Taking our collective socio-political foundations for granted has led to their erosion. Ignoring them has also reduced the success of a state to its economy alone. Whilst freedom of speech won’t feed my children, GDP won’t make them happier or more morally rich. This tyranny of the economic means that states which favour the fast and the outcome will be judged the best performing, outshining those that optimise for the slow, the process, the individual. By judging a state by its economy rather than their humanity, we set up a framework in which the Total Capitalism is not only increasingly easy to admire, but objectively ‘better’, with no way to quantify its glaring qualitative flaws. The fallacy that our economic lives are an adequate stand-in for our civic ones provides the ideological misdirection to pull the trick off. Only what is counted is valued.
Total Capitalism, by succeeding on these terms, promotes a worrying model of growth and unfreedom, chipping away at the old liberal consensus. As pervasive technologies allow ever-greater accumulation of information, we are reaching an inflection point, two divergent versions of how this data is used and its implications for how we live. Progress marches an there is a decision to be made, inaction is not possible. A battle that is waged by only one side, even one of ideas, is not without bloodshed; it is a massacre.
Unencumbered by the limits that the state apparatus of Limited Capitalism places on it, technology can quickly become dystopian. The Limited Capitalist model is not just a check on economic entities – as the EU has proved with its fines on Google and Microsoft – but also on governments. And it adds an implicit societal dimension to the economic role. When Apple refused to provide a back door to iPhone for the FBI, it was asserting its social responsibility, not just its economic function. It helped that these two impulses were congruent here, but the difference between that and the case of the Shanghai cyclists is stark. Tencent, makers of the ubiquitous WeChat Wallet in question, were doing nothing wrong by allowing the state to pick pockets; they were fulfilling their duty, legally obliged to do so in the People’s Republic. The FBI’s response to Apple’s refusal was that American lives might be lost, but people died enshrining the rights Apple was upholding. Do we still believe the defence of the individual is worth dying for?
It would be worth asking that question to the millions of minority Muslims constantly surveilled, or interred in camps in Xinjiang. Advanced monitoring technologies, sharpened to scalpel-like precision, have created an unprecedented digital panopticon. The whole region is monitored at a level of detail that previously would have taken vast armies of watchers and handlers. Now instead, the state has the ability to micromanage human life at a macroscale; facial recognition, device tracking and digital monitoring turn an entire country-sized region into a prison colony. Xinjiang is not just a tragedy though; it is a testbed. China has rolled the same systems across the entirety of its domestic train network as well as at every airport, port and major public area. More disturbingly, it is a showroom for the implementation of its own particular strain of Total Capitalism. A sinister demonstration of how to unshackle the market from democracy, providing economic liberation whilst maintaining total control. For parts of the world that were previously faced with the choice between an all-inclusive version of modernity, open society and all, China offers an alluring alternative, a cake-and-eat-it model powered by pervasive technologies and financed by Belt and Road loans. And it is one that has succeeded by our own ‘Capitalist’ yardstick.
Total Capitalism is by no means inevitable, and its vision of the future not the only one. Technology is neutral and can be used co-opted for community as well as commerciality. The liberal limits within Liberal, Democratic, Limited Capitalism have allowed it to do both. But our willingness to collapse the social, political and economic into one big flat now have left us at a critical juncture. Hong Kong’s fight is an imperfect allegory for the decision that we need to make about what we should measure and what really matters, particularly in the developed world. We cannot take for granted what we already have. An era is only named after it has long passed. It is up to us to decide if we are to witness the end of this one.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and identity
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer much written about. Having engaged a little with his essays, I was lent Between the World and Me by a friend. I was unsurprised by who. Coates is very much the ‘correct’ writer of the left currently, and as a fit and proper member of the liberal left (as well as a Londoner of very mixed Afro-Caribbean-European descent) I felt I ought to engage.
First, the bit that has been done to death as a “correct preface and before launching into critque, the part that’s obvious; Coates is a candid, thoughtful and unique voice. A very good writer, a significant 21st Century American voice. It may be too early to say whether he will be canonical, but the signs are he will. I am not a literary critic, but I wanted to offer a personal response to his writing, or rather his literary preoccupations, to see if there is anything half-universal in my particular thoughts about his thinking.
Like the science fiction author who becomes obsessed with the intricacies and technicalities of the genre, Coates may always be ‘great’ within a subcategory, rather than using that prism to place his own particular within the universal, and that universal in his particular. His fixation on the lens through which he sees the world – blackness – rather than how he sees through that lens and what he looks at are the limiting factor. The feeling that Coates is a ‘Black Writer’ very explicitly in that order dogs me continually when I read his work. I feel as though I ought to feel more – as a liberal, as mixed-race man, but I was just left with the uncomfortable sense that many of the grandly extrapolative commentaries on his work are universalising a writer who is so particular to his time and place, and the history of the USA, as well as his own experience. What I find most difficult is that in Coates is that he accepts ‘Blackness’ completely and internalises it wholly before ever putting pen to paper. The irony here is that by never questioning that first assumption, he fosters the fatalism which constantly stalks his work
That Coates’ address blackness as a monolithic bloc is where I struggle most. Despite passages when he is at his most lyrical, describing the multi-shaded, multi-storied, multicultural mix of the ‘The Yard’ at Howard University, he so often slides back into a monochrome world view, where he fixates on ‘blackness’ and on ‘black’. He is able to acknowledge this visual heterogeneity, but fails to fully comprehend the consequences of that with respects to culture, history and society. In this singular and one-dimensional view of ‘black,’ he reflects America’s greatest failure. The precondition of all of his work is that he has accepted the external and artificial ‘othering’ of nonwhiteness; his acceptance of this imposed definition underpins all that he writes; it preoccupies his words and perhaps his dreams; haunted by the ghost of another’s treason.
The motif of ‘black bodies’ in Between the World and Me perfectly encapsulates this internalisation. Of course he is right in that government has alienated these bodies, that the state has challenged individuals’ rights to govern their own, that the threat of force hangs over all of them. Yet what is so tragic is the resigned acceptance of this. Rather than understand that it is a contested space, one that is being unevenly but inevitably – and rightly- won back, he despairs as if it is lost. The increasing awareness of the slights, the bias, the towering structural travesties that history has built to subjugate black bodies points towards the likelihood of their destruction. Arguably White Militancy reflects how successful and ultimately inexorable this victory is. Or perhaps not being American, I am naive. Ironic it was always America that so many pointed to as a beacon of opportunity and of optimism. Coates is indeed one of 21st Century America’s finest voices; he is also one of it’s saddest truths. Every artist is flawed, but when the hand wringing liberals, the latter-day descendants of Langston Hughes’ Park Avenue dinner party hosts, ‘correctly’ accept universality in his particularity they are in danger or reinforcing the othering they claim to fight.
All identities are constructed, but ‘blackness’ has a long and particularly dark history, which has been better explored by many many others. But fundamentally, it is the ‘othering’ by European’s of nonwhite peoples that went alongside colonial expansion and became a core part of the racist/racialist theory and thinking that came to dominate by the 19th Century. As a European invention, it was adopted and internalised to varying degrees by people upon whom it was forced. It is interesting drawing on my own experience, having been lucky enough to be paid to briefly unpick a number of different cultures in my past career, how this varies. As a commercial market researcher, I used to hop place to place working out how best to flog anything from face cream to football boots. I remember one project where we were working on a campaign for Guinness called ‘Made of Black’ that drew a not-too-subtle line between the brand’s long heritage of being brewed and consumed in (primarily West) Africa, and one of it’s more obvious visual attributes within the beer category. In Lagos, this ebullient, assertive campaign, riffing on contemporary culture across the African continent was incredibly well received. Yet the following week in Addis Ababa, in a country that was never truly colonised, there was criticism – they wanted to know why we were showing this to them, ‘what was this Black Black Black’ they said. ‘We are Ethiopians, we come in many shades, and we are all Ethiopians. Those West Africans that were colonised are Black’. I imagine the darker skinned, ‘black’ Emiratis I met the next week in the UAE (to find out how best to redesign air conditioning units) would have found it equally puzzling, and not just because they (ostensibly) don’t drink.
Black is a label invented by the labeller. Like Santa Claus it is imagined, a myth or a construct that has informed real behaviours, constructed entire social and economic systems. So why does Coates embrace it rather that shout that it isn’t real. One reason is that the myth has created realities, but to dispel the myth is to undermine the foundation of the edifice and perhaps create the chance to build a new one. The other is far more tragic. The American Black experience, devoid of an alternative, it’s own ‘Ethiopian-ness’ or Emirati-ness’ embraces this. So we get to ‘Black Culture’, ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Panther,’ the ‘Black’ here simply meaning ‘nonwhite’,the black being an empty vessel created by someone else who didn’t even bother to fill it that many try to fill in a quest for meaning. This is the history of the most enduring crime of slavery. That is cut people off from themselves. From any notion of identity. Then institutionally barred them from being part of any new one. The history of ‘Black’ is the history of the greatest American Crime. Micheal Jackson’s transformation could have only happened in this America. Hip Hop, ‘Young Gifted and Black’, ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ could have only been created in this place. In fairness to Coates, he does not try to explicitly universalise, so the dangerous mistake is that of those reading. Perhaps this previous sentence is the most important so far. Perhaps this is best read as a response to Coates the Cultural Artefact rather than Coates the Author, brought about by the loan of a “correct” text from a “correct” friend.
Perhaps by this point someone reading will have already decided that I am ‘not black enough’. Divides are so often drawn along these lines. As if there is a ‘correct’ amount of blackness. These mimic and invert the very hierarchy of the plantation; once again they internalise the ‘othering’ – the lightskinned slaves in the house and the darkest bodies working the hardest toil on the field. Repackaged slave-owner logic used to ‘other’ an another from another mother.
The point of writing this, though was to reflect how little of my life I saw in Coates’ ‘black life’. ‘Black British’ is loosely defined and rarely used. Perhaps because it can mean so much it does mean so little. But whatever cohesion there is in that term comes with is variety, it’s multiplicity. I cannot identify with Coates because I have not been sat outside of history, nose pressed up against the glass looking in. Migration here came in suits and Sunday best, carrying cardboard suitcases and hopes. It came with by invitation, not with chains. It came with identities and cultures – those in themselves part-created, part agglomerated, part othered, but wholly owned. West Indian, Jamaican, the multiple religions and traditions of the Indian subcontinent. They came with stories. They came with these shields against a simple ‘othering’ which let people say “I am not the other, I am.”
My own mother, born in Jamaica and having come to the Mother Country on a boat as a child with my Grandmother, was puzzled when she moved to the US in her early 20s. The fixation with ‘Blackness’, The ‘Kunta Kinte Questing’ to look for identity and meaning, the notion that dating across ‘racial lines’ was somehow treacherous was alien. These invisible picket lines had been erected on both sides. Blackness was complicit in it’s own vilification.
I look at the US and wonder if it ever could have brought forth Ali G, the character that mocks the suburban white adoption of (predominantly black) Urban culture’; who asks “Is it cos I is black?” which in six simple syllables captures the complex interplay between Britain and the Caribbean diaspora that have helped shape it’s contemporary culture. A comedic rhetorical question imbued with Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts, The Specials and Madness’; filled with Two-Tone, Skinhead and Ska; seasoned with the syntax of Dizzee Rascal and Trevor McDonald. Perhaps the intricacies of the British class system helped blur ‘race’, helped (‘white’) band The Clash warn about ‘The Guns of Brixton’ years before the riots and empowered MC Smiley Culture to give us a ‘Cockney Translation’ only three years before NWA said ‘Fuck the Police’.
The closest I ever saw to what I thought of as an American internalisation of ‘Blackness’ was whilst at university. In the alienating environment of Oxford, where (almost) everyone, save those from the most elite public schools felt cut adrift, there were undertones of it in the ‘Oxford Caribbean and African Society” aka “BlackSoc”. The combination of these two amorphous cultural buckets was curious to me. Growing up in London, I remember some friction between the two diasporas. They both have so many diverse and different stories that to cram them together, with only their nonwhiteness in common, looked like a self-othering, in reaction to being a visible outsider in a place where everyone felt like an imposter. Maybe it was easier in BlackSoc, like the passively religious who arrive at university and become passionate Evangelicals. I don’t know, but it always struck me as non sequitous unless seen through the lens of the Coatesian worldview. Perhaps their existence itself is a warning against my own naive, instinctive smugness. After all, just as ‘not all Trump voters are racist, but all racists are Trump voters’, the same could be said about Brexit. And the recent Austrian elections Geert Wilders demonstrates how misplaced European complacency is.
Coates himself hints at a less monolithic perspective when he narrates his move to NY, yet ultimately squeezes the Latinos and Puerto Ricans into his catholic outlook. People are one or the other. Yet the failure is not his, the failure is America’s. If you feel that I believe race does not matter that the damage of institutionalised, othered, monolithic ‘blackness’ is irrelevant then I have expressed myself poorly. It matters. A lot. But it must be contested and to do so it must be fought. That is not the author’s job. It is all of ours. And perhaps that is easier anywhere else where there was life before the labelling. How do you think beyond if there is nothing before, If everything else has been erased?
I understand the Coatesian view in the abstract, placed in is socio-historical context. But it is a contested space, and because of this, I consciously choose not to share it.
I worry if I am ‘Black enough’ to share this article without reproach. Yet it is that instinctive worry that tells me I must share it.
Open Letter to Anthony Appiah
I recently read ‘The Lies that Bind’ by Anthony Kwame Appiah. I thought it was fantastic book and left me with many thoughts and responses. I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t reply, so I shall share it here… Hopefully some of them make sense for those that haven’t read the book, and for anyone who has, would be fascinated to hear.
Dear Professor Appiah
Firstly, apologies for this unsolicited note, and the second rate undergrad-level thoughts it contains.
After finishing ‘The Lies that Bind’, I really wanted to put down some thoughts – I hope you don’t thing its too weird that I have then sent them to you….
I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you explore about identity within your book. Identity – and in particular nationality and it’s composite bits – is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and a little bit for a long time, particularly as mixed-race Afro-caribbean Brit living in an British Asian former colony (Singapore) for the last four years. (I could write multiple emails just picking apart my observations on identity here in response to some of your writing – one of my neighbours told me the story of how, as a young boy, he went to bed waving one flag and woke up waving another 53 years ago)
On a personal level I really connected with the elements you wove in of your own story and how your unique viewpoint allows you to describe the absurdity of reductive and singular notions of identity that essentialists and ethnocentrists cling to. Having in my own small way straddled multiple worlds during my own experience; most obviously of race, but also of class and of culture, I have always had a sense that ‘obvious’ category divides and definitions aren’t particularly natural or clear or obvious, but I also feel that is the gift of a privileged viewpoint. I smiled when you referred to yourself as ‘English’ as I remember one particularly revealing late night debate with a very good friend (he still is now) from my college who vehemently denied me use of the title because I “don’t have the blood”.
The thing that really struck me as I read your work was the outsized role that Country or the Nation plays in tying together the contemporary versions of the four other sorts of identity that you explore. It seems that (to borrow one of your most lovely turns of phrase in the book) Nation, or the Nationalism born of the industrial nation state is the ‘Medusa Gaze’ that fixes and reduces the other facets identities. Between the French Revolution, the 19th Century romantic liberal-national movements and the technological and economic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, the overlapping, multilayered versions of identity that still lingered at the time of Ettore’s birth were hammered flat, collapsed and co-opted by modern Nationalism. Ironic that what at the start of the 19th Century was the great ideal of the liberal (I remember studying why ‘Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles’ was a message initially to inspire citizens of a patchwork of grand-duchies and principalities to ‘feel’ German above ‘Protestant’ or ‘Hanseatic’ or ‘Prussian’) became the refuge and strength of the authoritarian. Perhaps natural too, as once the liberal-national dream to ‘create’ has been fulfilled, the logical next step is to ‘conserve’?
Then of course this was exported to the rest of the world, through amongst other things the ‘Census, Map, Museum’ as Benedict Anderson puts it, and as you recognise when you talk about the invention of the Hindu (the same is true of the definition ‘Malay’ in Singapore – there has been some fantastic work done on how this authoritarian island utopia is a post colonial government deploying unreconstituted colonial structures and powers.
By lashing together states-wide tribalism for mass mobilisation – for war and for industry, using the vines and tentacles of creed and colour and culture, Country became Nation and it fixed these ideas, creating a mass cultural product that was compellingly simple and dangerously compelling. The lies we tell ourselves aren’t a problem in themselves – as you highlight in so many of your pre-industrial examples, until they are denied the elasticity and vibrancy to continue to flex and grow. Some of the examples you use from religion and evolving consensus on values highlight this beautifully, and in part I wanted to write to you to see what your response would be to the thought which struck me – namely, that it was this industrial homogenisation of these other elements by the Nation-State (to which I would add language, at least as a historical category to this) which caused so many of the problems we see now in ‘identity politics’; that identity politics as we see it, is a product of this process. Religious fundamentalism, racial essentialism and cultural ossification are all modern industrial products, and like Nationalism, are profoundly unsuited to the reality of the contemporary world – it’s no coincidence that it primarily is supranational bodies like the EU that are suited to – and have at least had some limited success being – a counterpoint to transnational corporations.
When you then went on to argue the opposite when it came to class, that we do not pay enough attention to it’s continuity and the myth of meritocracy (our 20th Century version of Mayer’s ‘Persistence of the Old Regime’) I was even more excited. Perhaps here I push my reading of you work too far into my limited (and rusty) intellectual realm as a historian by training, a democratic socialist by inclination and someone working in the ‘commercial application of social sciences’ (I say grandiosely – I am but a humble market researcher…) but could in some ways this be the counterpoint to Nation? Maybe I have been listening to Paul Robeson sing ‘Joe Hill’ too often recently, but it struck me that if the two work in opposite directions and by making class as you describe it more visible, class could provide a counterpoint to the problems of Nation? Or at least as a lever to prise back apart some richness and layers?
Lastly, as a liberal, the thing that you touch upon which touched me most is in your section on Cultural appropriation. When other ‘liberals’ throw it round cheaply, I shudder. That is truly (to use another of your phrases – and I have been using these a lot talking to people recently, so it’s not just here to flatter you in this email) a source code fallacy. By engaging on those terms, they truly are reinforcing exactly the essentialism that you rail against, and having had this argument with so many people recently, and ‘tarnishing’ my ‘correct’ cosmopolitan/liberal credentials it was relief to read someone far more eloquent and intelligent and me articulate the sentiment. he yardstick of ‘respect’ is a useful heuristic for making the phrase redundant. There are a few copies of the book along with specific pages called out already on their way to some people. You express the idea far better than I have ever managed!
Anyway, I hope you have time to read this, and certainly don’t expect a reply, but I really just wanted to say thank you for writing something so thought provoking and refreshing – definitely one of my books of the year so far,
P.S I do also really wonder if you have read any, and what you think of the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I feel like that must be an irritating question you get asked all the time, and the FT was wise enough to avoid it in their recent interview with you, so I shall do the same. His work does remind me of a bad joke someone told me – Why is race like Santa Claus? They are both not real, but have both caused so much genuine sorrow and suffering…
Fear and Loathing and Facebook
The leading execs of Big Pharma, Big Oil and those managing payday lenders really ought to get themselves to the Googleplex for a crash-course in image management. Compared to these industries which are often burdened with toxic reputations (sometimes literally rather than figuratively) Google is seen as a benevolent public institution rather than publicly listed profit-generator. Tax issues ebb and flow across the foreshore of public consciousness, but ultimately fail to wash away the general positivity and goodwill.
Likewise, raising concerns about privacy feels like praising the latest Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook at a dinner party in Herne Hill; it’s one of those things that one is socially obligated to go through the motions of… Germany aside, (where frankly, there are some longer standing issues around ‘files’ and ‘secrets) – protests about data security sound generally anemic. I don’t know anyone using ‘Duck Duck Go’ and most privacy settings go mostly unchecked. Frankly, I am more worried about my bank than my browser. The reality is that this a company that could – and often, by our ‘consent by default’, does know everything about our online selves. Which in 2016 amounts to an awful lot of us. Probably more than our partners. I wouldn’t share my entire browsing data with mine. Would you?
I am writing this on Google Docs, in Chrome browser, at a cafe I searched for, or rather ‘Googled’ with their Search Engine and then found with Maps on my Android powered phone. If you have watch some content from YouTube or replied to an email through Gmail between these devices you are providing more and more cumulative understanding of who you are, so they can sell that ‘who’ to the highest bidder. Their argument is that they want people to be able to sell to you in a way that is more rewarding for us all. Whatever the reason is, most of us are okay with the Faustian pact we are entered into. We take the free stuff in return for becoming their product. At the same time, they want to cover the world with balloons in the sky the broadcast internet and they have just released an AI-powered device that will one day run your entire home through their systems. How you feel about that depends how dystopian/lazy you are feeling in any given moment. I have a sneaking suspicion that rather than this being the result of careful reputation management, it’s more like watching a horror film seated 6 inches away from a megaplex-sized IMAX screen; you never see anywhere near enough of the whole picture to realise how incredibly fucking scary it is.
By contrast, Facebook should be a big cuddly blue bear, right? It’s where all your friends are, your pictures, your contacts. You spend hours there, they know that, they have the data; you’ve been there swiping up, swiping up swiping up for the last four hours! You LOVE it! Or so that’s their pitch to advertisers. They are all about the love. And they are working on giving us more love. I woke up today and fired up Ol’ Blue to find it telling me “Good Morning Adam – Stay dry Today in Singapore – Rain is forecast”. THANKS Ol’ Blue. Great to know. Or sometimes it’s a message to tell me it’s International Peace Day, or Pizza Day, or whatever. I don’t know, but they were thinking of me!
Snark aside, Facebook, like the rest of the internet, trade on our attention. Just like Instagram (which they own) or Snapchat or Twitter, it is our engagement that they sell ( or fail to, if you’re Twitter). And Facebook feel threatened by lots of other social channels coming onstream that are growing and engaging users rapidly, including messaging services such as Line or the also-Facebook owned WhatsApp.
But online as well as off, Engagement comes in many different flavours. Websites may measure it quantitatively (time spent on page, Unique Monthly Visits etc.) but there is also a strong qualitative element to it. Why are they engaging; what is the mindset, mood and motivation at the moment? There was a time when Facebook was probably loved. Or at least liked. When it was small, when it was amusing, when it felt intimate. But it became a vast all-encompassing thing, and it aims eventually to include everyone. Somewhere along the way, it became so big that it became an institution. In fact, it became infrastructure. Having a Facebook account is akin to what having a phone line was in the late 20th century, or a mobile phone just a little before now in the 21st. It’s like running water and sanitation. No-one loves their toilet, but you are pretty angry when it doesn’t flush. But Facebook still wants to be loved and still wants attention – it’s like a 30 year old man who still acts like the overindulged toddler he once was (!). So it creeps me out with messages about the weather, about what’s happening in the world, about my ‘last year in review’. Confronted with myriad platforms that are more novel and more compelling, it tries even harder to make you love it.
The big problem is there is a massive disconnect in how it wants to be seen, and how people see it. And this comes from this quantitative measure of engagement. By looking at how long people are on their app, scrolling their feeds and equating this with how much people care, or even love your app, they are making a dangerous mistake. And from this dangerous mistake they are building an even more dangerous strategy’ trying to make their news feeds stickier and stickier, getting people to dwell longer and longer, making their messenger ever-more intrusive. Because this time does not equate to love. Simply put, people hate themselves for using it. And the more their functionality tries to encourage that, the more resentment and loathing it builds. To go back to the toilet, it would be as if it only allowed you to flush once you had sung a late 80s Madonna hit to it. You’d do it, but you’d really rather not…
Facebook, like Google is now a grown-up part of the internet. It is one of the foundational elements from which all the lovely, interesting, grotesque and surprising bits of the internet spring. Whether by accident, design, or simply the nature of the core products they are pushing, Google is acting like an elder statesman, whereas Facebook doesn’t want to grow up. But neither did Myspace or AOL.
Facebook’s function as a universal sign it, it’s role as the depository of contacts and personal photos and a whole bunch of other core functions it plays within people’s online lives are vital – it is somewhere between a filofax and a permanent scrapbook, a fixed social CV that means I can be found (like a sexier version of the Phone Book) are really useful. Much of the rest is not. And by trying to fight the ‘new’ at the periphery it obfuscates it’s core. How many party invites, events or groups have migrated to (mercifully for them, FB-owned) WhatsApp, whose utilitarian, user-driven structure seems ever more appealing. That should be a space they own. Why build chatbots for Messenger, when people are already querying businesses via WhatsApp?
So what is the result of all this? The eponymous Fear and Loathing. People hate themselves for using it and is seeing diminishing returns on the ‘useful’ parts, even if the headline ‘time on site’ show we still think it’s wonderful; other tools are getting a greater share of more meaningful interactions. It doesn’t help that their leadership is either sucking up to China, much to the derision of both the Chinese internet and the West, or patronising the developing world. The worse part is the fear – FB is the one that constantly suffers from privacy issues, from accusations about how it uses people’s data, it’s the one that ‘knows too much’ even though in truth it’s Google that probably has the deeper insights. But Google is the Elder Statesman and Facebook is the 30 year old man-child. Who would you rather trust with your all of your browsing and personal data? Me or Kofi Annan?
Photojournalism, Ethics and Truth
Is truth a feeling? Can a photograph ever be honest? These were the questions that were never asked, but were ringing in my ears when I left the World Press Photo panel discussion on Ethics and photo-journalism, ironically held in Singapore and ‘sponsored by the Straits Times’, as our moderator managed to tell us repeatedly with a knowing smirk.
I would like to say at this point, that I am an outsider. I do not take pictures, let alone make photos and I have a huge amount of resepct for the profession, which is why I think unpicking what was really going in is fascinating and yield some significant insight into the state of photos and photojournalists.
The discussion itself was fascinating and I am sure there are many good précis’ of the comments from Sim Chi Yin, Sarker Protick and Pete Muller, all three of whom are hugely respected, immensely talented and with unimpeachable integrity. But the most interesting part was the narrative arc that was formed as the panel discussion went on. Taking the starting point as the recent jump in detection of photo manipulation, all three were robust in their defence of the profession against manipulation, both digital as well as the much harder to detect, but far more insidious staging of shots. Yet, as the talk went on, the clarity of ethical lines being drawn became increasingly blurred.
The pieces of their own work that they shared mid way through the talk all contained as much of them as it did their subject. From Ms Sim’s incredibly moving story of Chinese gold miners suffering from silicosis, to Protick’s intimate portraits of his ageing grandparents, or Muller’s work looking at the masculinity and violence. It was their very involvement that made them moving. As the panelists themselves said, the decisions they took before and right up to the moment of shooting, as well as the editorial and selection decisions made afterwards, their role was to make sense of the story or to create one out of the disparate pieces. Now as an outsider, this act of storytelling is in itself a manipulation of sorts. As they went on to talk about how they ‘make’ (not take) picture, it struck me that the ethical lines that they had started off drawing – never stage, only ever correct in post, don’t alter, no cloning etc. – were more like arbitrary guardrails than hard and fast rules. Though the wire photographers of AP and the like have strict guidelines, many publications do not, and with such a proliferation of photo makers and takers, the hard rules in one part of the industry meant nothing to another.
Thinking about it in historical context, the idea that, face with ‘new’ manipulation there is a need to uphold and enshrine the eternal ethical code of the press photo seems almost laughable. This is not to say that there are no ethics, but rather it is an individual act of conscious and what the rules are in any situation change shot by shot. Ever since someone first picked up a camera to tell a real story, we have all been manipulated. The photograph is possibly the single most effective means of deception. Shot choice, framing, captioning, what you choose to omit from a visual story all helps build a deceit that look like a truth. In light of this the quest to uphold ethics seems quixotic. And this is before we even get into the modern technical ability to manipulate which the initial discussion was so preoccupied with, but somehow seems the least interesting part, or the eternal, psychological one – the Hawthorne-effect inducing presence of the camera and its wielder on their subject. All this is even before we begin to ponder why the photographer has picked up their camera in the first place. This is not to say that I resent their view, opinion or prejudices, but rather to acknowledge that you take those with you, whether you want to or not when you head into field. Arguably, it is those views that make for the best photographs. If there wasn’t that thinking, those convictions, agendas, even, then all photos would be equally mediocre.
The photo itself is never just the photo either. By going into the industry, you are entering into a socio-historical discourse; the mythology of Magnum and the iconography of the past. You are not just capturing an event; you are entering a live discussion about what even constitutes an event, what counts as history. Powerful decisions to make. And with that great power comes great responsibility. And it is that responsibility that leads so many to take the profession so seriously, and rightly so. Every time they go out and shoot, these photo journalists are making decisions that should not be taken lightly, and there are no clear cut rules… So why the big push for codification now?
Fundamentally, the push for codified ethics in their industry is not about manipulation and questions of values but about profound questions of professionalism. The problem with digital is not the proliferation of manipulation, but the proliferation of photographers. Equipment has not only got cheaper, it has also made taking photos easier. The craft skills are being eroded by the efficiency, accuracy and ease of a DSLR compared with taking actual photos – I occasionally use a new digital professional camera and once in the past took up an old East German Werra 35mm camera for a summer, and other than both capturing images, they have nothing in common; like the difference between a model T Ford and a self-driving car. Couple that with cheap airfares and a huge increase in affluence and travel, every kid with a Canon and an appetite for destruction things their Robert Capa. Just look at the sales figures for Leica-badged digital camera. All this tech is eroding the craft making it easier to take good pictures, and very few of us can actual tell the difference between the good and the great anyway. It is worse for photojournalist that writers even. I can’t put this piece through Aftereffects and stop it from being mediocre. Faced with this a Guild-like codification serves the purpose of protecting their livelihoods from erosion by Amateur-enthusiasts, but more importantly, allowing them to vocalize their integrity. For it is a question of integrity, not ethics. The ethics has always been blurred of going to war, famine, suffering disaster, misery or just common garden sadness, joy or fear. Profiting from evoking human emotion is a difficult line to tread, but one that I am happy that the professionals do, in the name of educating, teaching helping us to understand the world and ourselves through these events. It has always bee about integrity, as there can be no hard rules in these situations. So the subjective values of the photographer are the only thing there to guide. I think we should celebrate that.
The best photographs help us feel something that we struggle to comprehend. They do not paint 1000 words, they evoke an emotion. And delivering emotional truth, telling a story from the complexity of these situations requires enlightened subjectivity. It requires the first manipulation of picking up the camera. All subsequent manipulations after that pale into insignificance. I understand the desire for some kind of code, but I feel it does the talent of these visual storytellers a disservice.
Brands as Intersections
Whoever decided that the job should be called ‘Brand Manager’ has a lot to answer for.
It perpetuates the idea of a direct relationship between a brand and the company that seeks to control it, as if you can calibrate its every nuance, direct its every move. ‘Positioning’ doesn’t help either- conjuring images of pieces being shuffled round on tactical maps in some fusty operations room, as if you can just move a brand out of one territory and into another like a corporation-sized game of risk.
Brand Positionings, as a set of values in a presentation, a manifesto on a page, or layers of an onion are a key part of our trade. These models give us a common language to understand what we want a product or business to mean as well as a way to communicate these aspirations to our partners, both agencies and other brands. But what is important to remember is that they are just that- models; a way of explaining and describing a thing, but not the thing itself.
September 2014 saw Flamingo gather in Istanbul for its inaugural Expo, focused on the theme of ‘intersections’, Cultural, Geographic, Narrative and Commercial. The intention of this piece is to argue why we must see brands themselves as intersections, ones that encompass all four of these areas in their breadth; that is, brands are not ‘owned’, ‘managed’ or ‘positioned’ by the companies that gave birth to them, but exist as a negotiated space, a conversation between the company, product or service and the consumer and their cultural context.
The idea of brands as a psychological and social crossroads, as shared liminal spaces, may fill many Brand Stewards with dread, but in reality, they have always been a joint undertaking by the companies that produce and the people that consume, whether we have been aware of it or not. Simply put, a brand is what people think and feel in about a product, rather than what they are told they ought to think and feel. All of our outputs are simply inputs to this thing that we call a ‘brand’.
The intersections metaphor is apt here. Influences come from multiple directions, like vehicles speeding towards a neural junction. Product experience, others people’s opinions, packaging, cultural associations, socio-historical context and the artifacts that a Brand manager may put into the mix (the brand’s Comms) all combine to affect what a brand is. A newly launched challenger may have lighter traffic on their roads, but it’s never a one-way-street. The relatively recent proliferation of 2-way channels has made this more apparent, but we must remember brands have been ‘social’ since long before ‘Social Media’.
What this means is that a positioning is an evolving set of ideas, a conversation, and that brand ‘values’ or ‘essences’ are at once both true and also questionable; valid hypotheses rather than proved theorems. It means what we capture on a page or in a PowerPoint is a snapshot of something bigger, markers put down at a rough median between marketing aspiration and consumer reality, with the distance between those two poles roughly reflecting the how successfully that brand is doing ‘in the wild’.
If this all sounds a little bit hopeless, its not meant to. Acknowledging this has a profound influence on how we think about brands. Firstly it means brands are far more powerful than ‘positioning’ or ‘management’ gives them credit for. They are forces of nature that have powerful connections with people and exert their influence in culture. Now that has to be more exciting than words on a page. As ‘Brand Influencers,’ we get to play a kind of ‘cultural judo’ (NEW WORD?) with them, deftly using their weight and momentum to shape those negotiated spaces. It also means Brand Influences shouldn’t try and ‘fight’ or deny them. A ‘repositioning’ that denies a brand’s long heritage or scale is destined to fail through dissonance as one vehicle comes hurtling head-on into the juggernaut of history, habit or culture. Acting and thinking like a challenger brand is powerful for a big company, but to deny ones own baggage and nature will almost always fail.
So why is this so important now? Where previously we sent the marketing mix into this negotiated space and waited hopefully to see second-order results through sales and share, the mass proliferation of digital and social has allowed us to close the loop. People have always been involved in this dialectic, but now they can be heard. This increases the appetite for brands that are ‘open’, where they can see their own inputs and influence played back. This means that the ‘positioning’ is a start point and a wish-list rather than the end-goal. Rather than feeling like a tightly defined, reductive thing, we need to aspire to shape brands that have clarity but at the same time have texture and layers within that clarity, elements clustered round an agreed shared space and meaning. Rather than everything needing exactly the same voice, it now just needs to feel that it is in the same register. This is hugely liberating for brand influencers, it gives us freedom to try things, to stretch brands at the margins and play at the periphery, as well as offering alternative viewpoints on their core. This means not only engaging in discussion with consumers, but also between different elements of your media plan. Encourage conversation, in the broadest sense rather than put up a roadblock’; have your brand ask questions rather than answer them.
Or we can continue to try and simply ‘manage’… But ultimately this liminal space will continue to be negotiated and renegotiated whether we are there or not.
The Golden Age of Staying at Home
Mark Twain claimed that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. Waiting by the gate to board a flight at Dubai international airport, there is a sample of a few hundred of the earth’s residents; a tranche selected by quirks of fate as diverse as late-running meetings in Manila or the impulse to visit a newly-born relative on the other side of the world. Looking around the gate, you can see a hundred pairs of trailing white wires into a hundred different coloured ears. A young boy in a dishdasha languidly swats at a glowing tablet screen, his face a concentrated picture of barely concealed contempt for the whole process. If we are to put any stock in this arbitrary thin-slicing of humanity, then there seems to be little to evidence Twain’s epithet.
Historically, travel has been a disruptive act. To undertake a journey meant to leave home and the relative safety that represented. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the act of travel has been romanticised in literature and imbued with an almost-mystical significance. The risk that it inherently contained meant that it had to be prized to be incentivised. But maybe this is stating the equation the wrong way round. The mystical significance comes from what travel had to offer. The romance was linked to the reward; an expansion of human understanding, the opportunity widen and deepen the intellectual pool. Often this would come from the journey as much as from the destination.
Travel is no longer an individual experience, it is a commodity. The travel industry was worth $1,972.8 billion USD in 2011. ‘Adventure’ is no longer something you have, it is a rack of brochures in Trailfinders, after ‘Action Holidays’ and before ‘Americas (North)’. This has been a long time coming. Even in the days of Earhart, and certainly by the time of Armstrong, while the heroic quasi-mystical version of travel was being valourised, the travel industry was fractionalising and homogonising that same sentiment, repackaging it into 7- 10- and 14-day pieces. Since the advent of the grand tour in the 17th century, travel has been losing its genuine power, replaced instead with fictional significance. Since the glory days of 14th and 15th century explorers, as its real importance has diminished, its ceremonial role has grown in popular consciousness. As early as the 18th Century, some critics were deriding the Grand Tour as “a paltry thing, a tame, uniform, unvaried prospect”. The birth of the itinerary was the beginning of a long and illustrious ending.
With a marked decline in the package holiday since the end of the 20th century, the logical thought would be that travel is once again diversifying, that after the post World War II, mid 20th century standardisation, we are rediscovering our instincts to strike out alone and ‘see what we can see’. But in fact, the lineage can be traced from these first accounts of Byron and his contemporaries in Florence, through the pre-planned, pre-paid excursions and identikit apartments of the Costas to the lonely-planet-guide collecting, tick-boxing that typifies travel now- you may not buy all the pieces in one go and from one place, but it is still ‘Sightseeing’ not actually seeing the sights ( whatever you, as opposed to the guide, might define those sights to be) however you dress it up. One involves taking in the air, the atmosphere, the feeling, the people that make up a place. The other involves checking off ‘must-sees’ from a generic list. Suddenly your mini-break is the same as everyone else’s. The ‘Self guided Tour’ might mean that they are configured in a different order, but ultimately the pieces are all the same. Gradually the publishers who produce these books are dropping the final vestiges of pretence that claim to be opening up a new place for their readers to explore, concentrating instead on sending to print big-hitting top-ten ‘best-of’ books, stripping the guides down to their core checklists. At least its more honest.
What all this amounts to is a transformation of experience itself into a commodity. Where travel was once about a ‘being’ mode of existence, it becomes about ‘having’ acquiring landmarks in a place, rather than experiencing it. One of the side effects of this is that certain cities begin to feel like theme parks to certain eras, playing up to their own guide-book caricatures. As Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega puts it, ‘ like a wax museum with a pulse’. New York as ‘20th Century Land’, a kind of ouroborus cliche that feels like it is only one edict away from having Rhapsody in Blue being piped out of the nearest lamp-post every time you look up to take in a skyscraper. There are no real sights left to see.
Where technology meets with travel, it only serves to catalyse this same process, providing ever more subtle and artful tools for acquisition. If only the tourist wandering round, iPad screen 6 inches from their face, would be the apogee of this- adding an intermediary screen between themselves and the real-world, occasionally tapping on the shutter button to capture a moment as they go. Even the near-commodity point-and-shoot digital camera has much to answer for, lowering the barrier to taking a picture, meaning most see the world perpetually through a viewfinder or screen, visually evidencing their progress through their top ten tick list with angles and shots near-indistinguishable from those in the book to start with. The proliferation of social media means that we do not even have to wait until that friend returns to take us through a slide show of their snaps. Instead we get real-time over sharing of every meal, every landmark, every minutiae of their trip before they have even finished it. And every set-piece shot indistinguishable from the last acquaintance that went to the same place. That same standardised experience is shown when you overhear two ‘intrepid travellers’ who have recently visited the same place. ‘and did you go to X?’ ‘yes we went to X after Y then to the Z that the bar recommended’ ‘ah yes, we went to Z on out last night’. And what both parties thought of it was exactly what the guide thought they ought to.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the international airport terminal, a liminal space cut adrift from time or place, where you are at once everyman and no-one. From check-in to duty free to air-bridge to pressurised cabin, it is a sanitised and efficient process that give no hint of ‘arrival’ or ‘departure’ beyond the lit up signs on the terminal walls, adding to the wholly alienated and alienating experience of modern travel. As we criss-cross the world with increasingly regularity, we continue to shrink it. As states and culture become closer and more porous, the reason to travel, the need to discover becomes less relevant. As destinations become cross-checked and indexed with increasing levels of granularity and every back-street bistro ‘discovered’ by a constant stream of directed patrons, clutching their ‘insider’s guide’, the question remains whether there are even any outsiders left.
But it is not just the increasing efficiency of the physical act of travelling that is reduced the act of discovery to simulacrum. The pervasive technology that connects us, creating an always-on world, that we are told brings us all closer together- highlighting our similarities over our differences diminishes the need to leave home in the first place. Sub-cultures or movements, whether it is Portland Hipsterism or the Darbawia Boys of Saudi Arabia are mainlined into the general consciousness as fast as they can begin to develop. There are no more cultural Galapagos’ left, and soon all the creatures will begin to look the same. Disconnection helps diversity to develop but the danger of this constant connection is the creation of a ‘Grey Mush’ of culture. You can hear it in numerous Top 40 or Hit 100 or any other of the many near-meaningless music rankings around the globe. The same artists crop up across charts, swamping local music trends with magpie-like tracks that steal with pride from any number of genres. When was the last time you heard an RnB track that didn’t include a 90s dance piano riff and a dubstep middle eight? Microsoft are even using dubstep to sell internet browsers. Talk to a current teenager and their music taste will probably encompass anything from Elgar to Gaga, perhaps with some Miles Davis and Frank Zappa in the mix. Even within a given place’s culture, the idea of any sense of tribalism seems dead. Mankind as a species has a long (pre)history of the divisive effect of tribalism, but there is something to be said for the biodiversity it can bring. Looks and sounds used to come from individual cities and were radiated out, from Madchester to Northern Soul, from Tin Pan Alley to Detroit techno, there was a sense of place, or at least of origin that was transmitted with the pop movements they spread. Now the cultural behemoths are transnational, with Lady Gaga as a 21st century Nemo, and her stage show a vast, Nautilus, constantly touring, spreading its agnostic gospel.
Located within this wider movement towards the transnational, the current trend towards craft- the growth of market, micro-brewing, niche designers- feels like an oddly futile gesture in the face of this homogenisation. As companies operate as supra-national missionaries, spreading their brands values and core benefits from place to place, everywhere begins to look the same. The same logos give cities from Lago to Los Angeles an increasingly eerie sense of Deja Vu. Inside the industry they talk about ‘missions’ and ‘reasons to believe’ as if buying and the self-actualisation it is meant to bring is a new religion that could save us all. With one million people a week moving to cities to be bombarded by these companies proselytizing mission-statements, our very aspirations are being standardised. It is the same transnational brands that provide empty ciphers into which we pour our hopes, whether we are a student in Chengdu or a single mother in Quito. It is Apple phones and Nike trainers and Johnnie Walker scotch that will save us, make us look 5 pounds thinner, put a tiger in our tank and a giant in our toilet bowl.
Linguistic trends are only serving to quicken the shallowing. Language serves as the framework from which ideas and culture hang. The peculiarities of grammar and syntax of any given language help to shape its cultural tropes. The lazy cultural stereotyper might want to assign directness in the German character to its penchant for compound words for instance or British circuitousness to the Passive Voice. Sweeping over-simplifications aside, language is an integral part of the cultural narrative of the place where it was evolved and where it is used. It is a living record of an evolutionary trajectory, such as Autumn, reflecting the Renaissance’s influence on 16th century British society in displacing ‘Harvest’ and ‘Fall of the Leaf’ from usage over time. (Incidentally making the continued preference for Fall in American English more English than the English, something no doubt that every (small R) republican and Anglophile will unite in horror over).
The growth of English as a second language because of its dominant role in business, due to the convergence of the growth of America in the 20th century with the legacy of Empire from the 19th century is only part of the 21st century linguistic shifts. UNESCO posits that over half of the 6000 ‘living’ languages in use today will be extinct by the end of the century. When they go, they take with them 3000 cultural histories, 3000 oral traditions, sets of superstitions, beliefs, verbal tics- ways of understanding and interpreting the world. These are instead replaced by a shared lexicon of urban experience, a way of articulating problems and ideas peculiar to the city and at once universal to them all, as that becomes a dominant mode of being, and as cities develop to ape previous templates laid down in the urban environment. It doesn’t help that many newly-urbanising countries are looking to older cities rather than their own history of the communal living experience to set down a path for development, drawing on expertise from the very same ‘Wax Museums’ that are re-imagining themselves as parodies of their own pasts.
At the same time, there is a strong, countervailing movement being brought about by the very same technology that is shrinking the world outside our front doors. While at once bringing the mainstream together into a kind of transnational grey-mush popular cultural consensus, it is also allowing diversity to flourish at its ever-increasing ( and increasingly bizarre) fringes. To experience other cultures we must look to online spaces, where this diversity is being driven. This new transnational eclecticism may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is doubtless something for everyone there and it is undoubtedly made more extreme by the marginalisation it revels in, when faced with an increasingly blander mainstream- a point that is patently obvious after about 30 seconds on 4chan or any online pornography listing site. But what it does do is give life and depth to a sense of other and in doing so celebrates difference in a way that travel no longer can.
But it is not just alternative tribes that are developing online that make this the golden age of staying at home. Greater definition and higher fidelity makes the experience of staying at home more real than most of what you can experience in real life, especially when so much of that is now being viewed through a screen with headphones firmly placed in ears. A friend who was about to head to the mountains of Nepal trekking for two weeks was suffering a sleepless night before departing, worried that he didn’t have the right music selection for this trip on the iPod to walk to. Forget the birdsong or the sounds of nature, if the foothills of the Himalayas needs augmenting, why not do away with the imperfect reality and all that tiresome travel it requires and just immerse in the experience the technology can provide? As trips become tick-lists, and access is limited and planned, surely the Discovery Channel can give you the kind of unparalleled access that going there never could? The Blue Planet in HD, tablet open to wikipedia on your lap is a more immersive and educational experience that a second rate diving holiday or trekking trip could ever hope to provide. How far are we away from the kind of full-wall, holographic viewing technology that mean this will really be the case. And if immersing in this reality isn’t what switches you on, why not immerse in an alternative one? Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games offer an expansive alternative which you can spend days in. For some it has been too seductive a prospect with a number of deaths being reported amongst the most hardcore of these gamers, including a 3 month old child in South Korea who died of malnutrition after being left to fend for herself by its game-addicted parents who were engrossed in an online child-rearing game in an internet cafe for hours each day.
Though, in-extremis, it is shocking, it does show how attractive an option this technology provides. In a world where the experience that we once sought from going abroad is standardised to the point of absurdity, these immersive technologies suddenly offer something more original, something more real than reality. As travel becomes a process to be endured and one city becomes indistinguishable from the next, getting on a plane or train somewhere seems as likely to narrow the mind as it is to broaden it, spending time in identikit terminii with the same jaded nomads. In the next decade and beyond, perhaps it will be the experiences that we have in our front rooms that will challenge and surprise us more than anything we might find up a mountain in Morocco or on a beach in Indonesia if we do not start some kind of cultural conservation. Truly this is the golden age of staying at home.
Data and Truth
‘We created more data in 2009 than in the last 5000 years of human history’
These words came from Dave Evans, the Chief Futurist at Cisco, who I somehow feel I have more belief in than the misleadingly named Faith Popcorn and her BrainReserve. There may be many things to take up against Cisco, but I feel that they are generally not in the line of hiring self-aggrandising nutters…
This is a fascinating statistic, not least because most of this data is just that, in its original, Latin sense, ‘what is given’ and whether we want it or not -ranging readings from sensors in defunct, yet still active weather sensors, to the 5000 photos you saved from your night out, two of which you may put on your facebook page ( and incidentally reconfigure and multiply the data again.) All being catalogued indiscriminately.
So what is given, information, facts, content, and of these things, is now given very much freely. This calls for a new art. In a world of permanent partial attention, while I type this with one eye on the qual interviews I did this weekend at the Nurburgring for our automotive client, listening to an album which is new at least to me and flick through my emails on a third screen, the greatest skill we can possess in life is not knowing things, but knowing where to find these things.
Creative Googleing becomes an art, finding out the obscure sideways ways in which we can combine words in the search engine to find the obscure ( and I mean the beyond-wikipedia-niche-obscure) trivia and facts.
Of course this leaves us open pissing in the wind. In a Faustian pact with urabndictionary.com, I am now on their email list in exchange for them listing my entry ( its ‘Brockwile,’ shout out to anyone who bigs up the jungle vibe), but on one of their daily update, something did catch my eye. The reference was to ‘book-google’ something- to look up in a book when you can’t get reception on your smart phone. Mildly amusing, but raises an interesting point. We are generating so much data on the internet. Facts and figures that are manipulable, malleable, and in some case just factually incorrect.
63% of all sparrows are left-taloned, as we see from observing how they collect sticks and build their nests, the highest proportion of any species of animal.
I can attribute this to no-one, but I could have said it came from research carried out by the RSPCB. Would this have got repeated? Probably not. No-one reads my blog, and certainly no-one interested in birds, but in the right context maybe. Wikipedia is highly policed, and even that is open to abuse. I read history at university, and their were things that I read in the course of my studies when double checking my own facts which made me think twice about using it for anything.
We see how internet rumour can end up with real ‘fake’ stories in newspapers. Far more serious is that as we digitise our own past, we open it up to an Orwellian manipulation.
Remember, 63% of Sparrows, you heard it here first.