Monday, 11 May 2020

The End of the World - a Local Perspective

A "Coronadventure" in Three Parts

Day One

For the final part of my ‘Covid Trilogy’ I decided to concentrate on home – and attempt to document the city I actually live in.

A bus thick with evening heat took me to the airport, where today’s arrivals included flights from Doha, the Isle of Man and a delayed afternoon flight from Islamabad. One of the interesting dimensions of the pandemic was that normally interesting places were now boring, and normally boring places were now interesting; train stations, for example, had become ghostly militarized zones full of distant shuffling employees, long silences, and teetering unread piles of the Metro. Ironically they were actually more pleasant than before the pandemic.

The Departures hall was whisper-silent: an empty shell scraped by slivers of sunlight, long evening shadows and a distant air-conditioner hum that reminded me of the exploratory gurgles of a recently-purchased fridge. Beggars bedded down on the carpet amongst the upbeat marketing promotions. If this city were to descend into some kind of Mad Max Armageddon, the warring tribes would end up massacring one another against a backdrop of posters from regional funding bodies about diversity and inclusion.

In the Departures hall a single attendant stood behind a single desk; half of the room had been plunged into darkness to save on electricity bills. Arrivals had been cleared of any stragglers, so those waiting to pick up their families had been confined to the grand, sun-baked ziggurat of the Terminal 1 Short-stay Car Park.

Day Two

As I set off on the second day of my journey around my virus-stricken city I received a text from my local GP practice asking if everything was okay.  

A shopping trolley that someone had helpfully left in the beauty spot beside my local reservoir seemed to rear up as I approached, as if it were begging for scraps, its hind legs gleaming in the afternoon sun. The cycle path was full of hundreds of people self-isolating; there were so many that my journey became a torturous gauntlet woven between wheezing families and their increasingly indignant dogs. 

The recycling containers seemed especially colourful and gleaming outside my father’s house in Chorlton, as if they were looking forward to swallowing the pile of leftwing magazines my father was putting in the bin.

I dropped in on my friend Adam, who told me he was planning to get into self-sufficiency gardening in order to shore himself up against the potential collapse of civilisation. He was looking well – in good spirits as he popped open a couple of beers – and declared that he had that very morning taken delivery of a thousand litres of compost.

Deckchairs were arranged in the garden at a suitable distance from my friends, and we chatted amiably while the next-door neighbour lifted weights to a series of metal bands. As we talked a head emerged from a window above us, and I recognised a man called Dan who I knew from local parties. 

We chatted for a couple of minutes, and Dan revealed that he had spent a brief time in the local park that morning to get a bit of fresh air. 

Day Three

On the third day of my adventure, I decided to negotiate the city’s shopping mall, a place where in less afflicted times I spend much of my daily life in the bookshop café. The mall was ghostly in its silence; beautiful sun bathed the complex in dappled light, so that one felt like one was moving in a kind of meditative trance, even if technically one was actually only moving towards the Prêt-à-Manger.

I stopped and purchased a carton of Medium Fries from an establishment called ‘Dixy’s’, and took them into the adjacent park to consume on one of the benches. The park was drenched in evening sun and the fries were even tastier with liberal sprinklings of salt; how remarkable, I thought to myself, that a scene of such Sylvan beauty could sit fifty yards away from a Wetherspoon’s!

As I made my way around the park I couldn’t help feeling that this place had never looked more peaceful, with its scampering children and playful families. Perhaps this outbreak might lead us on a new path, I reflected, one where we became less reliant on intensive global supply systems and and began to accommodate ourselves to our delicate planet; I began to feel a cautious hope for humankind and our long journey ahead, before cycling back home past a building site where work was resuming on expanding our neighbourhood Tesco Extra. 

Sunday, 10 May 2020

The Sludge of Nostalgia

Being unable to move in space, I decided instead to move in time – and so decided, for the second part of my Coronavirus adventure, to make a sojourn to the town where I grew up.

The platforms at Victoria Station all seemed to have had their benches cordoned off, on the assumption that the nation's health would be improved by depriving passengers of the ability to sit down. Prerecorded messages boomed around the empty concourse in search of a listener. As my train rolled in, an urgent missive warned me of the disastrous health consequences of vaping.

When I alighted at my home town I was immediately reminded of why I’d left it. At first I was rather overcome by the empty streets, the shuttered shops and hooded gangs – until I remembered that this had nothing to do with Coronavirus but was largely down to it being in the North of England.

I set off to explore, with that odd feeling of retracing footsteps I’d made in other decades, in other centuries. Almost every street elicited memories of a childish or teenage me. In the glare of an afternoon sun a nightclub promised tantalising thrills of downtown glamour, while opposite it stood a wall that had once boasted a sweet shop where my mental progression into adulthood – and the realisation that happiness did not solely depend on injections of sugar – had been prompted by the purchase of a small papery bag of bonbons.

The Hippodrome Theatre: a place of dreams! This gleaming citadel of high culture had been the locus of my artistic aspirations ever since the age of nine, when I was cast as a munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz. It now stood opposite a large Lidl, which boasted a new kind of dream of multiple discount bargains. Today’s delights included a 60 pence reduction on a bag of conference pears as well as 2-for-1 deals on home barbecues.

The tearooms my mother used to take me to as a child were largely still there, albeit having undergone a rebranding as espresso bars, a sign of incipient gentrification which seemed optimistic given the rest of the town. One sign in particular caught my eye. I had no idea who Libby might be – I pictured an energetic 25-year old with reddish curly hair and two cats – but I wished her and her pies all the very best.

I was surprised to find my old house now resembled a rural paradise; it was difficult to tell whether a road sign nearby was out of date because there was a global pandemic, or simply because nobody really cared. A fridge sat abandoned on the pavement, as if it had somehow wandered out one night and forgotten the way back.

Although nostalgia is often portrayed as a stroll through a rose-tinted garden, it occurred to me that this only works if you actually have enjoyable memories in the first place. For me, nostalgia was more like a walk through a sludgy railway embankment near a council estate; diving down into it did not recover pearls and treasure, but rather the mental equivalent of old shopping trolleys and discarded cans of White Lightning. There was nothing particularly noble or heart-warming about any of the memories this journey conjured up, and largely I wished I could have had some different ones. Such reflections caused me to miss a good photo of the town’s most famous statue, so that one of the most influential campaigners to improve the plight of the industrial working poor was now chiefly remembered here for his feet.

Crossing the park, I couldn’t help feeling the fence around my old school carried a sense of menacing incarceration, until I remembered that my school had actually felt like that even when it was open. I was saddened that the nearby pie shop of my childhood had been replaced by an all-purpose grocery store boasting posters for drum lessons and massage therapy.

As I approached the outdoor market an impatient hooded young man on a BMX shot around the corner, and disappeared into the settling dusk. If I’d waited another hour the market would have been immersed in artificial floodlight and created a wonderful, striking photo, one that would have been rich in drama and meaning, and left my readers impressed with the tragic beauty of post-industrial decline. But somehow I didn’t feel this town deserved it so I took a picture of the bus stop and caught the train home.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Plague Sunday

Coronavirus and the Capital

To celebrate my birthday – and having grown older than I was frankly comfortable with – I decided to break quarantine and take a train down to the capital to walk among old memories. I was one of perhaps nine or ten passengers on a train with seven carriages. Although I enjoyed the quietness of the quiet coach (which was so quiet that I was seized with the desire to play films and music as loudly as I could) I couldn’t help wondering at the logic of Avanti rail spending huge amounts of money and energy to transport a mere handful of us several hundred miles southwards. When I rose to purchase a coffee at the cafe, the man serving me looked astonished to see another living human.

Euston Station was festooned with signs telling me to go home again. Pushing on, I emerged into a whisper-quiet capital on a glorious Spring Day – clean blue skies and a pan-scouring wind – and cycled east. London’s silence was by no means universal. At Broadway Market, in newly-gentrified Hackney, thousands of affluent and stylish people had gathered to self-isolate among the falafel shops and porcelain boutiques. So many people were self-isolating here in fact that it was hard to move. A little further east, along the road to Cambridge Heath, a patient queue had gathered outside a shop selling deluxe paint.

I cycled north to re-explore the haunts of my early twenties, now under quarantine conditions. Far from a dewy-eyed trip down a path of golden memories, my return generally reminded me how awful it had all been. I was slightly saddened, for some reason, to find that the old greasy spoon in the Underground station I’d occasionally frequented – a greasy spoon that really had earned its name – had now become an upmarket cafe. They had evidently been advertising for staff before the lockdown, and it was interesting to speculate how ‘creativity’ really helped someone serve hot beverages in a cafe environment, but I wished them well for the rocky road ahead. 

With the continent quarantined, and very few trains, staff or announcements, St. Pancras International was mainly reduced to being the country’s most expensive and majestic public toilet. Interestingly, even by this standard it had partially failed, as many of the urinals had apparently been cancelled by the government. Such injunctions raised fascinating questions: how exactly could a single urinal be ‘closed’? I resisted the temptation to experiment.    

I reached the market at Borough amidst lengthening shadows. Here a rather passive-aggressive poster campaign graced the walls of stalls that had lapsed into late-evening silence. What was London if it was shorn of human interaction? If daily life was to be reduced to sombre economic transactions, was it still a ‘city’ at all?

Pushing into the depths of the market canopy, I was oddly reminded of the interior of an old pier long abandoned to the elements. Evening sun danced on rust. I couldn't escape the impression I was uncovering a lost civilization that had teetered and finally fallen – a once mighty world that resided on a river first colonized by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

Further west along the southern shores of the Thames the sky erupted into flame as a dying sun devoured the river. I was reminded of a poem by Wordsworth, but found it difficult to recall it in any detail, because an extremely insistent car alarm had gone off somewhere around Blackfriars.

Fighting darkness now, I took a pathetically trite photo at Westminster Bridge – so recently the locus of terror attacks, environmental protests, and now the locus of nothing at all – and pushed on into a West End so dark and still that I fancied nothing like it had been seen since the blackouts of World War II. A single gaggle of rough sleepers guarded the mouth of Leicester Square underground station. Antique bookshops frowned over police vans as they purred up and down a deserted Charing Cross Road.

Nearing Covent Garden I could make out the scrape of a single security guard’s shoe as it echoed across the flagstones. I found a secret delight in the silence. Part of me wanted to stand in the middle of the street and practice Yoga, or close my eyes and meditate. A romantic couple wandered hand in hand around the piazza and gazed at the plants displayed down the colonnade, their leaves set free by the wind, in a marketplace that glowed with illicit light.

I wove northward, finding strange little alleys colonized by wealthy boutique stores, where displays of pointillist mirrors and glass were accompanied by the burble of recorded music seeping out from in-store alarm systems. A mother and a daughter were – for some reason – traipsing through the alleys. Their footsteps felt deafening. After they’d passed, I stopped for a moment to enjoy the peace. I realised I’d never actually listened to the city before. The night hummed with new nocturnal symphonies: car alarms, siren flutter.

I slunk back furtively for my evening train, feeling, in some way, like a fugitive. Less than a handful of people were heading back north with me. The sky outside was now pitch black and the wind had become savage. Nobody checked my ticket.

19th April 2020

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

The Christmas Carol doesn’t make me think of the Nativity: it makes me think of Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit doing a tap-dance

We all know what Christmas Day is about. Gazing through suburban drizzle at the Tesco Metro sign behind the slate grey rooftops and wondering how long you can last without self-harming? No: it’s about snow, and family, and a roaring fireside, and tradition. Or more accurately it’s about watching snow and family and a roaring fireside and tradition on a massive Toshiba plasma while you attempt to stifle domestic resentment with an evening of Sky One and burpy alcoholism.

Yes! All up and down the country, the blissful, holy peace of Christmas morning is aflutter with the happy sound of gigantic flat-panels flickering to life and bringing Victorian sideburns and hansom cabs clattering into the living room… It’s Christmas; it’s yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens.
Feeling the festive spirit
I tried reading a book by Charles Dickens a few years back. I advise against it. Dickens wrote over six hundred novels, each of which is twenty thousand pages long, and every single paragraph is couched in impossibly meandering, ornate thickets of narrative foliage. Sometimes it seems to take weeks just to reach the next full stop; the average Dickens sentence is longer than many modern short stories. 
I've never understood the national love-affair with Dickens. The Angelic children and chaste maidens, the saintly paupers, the grasping social climbers – it all just feels so stagey, so hackneyed. Call that a character? I swear I’ve cut out figures from the back of Frosties packets with more psychological depth. wonder if investing all the Dorrits' money in that precarious pyramid scheme is going to turn out well? Who could that mysterious, motherly old crone be who keeps coming to watch like a mother at the gates of the factory that belongs to the “orphaned” Thomas Gradgrind? It’s all about as surprising as a GPS update; so how can something so well-loved feel so howlingly obvious 
Well, there’s a very good reason: TV adaptations. In other words, the reason we feel like we've seen it all before is because… well, because we have seen it all before. If the twentieth century represented a sort of mass move towards literacy, then the twenty first heralds the rise of the post-literate culture, a world that’s moved beyond the book. Media has cycled and recycled the giants of literature into marketable (and profitable) cliché. The result is that we’ve encountered their motifs so frequently that it almost feels underwhelming when you come across them in print.
“What’s Scrooge doing in a book?” was what occurred to me, as I flicked disinterestedly through the Christmas Carol in Waterstones. He actually felt rather out of place there, as if he’d strayed off the screen from an ITV special and accidentally got left behind, presumably wishing he’d stayed in his trailer. Why would anyone read about Fagin when Fagin's currently co-starring with Danny Dyer on the West End? Or bother to churn their way through about nine hundred chapters of the saintly orphaned Nell when they can see the saintly orphaned Nell doing Celebrity Come Dine With Me?
In this sense, the adaptation has become more important than the work it’s based on. It would take a very high minded household to produce a young adult today who came to Dickens afresh; in fact, I’d say it’s almost impossible for someone born in the last few decades to approach the great writers except through adaptations. How many people recall Pride and Prejudice for its sensitive exploration of social propriety and familial bonds, against the ones who just remember Colin Firth jumping into a fishpond? Say ‘Dickens’ to most people and they don’t think of books, they think of fake snow and Bafta-alumni. In my case, A Christmas Carol doesn’t evoke the Nativity: it brings to mind Kermit the Frog tap-dancing to upbeat musical numbers as Bob Cratchit. 
Not that any of this is particularly new of course. Humanity has always spent a significant part of its time rewriting its bygone sages. Shakespeare was ‘reinterpreted’ with rather astonishing results in the nineteenth century by various luminaries including Thomas Bowdler, who cut out all the nasty stuff for a family edition – effectively a pre-television age of editing for the watershed. Poet laureate Nathan Tate went even further and improved King Lear by giving it a much-needed  happy ending, an interpretation which seemed to go down well with Victorian audiences. In our own day the production line of recycled literary classics chugs away so fast that the adaptation is arguably a whole new genre in itself. A recent Wuthering Heights movie played like a cross between a German silent expressionist film and an extended episode of Emmadale; Nicholas Nickleby was combined with social commentary on abuses at elderly care homes. At this rate it can't be long before we see Bleak House presented in three minute story-bites acted out in text-speak by a group of hooded youths standing beneath a flashing T-Mobile sign to a backing track of pounding dubstep. Well, at least it’d give the Rada graduates some new dialogue to learn.
The result is that the Dickens industry acts as a sort of colossal ‘spoiler’ to anything he actually wrote: the staples of classic fiction feel familiar because we’ve already met them elsewhere. A post-literate society doesn't necessarily know more, but it is more knowing. So perhaps that’s why I groaned as I stumbled through yet another Dickens ‘revelation’ that was so obvious to me it might as well have been painted on the side of an articulated lorry and driven through the narrative crushing curiosity shops along the way. ‘You can’t seriously expect me to buy that,’ I gasped to myself: it was just so trite and hackneyed that it felt…
… Well, how shall I put it? For want of a better word, it felt positively Dickensian

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Tragic massacre of the people? Yeah, but look at the beards

They’d sell you the air in Manchester. God knows why you’d want to buy it, but that’s Manchester: gritty, mercantile. These days of course the thing Manchester really wants to sell you is history. The city that once produced a quarter of the world’s calicos now produces a third of the planet’s industrial heritage museums. Professionals dream of installing a Power Shower in the exact corner of a converted mill where Victorian children once had their limbs ripped off. History retails at 50 quid per square inch. Slums are now luxury condos. Around the cholera-rich rivers of the 19th century, you can now bear witness the oppression of the people by buying a £4.20 cappuccino and an Emily Pankhurst fridge magnet.
So watching Mike Leigh’s Peterloo – a new film about the vicious 1819 massacre of a peaceful protest of mill workers by the local yeomanry – can frankly be a bit of a strange experience. It didn’t help that I saw it in HOME, the megabucks glass cube (sorry, “arts centre”) nestled in a shiny corporate landscape of chain bars – hipster central, in other words. (One of the streets is actually called Tony Wilson Place). 
Unfortunately for the film, cobbled backyards, vintage costumes and cart tracks are also the kind of landscape I’ve learnt to subconsciously associate with various species of 21st century twat: Northern Quarter bartenders, street food entrepreneurs, background DJs. Considering that this is a film about the plight of the working poor the effect is a little unintentional. In some of the outdoor scenes I half expected to glimpse a Dirty Burger stall in the background, or for someone to lay a laptop on one of the rough plank benches and ask the haggard Maxine Peake for a Flat White. This isn’t helped by the fact that almost all the men have magnificent “Peak Beard” facial hair; you’re supposed to believe they’re grimy mill workers but you can’t escape the feeling they should be serving you a £12 Margarita. Part of me expected to see someone wandering in and out of the slain bodies at the film’s climax looking for somewhere to plug in their phone.
Still, what about the film? Well, it’s a mixed bag: interesting in places but uneven, and much, much too long. There’s a whole universe of characters who never get developed. Some pop up for a single scene and then disappear. Others even seem to cancel other characters out: there’s much made of a spy doing a sort of covert-ops sting on the protesters, for example, with dark shadowy meetings in dark shadowy tunnels – but it’s largely pointless because the local constable (Big! Fat! Dark cloak!) is hanging around outside like a bad smell anyway, clearly listening, in what must make him the shittiest spy in history. In fact during almost every bloody meeting in the film this constable seems to be hanging around at the edges, like a slightly creepy dumped boyfriend who hasn’t got the message yet. In one scene where Maxine Peake cuddles up with her husband I was surprised not to see him sharing the pillow.
Normally I’m usually someone who hates historical films because they reduce that nebulous thing called history into a series of clichéd and inaccurate set pieces. Or worse, shoehorn some crap modern “empowerment” sub-plot in. Were this not Mike Lee I might have gone in, for example, dismally expecting a late stage reversal as some plucky teenage mill worker heroine suddenly dons a bandana and singlehandedly wipes out the 15th King’s hussars to a soundtrack by Beyonce (available on iTunes).
“Bollocks,” I always think to myself. “This was a product of historical, social and economic forces and was actually much more complex and nuanced.”
Well, Peterloo’s got nuance and complexity. It’s got so much nuance and complexity that frankly you sometimes wonder what the fuck is going on. Be warned: if you’re not already an expert on obscure religio-political movements and the fluctuation of Regency-era grain tariffs (believe it or not, some people aren’t) this might stretch you. Yes, it’s true that history until recently has mostly been made by self-important men in crowded rooms making farty speeches. But that doesn’t make those speeches any less farty (nor the men any less self-important). At one point Maxine Peake’s family discuss the Corn Laws in a bit of background exposition so creakingly functional I half expected to see footnotes flashing up and a pop-up request to donate to Wikipedia.
What about the good things though? Well the historical period is fascinating. We get a mesmerizing range of co-existing social landscapes here that convey just how conflicted that age really was: an age that could see the squalor of 19th century industry interrupted by full-costume Royal hussars, that could support the ancestral offices of the Guardian and a burgeoning modern press at the same time as a Prince Regent with a private love-nest resembling Ancien Regime Versailles. Performances are excellent – including someone I know, Neil Bell, playing a bumptious northerner called Samuel Bamford who’s smitten with a self-regarding orator called Henry Hunt. (Actually this had extra comedic value for me at the thought of my friend licking the arse of some silver-tongued southern pansy, and not, for example, sticking a glass in his posh fucking face, though I have to admit this is probably a bit of a niche reaction).
Ultimately it’s a slightly clunky telling of an important tale, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t still important. As I walked out I looked around at the glittering hipster metropolis of modern Manchester, with its cliff walls of luxury apartments for the rich and footballer bling masking the poverty-stricken council estates and fucked, high-unemployment, satellite towns beyond; maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Reassuringly shitty: where did the London I knew disappear to?

Something interesting struck me while watching the charming and inventive film London (1994). Essentially it's a weary love letter to a city in decline, blighted by post-industrial entropy and decades of Conservative rule.
But it's also a utopian fantasy - about a city that could exist.
I once remember the writer Geoff Dyer saying he moved to Paris because London in the 1990s didn't have a café culture. How could you be a writer if the best part of the job - sitting around drinking coffee and pretending to work - was forced to take place in a greasy spoon? 
I know what he means. Every writer needs a good café to be pretentious in. Ask J.K. Rowling. And the director of London seems to agreePatrick Kieller’s interweaving of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the Parisian demi-monde in his love/hate letter to London reflects a wish for precisely that kind of cafe cosmopolis. One where poets and bankers live cheek-by-jowl, where contemporary art hangs in cafes, where buildings shine afresh from beneath their tarnished veneers.
Believe it or not, all that still felt very far away in the early '90s.
Fast forward a quarter century. Now you can buy a flat white on practically every street but have to travel miles to get a mop or a toilet brush. London’s a city where the kebab shops are being lost among the cappucinos, a city of "food deserts" and pop-up galleries where the template shitty London neighbourhood I used to love - a gritty street with mixed shops and stalls and fag-ends and drizzle - is fast disappearing in a fog of funky art and espresso steam.
I moved to London in 2000 and I know it well. But returning I barely recognise the place. Hackney? Brixton? Camberwell? The idea that these would be des-res boroughs would have seemed like satire at the start of the century. I still have to pinch myself to believe it.
Now decline and dilapidation are a rare commodity in the centre, pushed to the Zone 5 edgelands and beyond. In fact decline and dilapidation are rare enough to be fetishized in their own right; an endless succession of scruffwashed warehouse bars and gritty outdoor BBQs have repackaged grit as a designer commodity for the urban middle classes. Now bars lay out floor-pallets and hang art on their walls in areas where the artists disappeared long ago. The poets and painters, needless to say, can no longer afford the rents.
So, then, Kieller and Dyer got their wish. London’s a true cafe cosmopolis, and a much cleaner and less smoky one. But I find myself wishing for the tarnished, dingy city of the film. I used to love that city. Not despite the fact that it felt shitty but because of it. It was a city where houses and rents were still just about affordable, where drifters and losers like me could survive, where grime and grit were part of the fabric of the city rather than just a marketing commodity. 
As elsewhere, the dream of a more liberated culture became a template for turbo-gentrification. Did visionaries like Patrick Kieller precipitate the end? Can you kill utopia by simply wishing too hard for it?

Friday, 11 May 2018

Is the internet good or bad? "Yes"

Is there a Moore’s Law for human progress?

Not according to the writer Andrew Keen and his new book How to Fix the Future. The power of computing doubles every few years, but according to Keen – or the daily news – human ethics don’t seem to show similar progress.

But what does that mean for the rest of society struggling to play “moral catch-up” with the tech giants? Today’s digitally mediated landscape often feels barren and toxic, plagued by fake news, social media turf wars and polarized communities. What’s the answer?

That’s the question that How to Fix the Future attempts to answer. Instead of doom mongering from an armchair, Keen talks to various people throughout this book who have a role to play in offering a future that’s different from the one Trump, Putin and Big Tech have dreamed of.

Keen, who I interviewed for VICE a few years ago, is the enfant terrible of the world of Silicon Valley – someone who became a tech-entrepreneur himself before turning to punditry and regularly turning the guns on the industry that cultivated him. Since his bestselling polemic The Cult of the Amateur in 2007 he’s been a kind of embedded reporter in the tech industry, offering gloomy prophecies about the threats to our privacy, creativity, finances and even our souls from the digital revolution.

How to Fix the Future asks big questions. How can we avoid the “surveillance capitalism” of Facebook? What about jobs, copyright, privacy? How will the flexible workers of the twenty first century form a union?

The book forms a series of interviews interlaced with reflections, and Keen hopes some of them will shed new light on complex topics.

He talks to movie/music producer Jonathan Taplin about ways to combat the “sharecrop”  profiteering of the streaming sites, such as a “creative strike” among artists, or the rise of sites like Patreon, Flattr and Blendle which allow artists to develop (remunerative) relationships with their consumers. All this is part of a wider picture of the rise of “platform co-operativism”, such as Uber drivers unionizing, in one of the first examples of a digital precariat learning from the lessons of the first industrial age.

In the same spirit Keen talks to former deputy Danish prime minister Margrethe Vestager about “productive regulation”, which sees the state as an important mediator between government and people in the digital economy. The aim isn’t to stifle the market: it’s actually to increase the chances for innovators to reach an audience in a less monopolized landscape.

This raises an interesting point. We all know the unregulated Wild West of the first tech boom was hardly great news for most of those outside Wall Street. But currently, attempts to oppose regulation of tech (and enforce taxation) meet a knee-jerk reaction: such proponents are branded as dreamy socialists and quickly dismissed.

Keen refutes this. In his opinion, as well as that of many of his interviewees, more regulation and decency in big tech would promote rather than stifle business – just as in the financial world minimum standards help to build the trust.

The overriding theme is a need for citizen agency in the digital economy a new kind of social contract between the private, public sector and the individual. An emerging “ethical tech” movement is currently floating start-ups focused on the creation of jobs for the underprivileged. These include apps to help ex-cons get work after their release, or to remove bias from hiring decisions or offer workers legal advice.

And why not? We hear endlessly about the gig economy threatening jobs, but why don’t we talk more about how the same tech might also empower people?

It’s easy to sneer at these initiatives. Perhaps they are just first steps – first drafts for an unknowable future, building blocks to a better way of doing things. But why should we always assume that life online should always revolve around brutal profit-hunting and corporate behemoths? Why should the future belong to Silicon Valley at all, when so many people around the world – governments, entrepreneurs, artists – are now attempting to redeploy digital tools to meet communitarian, local and non-profit needs?

Optimistic lines of thought tend to plough into a big wall, however – the fact of automation. Are there any solutions? In his final chapters Keen talks to speakers advocating a “universal basic income” – like social security but without the stigma, for an age when more and more jobs will be performed by machines. He also talks of the need for moving beyond the “industrial age school” to a more person-centred education, training creative thinkers for a “freelance society”.

Personally I have to say that sounds like hipster Hell, but I see the rationale. How to Fix the Future might not have firm answers but it does ask important questions. Human progress might not keep pace with the iPhone. But it’s still due the occasional upgrade.