Sunday, 27 July 2014

Help! I’m being seduced by fictional women


Katie wants to be my friend. Look: she says so. Along with Roxanna, and Fatima, and Kendra. Their profile photos come complete with nubile selfies and underclad, curvy mirror shots. Lucky me eh? These girls don’t just want to be Facebook friends. They want to be Facebook friends with benefits.
It was so much simpler in the old days. Back then, a million years ago, in 2004 or 2005, all you had to do was open your email inbox and a splurge of friendly welcoming spam would coat your monitor. Warm greetings from dethroned Nigerian princes. Phishermen casting their nets. Friends who you saw a fortnight ago mysteriously emailing you from Delhi, robbed and homeless and so broke that they couldn’t even afford correct spelling. There was a… What might you call it? A gentlemanliness to the whole thing. 

The fables and fabrications were charmingly cartoonlike: an ‘emergency’ email from the bank, a noble Royal fallen on hard times. Am I the only one who misses the cosy familiarity of mak $$$$$ NOW clik,. here u! can m.a.k.e m$ney££££££ in the same way they might miss a morning wave from the postman? But a queue of sexy women wanting to be my Facebook pal – ah, it’s all so cynical. Like everything else things have changed. Internet spam just ain’t what it used to be.

Anti-social media
The web, as we all know, gives people the chance to form bonds with their fellow humans in new and revolutionary ways. More specifically, it gives people the chance to send Facebook invites to their fellow humans in new and revolutionary ways. A quick glance in my folder reveals I had 605 event invitations just over the last year, which is 605 more events than I actually bothered attending. Five minutes ago Jonathon Ifors asked me to ‘Like’ his page about his comedy night. Five minutes before that, Sarah Cable asked me to ‘Like’ her page. Gabby Stansford, someone I have no connection to whatsoever, just asked me to ‘Like’ Gabby Stansford. 

Do I like Gabby Stansford? I don’t know. I don’t dislike Gabby Stansford; I have no strong feelings about Gabby Stansford, other than a vague wish that she’d quit bothering strangers and just get on with being, well, Gabby Stansford.

Please, like me
The worst thing about Generation Spam is not that we’re victims, it’s that we all, eventually, become perpetrators. Here, for example, is the invite from a former friend of mine who despite requests to stop, repeatedly spams me about his dismal “comedy” projects:

Hi, there              Dale!!!
            What are you doing tonight? Staying in? NO!!! Tonight I'm part of a superb improv team the Googly Gumdrops A “riotously dangerous improv comedy” when two mighty teams         unleash your laughter http://www.ticketwe   of warriors take to the stage to prove!!!!!!!!! Come along and let yourself in for a crazy night of Ticket £9  http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/user/ fun and hilarious as £6 concessions          unleash your   ?region=gb_london&query=detail&...

Etcetera. I contemplate it in fascination, trying to work out just how much lower I’d have to sink to want to pay six pounds to watch someone almost as unfunny as I am performing to silence and embarrassed coughs in front of a nearly empty audience. Night on the streets? Evening in intensive care with a stomach pump for company? For all its claims of uniting the world there’s a dispiriting loneliness to social media sometimes: like watching 24hr teleshopping in a darkened room after you've just been dumped, it’s easy to feel you’re nothing but a spam-sponge, ready to be crop-sprayed with bits of other peoples’ ego. The personal touch has never felt so impersonal.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

“TED Talks”? They’re like Oprah for academics and business gurus



I’m proud of how little I know. It’s taken me years to achieve it. I’ve skimmed my way through enough one line summaries, books for dummies, easy readers, infobites, factoids and hyperlinks to fuel me through an entire year’s worth of fatuous generalisations and dinner parties. I’m not widely read. I’m narrowly read. I read a bit, but mainly to avoid reading a lot. I cheat. Let’s face it, I’m obnoxious and opinionated enough at the best of times – imagine how insufferable actually knowing anything would have made me. 
So I guess I should like "TED" Talks, the Show-and-Tell sessions for wealthy business elites packed choc-a-full of every kind of McFact and ‘inspirational’ lightbulb idea you could imagine. They’re available on the web! They deal with complex subjects in less time than it takes to watch a kitten video! BUT, but...

Is it those standing ovations that remind me uncomfortably of a megachurch session? Am I the only one who finds that heavenly choir that starts and closes the videos a bit creepy? Is it just me that feels like I'm witnessing some kind of secular cult, Scientology for Smart Thinking readers? 

Doubtless it's a good thing to spread some new ideas around. But there's an agenda here. Ever seen a Ted talk that dared to criticise Twitter or Google? Or the Cult of Steve Jobs, or Apple's abusive labour practices in the far east? Or the ethics of speculative, seed-funded capitalism? 

For all its inclusive YouTube sheen the whole ‘TEDucation’ project is essentially a well-disguised auto-fellatio session for the pro-business / tech lobby, evangelical therapy for well-heeled businesspeople who like to applaud uplifting talks about using Google to reduce malaria in Lake Malawi then glide back to their hotel rooms in a haze of self-righteous tweets about really having learnt... well... something

Knowledge as junk food? iPod diplomacy? Worse than that. This is Oprah for academics and tech gurus.

In my opinion the best hope for democracy is stupidity
Whatever its pluses and minuses, there’s no denying that the knowledge base is flattened by the internet: humankind’s intellectual heritage becomes a sort of gigantic mental pancake – light and fluffy, but vast beyond comprehension. Buffeted by feeds and hyperlinks, the sum total of what we know starts to resemble a massively-multiplayer word association exercise. 

Take a famous name. Take Plato. Or Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. ‘Ah, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons,’ I hear you say. ‘That fascinating chronicle of two generations split between conservative tradition and revolutionary nihilism in nineteenth century Russia.’

Wrong! Fathers and Sons is actually: a memoir by Edmund Gosse; a 1970 song written and originally performed by British singer Cat Stevens; an album by Muddy Waters, released in 1969 on the Chess label, and featuring Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. & the M.G.'s and “Paul Butterfield” of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. 

Oh, and it’s also a chronicle of two generations split between conservative tradition and revolutionary nihilism in nineteenth century Russia. You see? We know a hell of a lot less about a hell of a lot more: not so much dumbing down as dumbing around. 
If we’ve done anything as a planet, it’s to develop a kind of all-embracing, inclusive ignorance, the kind of ignorance that anybody feels they can share in. In a world where we can never hope to understand a tenth of a thousandth of a millionth of all there is to know out there, our only defence against our yawning cosmic ignorance is factoids, Wikipedia articles and all the other McKnowledge. And yes, alright, Ted Talks. Humanity has finally made ignorance a tool that we can all share in. What could be more democratic than that?