Archives for posts with tag: social commentary

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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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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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