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A couple of years ago my wife and I went on a holiday to the beautiful Greek island of Kefalonia and stumbled upon a house that so unashamedly proclaimed its whimsical good humour to the world at large that it was impossible not to stop and stare… and point… and smile… and take pictures… and generally fulfill every annoying tourist cliché in the book. Decked out from top to toe in a resplendent raspberry and vivid lime green, the place really did emanate its very own wave lengths of positive energy. Seriously, if you’d fiddled around with the dial of a transistor radio in the near vicinity, you’d have been able to have listened to the place humming happy little tunes to itself as it watched the world go by without a care in the world.

And whenever springtime rolls around again… and nature starts throwing a bit of colour about… and the miasmic drabness of a suburban winter finally starts to recede from view – I always find myself thinking back to that raspberry and lime green house with an overwhelming sense of nostalgic benevolence, and a seemingly instinctive desire for a radical injection of humour and vivacity into this woefully utilitarian world we seem to have built for ourselves.

If only the genius behind that resplendent Greek masterpiece were given free reign over the entirety of a modern city! How many dull grey office blocks would be transformed into 3 dimensional cubist masterpieces? How many cement grey subways would be commandeered for the artistic free-play of our alienated youth? How many toxic advertising billboards could be replaced with actual paintings? And I don’t mean the commissioned monstrosities knocked up by the Oxbridge turtleneck brigade for their boyhood friends in local government… or the cold pretentious oddities offered up (with sneering indifference) by your average urban architect hoping to surf his way to fame and notoriety on a wave of controversial reportage – I mean real art, and real city planning, and real building design by real people of the community. Fuck it. Why can’t the old fisherman from number 7 be given somewhere to memorialize the memory of his dead wife in sea shells? Why can’t the kids from the local junior school bedazzle the pavements around the local park with a hundred thousand painted sunflowers? Why can’t we draw smiley faces on the roundabouts… and grow strawberries up the railings of municipal buildings… and have stenciled processions of black and white doves for zebra crossings?

Why so drab?

Why so grey?

Why so serious?

Can there be any cultural crime as heinous as a societies loss of its own sense of humour?

Where in the name of God will we find ourselves if we start taking things too seriously?

Let’s face it – histories back-catalogue of particularly serious societies doesn’t exactly make for comfortable reading…

At the end of Jacques Tati’s seminal cinematic masterpiece “Playtime”, a sterile modernist Paris of glass, and steel, and right-angles is transformed into a giant fairground, where roundabouts become carousels and the world dances happily along to the sound of a circus organ. It was a desperate and brilliant plea for a more human version of reality – and as I endure my morning commute, crawling across the belly of a dead cement giant in my miserable little space-pod, I can’t help thinking that tati’s passionate plea is more relevant today than ever before.

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Capitalism presents us with a world largely stripped of playfulness and spontaneity because these are the human characteristics most deeply threatening to a society that functions upon principles of “absolute predictability and remote control from the centre” (Mumford). To the architects of a production rather than a demand based economy, the very idea that the people should be free to do as they please, to act in random or unexpected ways, is a terrifying concept – for what if the people were to suddenly lurch sideways into a spontaneous samba renaissance whilst they were supposed to be buying microwaves? What if they were to lose interest in upgrading their games consoles and their home cinema systems and started playing dominoes with their neighbours instead? To the greed driven capitalist psyche, the concepts of unhindered cultural development and genuine freedom of choice are abominations of free will. If the people stopped buying what they were told to buy, if they demonstrated genuine variety and individuality in their tastes and their interests, the financial markets of the world would quickly collapse under the destructive weight of a super-abundance of worthless and unwanted consumer goods. Thus, the entire capitalist racket hinges upon the coercive principle that the people must be made to behave in as predictable and obedient a fashion as possible at all times.

It is a depressing realisation that any society in which millions of people are centrally governed by a small capitalist elite must by its very nature, work upon principles of generality and mass appeal; the variations and deviations of the individual, be they brilliant or sublime, have no place in a system founded upon principles of servile predictability and enforced order. Thus, encoded into the very fabric of mass governance and control is the guiding principle of absolute banality. It is this increasingly bland and mechanistic model of society, with its flick switch predictability and its blind obedience to a centrally planned, profit driven culture that marks the true cost of contemporary consumerism upon the soul of man.

The teenager, beaming at his new mobile phone as he dies of boredom in a classroom, is not a teenager fulfilled by the wonders of the world before him or the opportunities for play that the world presents. The triple headed suction valve of the housewives new vacuum cleaner is, no doubt, an impressive technological feat, but after the smell of new plastic has worn off, the drudgery of her housework remains stubbornly intact. The joys mankind is afforded within the disabling limitations of an enforced mediocrity are scarcely joyful at all. For with every purchase of the latest gadget, with every music trend that is reverently followed, with every diet fad that comes and goes, humanity affirms the burial of its own creative principles.

The “freedom” to choose between a blue sweater and a red sweater cannot, in any meaningful sense of the word, be considered a freedom… and there can be no such thing as a moderately free society because freedom exists only as an absolute. It therefore follows that the freedoms we are presented with as consumers of the capitalist programme are not freedoms at all, but false freedoms… and what are false freedoms, if not systems of control and limitation – the prefabricated “spontaneities” of a system that fears the genuine intellectual and artistic play of its people. For in the free play of the mind exist the seeds of revolution.

Let gravity do its thing
A lot of people view life as some sort of dreary uphill struggle. A steady, monotonous plod towards the distant and ill defined plateau that is death – burdened down, every miserable step of the way, by life’s many sorrows and responsibilities. Personally I’d rather see life as being something closer to falling out of a gigantic tree. Sure you’re going to snag a few branches on the way down, sure you’re going to die on impact when you hit the forest floor, but THE ACT OF FALLING ITSELF IS COMPLETELY WITHOUT EFFORT! And if you’re really chilled out – I mean Lao Tzu, water without ripples, the butterfly is definitely dreaming of the man chilled out – maybe you’ll even be able to enjoy the ultimate liberation of a pure and absolute freefall.

After all, there really is no point in struggling – the outcome is about the only truly obvious and predetermined thing in the known universe. The more you try to grab at the branches as they race by; the more you fight against the process of falling (desperately clambering and pointlessly scrambling and further entangling) the more ragged and battered you’ll find yourself when you finally hit the bottom. Far easier to just let it all go, to roll with the punches, to opt for the path of least resistance; enjoy the views as best you can, appreciate the fresh air, say hello to the sparrows! Hell, maybe you’ll even be blessed with the opportunity to pluck a piece of fruit or two… but only if it works out that way – the second you start throwing yourself into the branches in search of unpicked riches is the second you get your eyes scratched out for the effort. There really is no such thing as a free lunch, unless of course, you stop looking for it!

And as you hurtle towards the ground – those last few moments of freefall can be spent either screaming in fear and desperation at your inability to change a single aspect of the gravitational Master-plan, or enjoying the ride, content in the knowledge that you had some fun along the way. And however many branches you might have smacked on the way down, at least you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that your body will eventually provide a half decent spade or two of compost… will work its way into the earth from which it came… will be drawn into the roots of the very same tree from which you fell… egoless and free, dissipated and unchained… in myriad forms over countless ages… absorbed into the fabric of the infinite freefall.

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If an unscrupulous business conglomerate suddenly decided to start pouring an endless stream of noxious sewage into what had once been a pristine lake renowned for its natural beauty, it probably wouldn’t take long for people to get pissed off and start complaining… and yet day after day, the conscious and subconscious minds of the hapless inhabitants of the 21st century are subjected to pretty much this exact same process… only we’re either too dazed by the smog to notice, or too burnt out by the daily grind to even care. Let’s face it, the modern world is a fleapit of unwanted and harmful advertising; irrelevant and counterproductive information; fatuous and emotive media narratives; and an ever-growing stockpile of fundamentally useless information. By the time you make it to work in the morning you’ve already been hit by the TV, the radio, the cereal packet, the billboard, the bumper sticker, the newspaper, the internet… a constant babble of ceaseless mental pollution ever more aggressively encroaching upon that tiny safe-house of silence and tranquility deep inside each and everyone of us. And as our media augmented reality quickens the pace at which we have to process and manage all of this information still further, I can’t help wondering how much is enough? Is it healthy? And where in the name of God is the “off switch”?

Drip…drip…drip… the Chinese water torture of a million negative words and images as they sink into the watercourse of our psyches. And if it’s “all in there somewhere” – just think about the sheer volume of soul destroying anti-matter each and every one of us has sucked up over the years! Of course, the single most frustrating thing about stress and burnout and overload, isn’t so much the fact that it exists, as the fact that we did it to ourselves… pointlessly… and that even as we sit here now, passively observing an ever growing explosion of mental health issues and stress related illnesses, every facet of our lives continues to accelerate at ever more dazzling speed towards a brick wall of knowledge and information so dense in its construction that we will be smashed to pieces on impact. Is it any wonder that people are breaking the windows and jumping out?

Maybe an endless supply of facts and knowledge isn’t such a great thing after all? If your mind is crammed to bursting point with a million useless trivialities about pop star’s tattoos and diet pills, how are you ever going to function with any sort of meaningful clarity or purpose? And, if you take the alternative line and dedicate yourself to the conquest of specifics; if you study for ten years and become the world’s leading authority on millipedes or sandpaper, how will that possibly help to enrich your daily experience? How will it help you to become a more rounded or multi-dimensional human being? In this so called “age of information” how many people have genuinely useful information at their disposal, not necessarily a cure for cancer, but the sort of simple practical awareness that must have existed before the likes of Adam Smith and Henry Ford came along and pushed hands and minds in separate directions. How many people can make a chair for instance, or cultivate a field, or dig a well?

Of course, it’s also worth noting that plenty of knowledgeable people out there are complete wankers… whereas plenty of men and women who have never so much as picked up a newspaper in their entire lives have souls as pure as the driven snow. Maybe intuition and instinct and compassion are what matter most in the world? Maybe we’ve evolved these massive brains so that we can turn our intellects to the service of loving kindness? Maybe the fact that we’re slowly burying our true natures under an ever growing mountain of information is nothing more than a terrible mistake… because we can’t get our heads around the fact that answers create questions as much as questions create answers… and that our quest for knowledge is a desert without end… an abyss… an addiction.

Consider for example the nightly soap-opera of news broadcasts beamed into our living rooms: a series of shitty things will have happened to people who don’t deserve it… an expert or two will have been plucked from obscurity for the day to explain why we should be angry about something we’d never even thought about… somebody in a position of responsibility will pretend to be working terribly hard for our collective benefit… a minor celebrity will have been publicly humiliated or disgraced so that we can waggle our heads and feel better about the state of our own morality… and an enemy of whichever political state we happen to belong to will makes us feel small and insecure and desperately in need of our big brother governments……… Given the more or less static nature of this formula, what is it that keeps us tuning in every day so that we can consider ourselves well informed?

Are the full frontal pornographic details of somebody else’s misery really helping me to become a less ignorant, wiser and more knowledgeable individual? Or is it enough to know that there is suffering in the world and step back? Even if we consider ourselves to be the sort of clued-up human beings that have smugly transcended the petty trivialities of the gossip column and reality TV, we could easily spend our entire lives intravenously consuming serious, meaningful “information” without ever actually lifting a finger to make positive change. Worse still, we could get so hardened to images of human pain and degradation that we ceased to even feel moved by them anymore. It seems to me that there is a vast difference between living in a world with poverty and famine, and living in world of information about poverty and famine. And though nobody could deny that there are instances in which information is good and necessary, when it helps and guides and directs; in an age that is as obsessed by information as our own, that literally worships information like a new religion, we seem to have reached some sort of vital tipping point. Even the most important information is lost amongst the pointless; is weakened by its own endless replication and dissemination; is at risk of being trivialized by the readiness of its own availability in evermore disneyfied and parodic forms. With so few needles and so many haystacks, wouldn’t it have been better to have unplugged ourselves from the white noise of incoming information altogether, and to have gone off and made that chair instead?

And if I seem strangely fixated with the idea of going off and making chairs all the time, I apologise… it’s just that it’s on my bucket list, and I’m incredibly envious of anybody who has the necessary skills. There’s something beautifully concrete about making a chair – it seems to present the perfect balance of mind and body, and belongs to the world of real things like trees and people and dogs’ wet noses, the world of actual tangible problems like needing somewhere to sit. Making a chair is like catching a fish and cooking it for dinner – a tangible whole that exudes a sort of natural integrity because there is a very obvious and real point to it. Making chairs and catching fish stand in glorious and direct opposition to the daily toils of our own world… with all of its utterly pointless graphs and pie charts and po-faced interactions… its stressful juggling of emails and meetings and working lunches. Call me cynical, but I can’t help thinking that making a PowerPoint to explain to your boss why the dip in expected sales predictions still adheres to the amended version of the 5 point progress model, isn’t actually real. Not in any meaningful sense of the word anyway. It’s smoke and mirrors. Pushing around bits of nothing and rearranging them because you need a paycheck. If it never happened it wouldn’t matter. If it took place in front of a tribesman he wouldn’t be impressed or care to learn its ways.

When you really get down to it, is a human being an indiscriminate filing cabinet full of other people’s information… or a playful, sociable mammal?! Are we biological life forms or cold grey components in the gargantuan super-computer that passes for modern life? Should we really be burning ourselves out writing reports… so that other people can have meetings… so that other people can send emails… so that we can all run around and write even more reports and have even more meetings and send even more emails… or should we be lying on the grass staring at the clouds?

It’s time that we reassessed just what the hell we’re doing with all of this information we’re able to generate and disseminate… and trust once more to our instincts and our intuition… relearn (through play and spontaneity, laughter and interaction) what it actually means to be human.

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Switch off the television

Switch off the laptop

Switch off the radio… and the mp3… and the mobile phone…

Poke around in the silence for a little while.

Rediscover the feeling of having a thought which is in no way connected to a piece of incoming information…

Experience an emotion that isn’t the direct result of something you’ve just had injected into your brain by the media.

Let it go…

All of it…

Even that bit you’re still clinging on to…

Let it all go…

Seriously, all of it…

Kick back and relax

Take it easy

Stop

Breathe

Step out of your own way

Chill the fuck out…

And be happy in the knowledge that sometimes (especially if you’re swinging back and forth in a hammock) to learn less, is to know more.

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1. Politicians stockpile nuclear weapons… monkeys don’t.

2. Monkeys masturbate in public… and will unashamedly shag anything that moves – with monkeys, what you see is what you get. Politicians on the other hand spend half of their lives indulging the lecherous and debauched fantasies their new found power gives them access to… and the other half trying to convince the voting public that they’re paragons of clean living “traditional family values”.

3. Monkeys live a sustainable lifestyle in rainforests and jungles, completely in harmony with their natural environment. Politicians tend to live in mansions… and happily allow rainforests and jungles to be ripped from the face of the earth whilst they dedicate their entire political energy into staying in power for a second term.

4. Politicians take bribes, and do favours for their multi-millionaire friends, and use off-shore tax havens – monkeys on the other hand never even bothered to learn the concept of money (it seemed rather dull and boring… and they were too busy eating bananas and shagging in the tree tops).

5. Monkeys are cute, and lithe, and agile, and graceful. Politicians are paunchy and bloated and generally resemble closet alcoholics with a weakness for KFC.

6. Politicians spend most of their time making shady backroom deals with dodgy corporations and psychotic dictators. Monkey’s don’t give a fuck about dodgy corporations and psychotic dictators (because they’re too busy eating bananas and shagging in the treetops).

7. Monkeys are illiterate and have low IQs, and don’t care who knows it – politicians spend their entire overly privileged childhoods surrounded by private tutors and enrolled at uber-expensive educational establishments to cover up this very same fact.

8. Human beings have the terrifying DNA capacity to create genetic abominations like Michael Gove – monkeys don’t.

9. Politicians write painfully self gratifying memoirs in multi-million pound book deals as part of their retirement plans. Monkey’s don’t care about retirement plans or lying about stuff to be remembered better (because they’re too busy eating bananas and shagging in the treetops).

10. Monkeys have retained the “Common touch” and will happily pass the time of day with any other member of their community. Politicians stay at the world’s most exclusive hotels, eat in the world’s finest restaurants and get chauffeured around the world’s capital cities in Limousines and Rolls Royce’s… they too claim to have the common touch – and pay public relations gurus vast sums of money to prove it.

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So it’s the morning after a quiet night in with The Big Lebowski, and I’m firing up the laptop to hunt down a Creedence playlist on youtube when my stupid touchpad sticks and I find myself staring at Google’s hilariously earnest “mission statement!” Before I give you the quotes in question, just remember that to enjoy the full effect it’s important that you remove any trace of irony from your reading voice and serve up the lines like they belong to one of those 2am infomercials for vegetable dicers – a sort of manic self-confidence tempered with the zealous dogmatism of a cult leader:

Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Google’s Mission? Why are they even on a mission in the first place? It makes them sound like they’re about to head off into the wilderness with a suitcase full of bibles… and forgive my ignorance but I always labored under the false assumption that companies existed to make profits for the shareholders. Still, it’s nice to know that at least one of the world’s transnational’s is a non-profit organization working selflessly for the betterment of mankind. Oh, hang on a minute…

#1: Focus on the user and all else will follow.

“If you book them, they will come…” and I love the fact that we’re all known as “users” like some sort of squalid Junkies shooting up Google in a basement somewhere! And what the b’jesus do they mean by “all else” exactly? Could they possibly be referring to profits, growth and market domination perhaps? What happened to all that grandiose philanthropy they opened up with?!


Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.

“Since THE BEGINNING!!!” What’s with this whole pseudo biblical thing, man? The beginning of what exactly? Time? Space? Creation? Still, at least they admit that they do in fact have an “internal goal…” and a “bottom line”… if only we had some idea what that “Internal goal” might actually be? And who exactly is this “you” that Google so adamantly claim to be serving? In my head, the “you” in question is someone young and pretty and dim and white and affluent… call me cynical but it really doesn’t feel as though they’re talking to a Somalian kid at an internet café in Darfur or an Afghan housewife… funny that.

Semantic nit-picking aside though, there really is something fishy about all of this corporate PR flim flam. The idea that Google are seriously interested in spreading Information in a universally accessible and useful format seriously starts to creak the second you type your very first letter into the Google search bar and check out the autocomplete predictions it throws up.

Here in the UK, if you type in the letter “a” for example, Google’s only suggestions are “Amazon, Argos, Asda and Autotrader”. Four gigantic multi million pound companies! No mention whatsoever of “Africa” or “Asia” or “Apples” or “Anteaters”. A nice smooth ride for anybody wanting to part with a few of their hard earned pennies of course… but doesn’t it feel more like some sort of product placement racket than a genuine attempt to serve the world its collective stockpile of knowledge and wisdom? If Google are serious about wanting to organise the world’s information, then the autocomplete function offers us a disturbing window into the corporation’s views of what we do and don’t need to know about.

At first I thought maybe I was doing Google a disservice – it’s all just algorithms right? Perhaps the people of Britain really are more interested in cars than in continents… but would the failing chain of camera shops “Jessops” really get more hits than “Jesus”? And is it really possible that “American Express” and “American Apparel” (two more corporate giants) get autosuggested before America itself? I begin to wonder if Google use shorter spikes in phrase popularity to generate their suggestions and (repressing a shiver) start to type out the letters for “Kate Middleton” – whose current pregnancy seems to have left a depressingly large slice of the nation drooling in bovine excitement – but the first “K” I come across is “KFC”! As the hunt for an unpolluted and meaningful autosuggest list continues I feel myself getting increasingly frustrated. It’s as though I’ve just opened up the world’s biggest encyclopaedia only to discover that it’s filled with nothing but adverts for hairdryers and slimming pills.

Perplexed, I dig around for a while and find myself reading an article aptly entitled “How Google Instant’s Autocomplete Suggestions work”. The following quote in particular catches my attention:

How are the suggestions shown ranked? Are the more popular searches listed above others? No.

Popularity is a factor, but some less popular searches might be shown above more popular ones, if Google deems them more relevant, the company says.

So there we are then! Problem solved. It really is just a question of what Google does and doesn’t deem relevant! As a cold sweat brakes out on my brow, I quickly head back to Google’s homepage to find out whether or not information on marginal little issues like “poverty” might be deemed in anyway “useful” to the world’s online population… only to find myself staring at “adverts” for “paypal” and fucking “poundland!” If you take the time to try it out for yourself, you’ll find that this catalogue of horrors and atrocities to the organisation of the world’s information goes on pretty much indefinitely. In Google’s fucked up consumer culture view of the world, “Famine” is less relevant than “Facebook”, “Family Guy” or “First Choice Holidays” (perhaps they’d argue that there are over a billion active facebook accounts and only a billion hungry people in the world?), “Genocide” is less relevant than Asda’s supermarket clothing line “George”, and “domestic violence” is something you might want to worry about after you’ve bought yourself a pizza from “Domino’s” or browsed the “Debenhams” website for a new blender or a fucking lampshade.

And if you were hoping that Google might use their monumental sway to quietly guide people towards good causes like Oxfam – rather than away from them, into the grey wilderness of mindless over consumption, you’d be disappointed to discover that the suggestions for “o” neglect to include a charity that helps 15 million of the world’s most criminally impoverished human beings a year… in favour of the cinema chain “Odeon” and the telecommunication giants “O2” and “Orange”. For an organisation that claims its informal corporate motto to read “don’t be evil”, I can’t help thinking that Google have got a hell of a lot of work to do. As things stand at present, the phrase “callously indifferent” seems more appropriate… and no amount of corporate responsibility posturing or pseudo-minimalist web design can hide the fact that if they really did give a shit about the stuff that matters, Google’s “universally accessible” and “useful” catalogue of the world’s information would be organised in a damned sight more compassionate and socially conscientious manner than it is right now.

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“There is no greater illusion than fear” Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching – Chapter 46)

As with most proverbs, “it takes a village to raise a child” was probably something of a truism at one time or another in the history of human “development”. Indeed, just repeating the phrase brings to mind sepia tinted images of apple-cheeked peasants passing around children like so many bags of potatoes; dandling them on sturdy knees in village squares; clipping them round the ear for stealing cider from the pantry. Today of course, things are different, and as we’re shuttled back and forth in our drab little space pods – soulless commuter belt to sterile grey office, sterile grey office to soulless commuter belt (perhaps, if we’re really lucky, the palliative misery of a designated “consumer experience” in a prefab leisure park) there is no village anymore – even in the “city neighbourhood” sense of the word – and the concept of a communal “child of the village” was buried under the same shopping centre car park as the village itself.

Try speaking to a random 5 year old from the end of your street in a lot of urban environments and you’re likely to end up being chased around the estate by a gang of pitch-fork wielding Sun readers who won’t consider themselves to have performed their civic duty until they’ve bounced your head off the nearest pavement and mailed your severed balls to a testing laboratory in Sweden. Maybe not, maybe that’s too much of an exaggeration… but the fear is real. And it’s the same fear that a man feels when he accidently finds himself walking in the same direction as a lone female on an empty street and his heart sinks into his boots when he sees her make the same turn he’s about to make himself:

“Shit! Maybe I should speed up and overtake her so she knows I’m not a weirdo? But If I speed up she’ll think I’m trying to grab her or something… no don’t cross the street there, that’s where I need to cross the street… bollocks… maybe I should just shout something out to reassure her… but that would look well dodgy… Fuck! She keeps glancing over her shoulder? Maybe I should just turn around and find another route… but then I’m likely to get reported to the cops for being some sort of stalker… man, I’m gonna end up on Crimewatch or something… Wait a minute… I’ve got it! I’ll pretend I need to tie my shoelaces until she’s gone.”

Can there be anything as damned depressing and isolating as living in the grips of such a pandemic of social paranoia?

And yet this is where we find ourselves, bolted into the confines of a Fritz Lang nightmare – trapped by the geographical inhumanity of the modern city; ever more fragmented by the continual division of space, time, labour, leisure, race and “community”; driven into our own personal wildernesses of alienation and social-disconnect by a capital driven system that places production and consumption before the wellbeing of its own species! Here we are, terrified of our own shadows lest they tie us to a chair and pull out our toenails; the age of omniscient danger, the age of heightened surveillance, the age of magnified fear… and distrust… and intolerance. Clinging to whatever limited forms of familiarity and safety we can find. Panicked into submission by a horror of “the Other” and compliant to the whims and dictates of anything that promises to make it all go away. It’s the same old Hell and redemption racket we’ve always been sold, only this time it invades our living rooms and our earphones, every waking minute of our media augmented reality. This it seems, is where the fantasies of the industrial and technological ages have finally landed us – a naturally sociable and playful mammal (the greatest communicative force in the known universe no less) trapped in a perverse dystopian farce whereby the second we step out of the hermetically sealed safety of our immediate circle, everyone we walk past in the street, or sit next to on a bus, or queue behind in the supermarket, is quite literally (in a manner that would have been utterly incomprehensible to previous generations) a complete and total stranger.

Stranger.

Stranger danger.

“Don’t talk to strangers”

“I don’t know what it is but there’s something very strange about Frank”

“It’s not that we don’t like him dear, it’s just that he’s a bit… y’know… strange…”

Stranger. The very word is loaded with such negative connotations that random man X and random woman Y quickly cease to be neutral unknown quantities in the eye of the scared and alienated observer and morph into a strange amalgam of Jungian archetype, and media fuelled hate figure. The orthodox Muslim with the flowing robes and long black beard could only be a terrorist. The teenager with his hand in his pocket is probably concealing a razor blade. That man over there by the coffee stall has brown skin – very suspicious – better look away quickly. The two ladies with the short skirts, they look Polish. I bet they work in the sex industry. I wonder if they smoke crack? That old lady with the ancient shopping bags and the old world shawl – ten to one she pisses herself, better not get too close, a question of hygiene. Look! The big guy in the overalls who’s dragging his leg! Fuck! Hide the kids! he’ll kill the lot of us! And what about the wino at the bus stop – should I run in terror before he starts breathing his alcohol fumes in my face and babbling about Jesus like the maniac I’ve already written him off as, or should I treat him with the condescension of charity and assume that his addiction requires the infantilism of a clean living citizen such as myself? That way, when he tells me to fuck off… I can shake all over with moral indignation and call the cops because he’s causing a scene. A good citizen. A dutiful citizen. Protecting the world from strangers.

Stranger.

Stranger danger.

Don’t talk to strangers…

…until your world is so fucking narrow that you’re crawling along the length of it like a rat in a drainpipe. Don’t talk to strangers, watch TV instead – it’s safer that way. Don’t look at that beautiful girl with the innocent smile and the honey coloured hair, her boyfriend might stick you with a knife – re-edit the banality of your own existence on facebook instead, it’s safer that way. Don’t go outside, there are homosexuals there, and teenagers, and immigrants, and people that talk to children they don’t know, and all sorts of dangerous strangers – stay in your house and play those little games on your mobile phone until it’s time to go to bed. Seriously, it’s safer that way. Being human is dangerous. Turn yourself off. Turn yourself into a robot. Turn yourself into a square of fucking carpet and lay low for a while. Shoot yourself in the back of the head so that you can resist the temptation to go outside forever. Stay safe.

Forget about freedom, forget about spontaneity, forget about playfulness and creativity and the bird-twittering joy of human contact, just keep your head down and buy more stuff. After all, this is the age of Capitalism, it’s your civic duty to buy more stuff. The economy depends upon it. If you stop buying more stuff the wheels will fall off. Forget about human contact. Focus on consumer goods – bright and shiny bits of plastic, the soothing fishbowl glow of a blue screen; safe and dead and passive. And if you feel bored or lonely, or you’re not quite sure what it is you feel anymore, or maybe you gave up even trying to feel anything a long time ago, then just buy even more stuff… and keep buying it… until you’ve got enough electronic gadgets and gizmos to pacify your consciousness on a more or less permanent basis … or go to the cinema to take your mind off it… but don’t forget to buy the dustbin full of popcorn and the giant tub of coke…it’s your duty… and don’t sit next to anyone if you can help it, they might try and touch you up in the dark… and don’t talk to anyone about how shit you thought the film was on the way out of the theatre in case they turn out to be a bit of a psycho or they’re related to the director… and for god sake don’t get a taxi back home, the drivers are usually foreigners, and what they do is, they drive you out of town to a bit of waste-land and then they execute you like at the end of Kafka’s The Trial so they can steal your wallet and mail your shoes to their relatives over-seas… and don’t get the bus because for some reason the bus is always full of angry drunk white-trash coming back from a night out… make sure you get a friend to drive you home… and if you don’t have any friends left you’ll have to skip the beer and drive yourself… but don’t forget to lock your doors because you go through some pretty dodgy neighbourhoods to get back home… and someone might try to jack the car… and make sure you’ve got your keys ready before you get to the door because of the rapists… and if you make it home, congratulations… you can now go on facebook and tell everyone what a marvelous time you’ve been having, happy in the knowledge that your life is so rich and full with the cacophony of human experience.

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I know I run the risk of sounding like a blithering paranoiac on a steady diet of dodgy mushroom omelettes but ever since I first moved into this house six years ago, I’ve been utterly convinced that the place emanates some seriously bad vibrations. Up until yesterday, it really wouldn’t have surprised me to have discovered that we lived on the exact same spot where the locals used to hold witch burning parties in the early 1700s, or that the foundations of the place were laid over a Roman fortress decimated by smallpox. Now however, after finally dipping my fingers into the fascinating world of feng shui, I can confirm (though not with any great relish) that all of our property woes are the direct result of a near apocalyptic series of feng shui disasters. Seriously, this place could have been set up as an experiment in how to ruin your own life through the attraction of negative energy… and if we were ever to invite around a feng shui consultant to help us re-arrange the coffee tables, I doubt they’d even make it through the front door before they collapsed in a writhing, screaming heap and started frothing at the mouth.

Ten seconds into my online research and I start coming across lines like “Do you live in a cul-de-sac?” (Yes actually I do…) and “Is your backyard sloped?” (Yes actually it is…), and then other, altogether less encouraging lines like “these houses will have challenging Feng Shui that needs to be taken care of.” And it’s so painfully obvious that the word “challenging” is just a polite way of saying “seriously and irredeemably fucked” that I have to curb the compulsion to bundle my family into the car and check indefinitely into the nearest Travelodge. In contexts like this, “Challenging” is a serious word indeed, it hints at dark and disturbing truths that are too hideous to be faced in their naked form. “Challenging” is the word that teachers use in the school reports of their most criminally deranged pupils: “Johnny’s recent experiments with a chainsaw in the playground raised some challenging behavioural concerns”… or politicians trot out whenever they get busted: “a Government spokesperson conceded earlier today that the photos of the prime minister dressed as Mussolini whilst snorting cocaine off the naked breasts of a Thai prostitute have created a challenging PR situation.” Let’s face it, “challenging” is bad… and nobody in their right mind would want to get home from a tiring day at work to be “challenged” by the very existence of their property on the spot where it currently resides. There really is no escaping the fact that what we’re dealing with here is a remarkably concrete problem. A cul-de-sac is a cul-de-sac… a hill is a hill… and no amount of online feng shui hints or tips are ever going to amount to anything more than a second rate palliative care programme unless I call in the bulldozers and destroy the entire street, or convince the council to shift a few hundred thousand tonnes of top soil.

And if it’s depressing to fall at the first hurdle, imagine how it feels to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and then slap the tarmac at the second hurdle as well. It seems that a good feng shui house requires “a smooth, strong and clear energy flow to its front door”. A nice, simple, gently curved pathway is the thing you’re after – something that imparts an air of cheerfulness and calm, maybe a couple of moderately proportioned bushes and a water feature to finish things off. “Big trees, old pots and recycling bins” blocking the way to the front door are (not unreasonably) frowned upon, whilst weeds, dead flowers and any other inauspicious signs of decay should be promptly removed from the scene. Needless to say, the path to my own front door deviates catastrophically from this feng shui blue-print. Picture instead a hideous procession of vomit yellow slabs (with some sort of fungal infection) lurching aggressively away from the front of the house like a drunk being ejected from a nightclub. Then picture this path taking a completely insane right angle about a third of the way down a decidedly patchy lawn before stumbling to the left for a few feet and then abruptly terminating at a narrow driveway of black tarmac. Throw in a few dandelions prising their way through the cracks in the slabs and finish off with a pair of ornamental cement tortoises – one of whom was sadly decapitated by the lawn-mower a few years back – and you get a good sense of the place.

You know, the more I think about the layout of that path the more it pisses me off. What kind of a fuckwit building company would force a family to skulk sideways into their own house like they were about to undertake a kidnapping? And I mean seriously, how could a home ever appear warm or inviting when you have to tip-toe down the side of your car and then navigate a series of jarring, unnatural right angles before you even get your God damn keys out? Feng shui… environmental psychology… the physics of light and space… geometrical relationships… common sense… call it what you like, it’s abundantly clear that our builders decided to turn a blind eye to any of these principles… and as a result of which we got well and truly shafted to save the price of a couple of dozen paving slabs. And would it really have cost our builders that much money to put a bit of weed repellent sheeting down? I could easily go off on one about all of this shit but this post is supposed to be about feng shui rather than unscrupulous building developers so I’ll save my wrath for the great day… and besides, the Tao Te Ching (which I always try to consult in times of high dudgeon) clearly states that there is no “greater misfortune than having an enemy.” Wise words indeed… and a difficult point to ignore – I suppose I could ruin the rest of my life tirelessly fighting for the “cause of the curved path” and the building giants would still throw about right angles like fucking hand grenades. Far better to remember yet another line from the Tao Te Ching, “stop thinking and end your problems”. Maybe we should just go off and live in a tent somewhere? A round tent. Like a Mongolian Yurt.

Anyway; once you’ve navigated the negative energy of the topography and the garden path, the next feng shui disaster waiting to throw a spanner into your psyche is the front door itself, which screeches like a stuck pig whenever it’s opened or closed… not to mention the fact that it’s impossible to swing the front door back even a full 90 degrees because of our tunnel-like hallway (for obvious reasons any entrance way worth its salt should be broad and inviting). Oh and then there’s the question of the bathroom located directly above it – which, also for obvious reasons, is a massive feng shui no no. I actually went so far as to check the position of the toilet bowl itself, and now realise that I have the great masochistic pleasure of metaphorically shitting directly over the entrance to my own little fiefdom every single morning! Allow me to quote just one more illustrative example from my friends at fengshui.about.com

What is the first thing you see as your enter your house? Where do you feel the energy (your attention) goes right away? Does it go straight to a bathroom that is close to the front door, or is it pushed right back by a mirror facing the front door? Do you have a staircase facing the front door? Maybe your front door is aligned to the back door, so that most of the good energy that enters the house easily escapes?

No prizes for guessing who has a back door directly lined up with his front door… a “french” backdoor no less, with nice big sheets of seven foot glass to bounce out any wayward positive energy that may have accidently made its way across the threshold. Also no prizes for guessing who has a stairway in his hall… and a downstairs toilet as the very first thing you pass as you walk into the property. I could go on for another ten pages about giant mirrors opposite beds, and hexagonal dining tables throwing off energy streams like killer fucking lazer beams, and sofa’s tucked behind doors, and colour schemes that would kill plant life on contact… but I think the point has been made.

You know, as naive as it sounds, until I read up on all this feng shui stuff I’d never really processed any of these issues. My dissatisfaction with the house was vague and free-floating – the endless tug of a thousand negative spatial arrangements just beneath the water margin of my own consciousness, bubbling away, day in, day out, like a toxic cauldron. Of course, now that I’ve seen the feng shui light as it were, everything about this weird house and it’s flat malevolent vibe is starting to make sense – and maybe as seemingly little a thing as the position of your toilet bowl and the angle of your garden path really does make a difference… it’s that whole death by a thousand pin pricks idea. And hey, why would I ever be arrogant enough to doubt the idea that a bunch of ancient Chinese sages who spent their entire lives living close to nature and contemplating this stuff would have less of an understanding of it than I do myself?

If like me, you’ve ever looked into getting a couple of red eyed tree frogs, you’ll no doubt have read the endless online articles about the need to replicate their natural environment… and that it really isn’t good enough to simply provide them with the necessary heat, light and food for their survival. Being tree frogs they need greenery and foliage and high places… and if you fail to provide as much for their “tree frog-ness” as their biological requirements, you’ll have a couple of very unhappy tree frogs indeed. Maybe they’ll be so pissed off that they’ll go on hunger strike and die. It might sound strange but in many ways I think this is where feng shui can play a part in our lives today. It’s a body of knowledge that is older than this strange world of glass and brick boxes we seem to have built around ourselves… and it’s sensitive enough to the psychology of human needs and environmental requirements to ground us back in nature… where, like all animals, we rightfully belong. Feng shui seems to understand a human’s “human-ness” in the same way that the owner of red eyed tree frogs needs to understand those tree frogs fundamental “frog-ness”. Something your average property developer wouldn’t give a fuck about.

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I thought I’d set the tone by publishing a divorce letter I wrote to Tesco a few years back when I’d just come out of hospital after knee surgery… and was stuck in an armchair for seven weeks with a stash of anti-capitalism books and the complete “Monkey” DVD boxset. Good times!

Dear Tesco,

Please find enclosed the shredded and charred remains of my Tesco clubcard personal-surveillance device, which I return in its present condition as a symbolic gesture of the utter contempt in which I hold your odious corporation. I am writing this letter to demand that my name and personal details, underwear measurements and grocery preferences, along with any other purchase related data I may have generated, be erased in its entirety from your Stasi-like web of databases and index systems… and if that means altering sixteen thousand pie charts by a millionth of a percent then so be it. It’s my data, and I want it back. I make this demand on the grounds that I have decided (belatedly I admit) to cease frequenting your stores on a permanent basis, and as is the case in all such divorces, it has come to the point where by the parties in question must crouch over the carcass of their relationship and take what is theirs. I also see this letter as an opportunity to get off my chest some of the Tesco-related moral outrage and pent up frustration it never seemed fair to call forth upon an innocent checkout worker desperately trying to earn a living on the insultingly low wages you callously insist upon palming people off with.

That’s right Tesco, I have finally gained enough of a sense of my own humanity to opt out of your globally destructive suicide mission for good. I am ready at last to turn my back on your in-store psychological blanket bombing and your multi-million pound ad campaigns and walk away. I have clambered off the treadmill of mindless over-consumption upon which you placed me as a child and cast your two-for-one offers, your piss poor self-service checkout systems and your eerie lack of shopping baskets into the giant wheelie bin of disgruntled customer oblivion. Never again will I find myself crippled by the sheer banality of my own indecision as I stand alienated and dehumanised before a 50ft wall of assorted male grooming products, slowly dying inside, at 7.45 on a grey Tuesday evening. Nor will I have to endure again those endless hours of catatonic drift past mile upon mile of tasteless pre-fabricated junk food… air fresheners that will pointlessly vary the chemical stench of your home on a 20 minute basis… gleaming mountains of status boosting electrical goods with a built in obsolescence that will barely see you across the car park… schizophrenic stockpiles of slimming aids and cream cakes, health supplements and cigarettes… the vacant expressions of former human beings pushing their weekly piles off hollow dreams towards the flashing light and automated voice recording that used to be a person…

It feels good to be rid of you Tesco – liberating and life affirming, like waving goodbye to a tumour or a crack addiction. And of course, none of the above are even amongst the more important reasons for giving up the cankerous blight of your free market imperialism. Far more rewarding indeed is the knowledge that I will no longer have to worry about blinding a 12 year old girl in a Bangladesh sweatshop when I place a pair of socks on a checkout conveyor belt, or stop up my ears against the uneasy babbling of my own conscience as I knowingly toss two pence (seriously. Two pence) at the blistered feet of a half-starved plantation worker in the developing world for a £1 bunch of bananas – my tacit contribution to Tesco’s global dragnet of child labour and worker exploitation, has finally come to an end. Gone too are the days in which every grocery purchase I make hammers one more nail into the coffin lid of another local business; where every penny I spend is instantly sucked out of community circulation into some distant capitalist tax haven, further impoverishing the already vague and atomised sprawl of my local neighbourhood. While we’re on the subject of money, is it really true that your chief executive takes home an astonishing four million plus a year in pay and bonuses? And what, might I ask, are those bonuses for exactly? Certainly not putting the health and happiness of some of the world’s most vulnerable people before the avaricious profit requirements of fat-arsed, jag-driving city banker types… or providing a decent supply of shopping baskets for that rare breed of shopper who doesn’t intend to cart home three times his own bodyweight in freezer foods every week. Unless of course you want to try and convince me that people on the other side of the world enjoy working 80 hour weeks, and that they do so out of an inordinate love for repetitive manual labour rather than any grim financial necessity?

Any corporation that can so brutally dismantle the economic infrastructure and cultural diversity of its host environments in favour of the bland and homogenised dystopian blueprint Tesco seems to favour, isn’t just a little bit naughty in any loveable rogue “business is business” sense of the word, but fundamentally and irreversibly Evil. Even a five year old child, once presented with the facts, would come to the obvious conclusion that it simply isn’t possible to commit such an abominable catalogue of crimes against the basic principle of universal human compassion by accident. And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is the heart of the problem – your entire business model hinges upon your ability to discreetly ravage the collectively torn sphincter of the world whilst smiling at the people like some sort of saintly and benevolent service provider. I see you in my dreams Tesco. Or should that be nightmares? You are a bloated and repugnant lounge lizard, stalking the nightclub of life with an etherised hanky and a stash of Rohipnol. You have paid off the doorman, and the police officers, and the magistrates of the land, and the only thing that stands between yourself and your victims, is their ability to stay clear of your dubious charms and your spiked free drinks. Behind the grease paint façade of “consumer choice” and the “feel good shopping experience” is a cold and ruthless machinery of exploitation so criminally adept at hiding all the nastiness it gets up to behind closed doors that the average consumer is too busy cod-eyeing a pile of mobile phones or looking for a bloody shopping basket to even notice. I suppose that’s how supermarkets, in their ecological wisdom, can get away with flogging locally produced “five mile and closer” vegetables that they’ve flown to Poland and back to get washed and packaged on the cheap by underpaid Eastern European workers (you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!).

Think about it Tesco, in previous generations the only people who showed any interest in wrestling control of the food supply and managing society’s access to basic human provisions were despots and dictators. As Lewis Mumford points out in “The Myth Of The Machine”, wherever traditional agrarian cultures have given way to urbanisation, “the political agents that collected and distributed the grain could control the entire population” It really is the oldest racket in the book; and one that you have obviously done very well out of over the years. When you see the population, week in, week out, crawling around your stores in supplicant obedience to the power and pull of your overwhelming control of the market, it must make you very proud of yourself. Of course, once upon a time, the idea of creating a world that could be governed entirely in accordance with your own capricious and self serving desires was reserved for the likes of a Caesar or a Napoleon – rather than a boardroom full of flabby middle-aged executives. Perhaps you’ve simply forgotten that you’re supposed to be a supermarket (that humble place where people buy tins of pilchards and rice pudding), rather than an axis power? Let me clarify something for you from a slightly more human perspective; if it really is true that one in eight pounds in the UK is spent in your stores, that doesn’t mean that there are seven more pounds to “go after” as your head honcho once famously suggested; what it actually means is that you need to stop being such greedy monopolistic bastards and give us our money back before we start getting ideas about descending upon your stores in an altogether different mood and expropriating some of those millions of hours of hard earned wages you have taken from us.

It is for these reasons (and many more along similar lines) that I refuse to help sponsor your international campaign of worker misery and cultural degradation any longer. Since finally leaving behind our abusive relationship I now enjoy the incomparable pleasure of shopping at a pair of family run local grocery stores, and even if they do only provide me with a shockingly poor selection of 6 breakfast cereals combined (how will I ever manage?) the hardships I endure as a choice-less consumer are more than recompensed by the warm and fuzzy feelings that spontaneously well-up inside me when I am recognised with a smile, talked to like an old friend and treated with patience, sincerity and kindness. Not possessing a soul yourself, I imagine this particular argument is hard to comprehend so I’ll move on to something more concrete.

Much to my surprise – thanks largely I suppose to your endless barrage of perception bending media – I soon realised that my non-Tesco shopping bill is between 10 and 20 percent cheaper every single week! Even with the far tighter profit margins smaller shops must surely have to contend with! 20 percent! And before you get the wrong impression, this figure does not include the bloated cost of all those chemical convenience foods and other toxic perishables I would have been tempted into buying from your stores – it comes from running my current grocery receipts through your crappy website delivery service for a direct comparison. It seems that somebody’s price fixing policy – sorry, price flexing policy – has been ripping people off more than they might have imagined: just one more example of your Evil master plan at work I suppose. One thing I really would like to know is what will happen to your pricing policies once you really have killed off all of the competition? Will you stick to your immensely condescending “every little helps” marketing slogan or go for something more honest, “pay or die – there is no alternative” perhaps? I suppose, if you’re the only store left, there will be no need for you to assault our senses with your shinny happy advertising campaigns at all? Every cloud has its silver lining as they say.

More than a hundred years ago, in his seminal text “The Conquest of Bread”, Peter Kropotkin passionately argued that if the people were ever to free themselves from their social and economic enslavement, it was imperative that they fought to once again control the destiny of their own food supply – that the parasites and the exploiters, the merchants and the middlemen that stand between a population and their “bread” (this is you of course), needed to be permanently cast aside in the name of justice and equality. I want you to know therefore, that as I cultivate the scrap of land that my suburban existence and the horrors of private property afford me, I do so as an act of open defiance: I refuse to deplete the worlds dwindling supply of natural resources pointlessly shunting about potatoes that could happily generate themselves in half a dozen sacks in the corner of a patio. I refuse to swell the profits of greed driven corporate shareholders buying farcically priced strawberries that would just as well grow in a row of old plant pots. I refuse the inherent perversity of complacently sanctioning the payment of slave wages – silently endured by millions of agrarian labourers around the world – when a little care and attention, a little sweat and elbow grease can bring forth a myriad of home-grown organic vegetables of a quality and freshness the cryogenic produce departments of your over-lit stores could never even dream of.

And if all my words and actions be written off as the inconsequential ravings and futile gestures of just another angry lefty (as doubtless they will) at least I can take solace in the happy realisation that I am but one of an ever growing number of ordinary people who have knowingly rejected participation in your sordid bid for world domination; that I can go to bed at night with something approaching a clear conscience, and the quiet hope that I may be but the first of many to “burn and return” my Tesco clubcard to HQ. I also hope, in a more poetic sense of the word, that I live long enough to enjoy the priceless spectacle of your Empire of exploitation crumbling beneath the boots of a galvanised proletariat who, having awoken from the media induced slumber of the last century, burn their TV’s in ceremonious piles on the corner of every street and arm in arm, reconnecting in a disconnected world, make a stand for what is right against the wrongs of the capitalist system you so perfectly embody.

If of course, after removing my data from your records, you find yourself unable to comply with my more general wishes by ceasing to exist (an evolutionary certainty of your unsustainable business model at any rate) please at least consider finally relinquishing your painfully dreadful blue-and-white-striped corporate branding. It’s hideously ugly, overwhelmingly tacky, and makes me want to vomit on sight.

Yours faithfully

Steven Pepper

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