Sunday, 21 December 2014

Should I get Starbucks to adopt my child?

It’s when I look up from my regular filter refill that I see it. It’s on the kiddie shelf, the family-oriented corner of the café with all the picture books to attract young mums and dads doing their parenting over a skinny latte. Amongst the crayons, the Thomas the Tank Engine hardbacks, there it is: a splodge of colour and outline, a precarious schematic suggesting a shape. It is, in other words, a child’s drawing.

Not so very unusual in a crèche area, you might say. In fact there are several such fumbling sketches. But the issue isn’t the draughtsmanship. The issue here is what it depicts. This child’s drawing, as I learn on closer inspection, is a “Mango and Passionfruit Juice Blend”. I know that because it says so, at the bottom. In the same wonky hand. They’ve even included a smiley on the end.

Cute eh? Other such infant talent on display includes the “Chocolate Chip Frapucino (sic)”; the “Iced Cafe Mocha”; the “Classic Hot Chocolate” and, perhaps most perturbing, a piece of Outsider Art entitled “Did You Know? Starbucks Coffee Is The Best!” They’ve even included a charmingly wonky corporate mermaid.

Am I to understand that Starbucks has been employing children to do part of its marketing?  

I use the word “employ” only loosely of course; perhaps it was part of some community thing, a kids’ activities day or suchlike. This particular branch of Starbucks also hosts nights for a local non-denominational church (go figure). Or perhaps – and this seems a bit of a stretch – the staff drew them, tongue between teeth, using their left hand, thinking themselves back into a five-year old.

Somehow, this is even more sinister.

At any rate it suggests a breathtaking level of intimacy between the global corporation and the growing child – many of whom will presumably spend their formative years gazing up at inspirational Chocolate Chip Frappucino drawings in the way I used to gaze up at a toy WWI biplane. The general term for all this is “Relationship Marketing” – that is, any attempt to foster a link between company and consumer – but given that these customers are still learning to make vowel sounds, I’d say it was less “marketing” and more a kind of friendly corporate “brainwashing” with overtones of the Soviet Komsomol program. How are kids supposed to develop distinct personalities when they’re taught to associate creativity with drawing a cappuccino?

It’s not just Starbucks of course. Just across the road the Sainsbury’s apes the historic shop window with its “community” notice board, bracketed by a big smiling picture of a copper just to remind the local “community” Not To Try Anything Clever; global retailers don’t just want to replace the high street, they want to be the high street.

I know this because I actually lived in a Starbucks for a while – one inside the Borders store in Islington during the late 2000s. Technically I was domiciled in a flat up the road but since I spent most of my waking life in the cafe (being part of the book store it served as a locum library, breakout room and occasional sleeping area) it was effectively my address – until Borders went out of business.

Brands becoming complete solutions for living is less sci-fi than it sounds. Just look at iLives, the Cult of Apple; look at apartments opening up inside malls, or branded “butchers” and “bakers” inside supermarkets; look at people who struggle to interact outside Facebook, or Google Glass. An MRI study showed that Apple imagery now excites similar neurological responses as religious iconography used to. They say our earliest attachments last from cradle to grave – so Starbucks is working hard to get them in the cradle. 

What's the harm, eh? Ahhh: just look at how they love colouring in those cappuccinos.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

I’m going to die around 2070. If everything goes to plan I’ll end up dribbling porridge in a care home

Stoke-on-Trent, the 22nd century

The future. It used to be so bright and shiny. Think back to old fashioned sci-fi. Metropolis. Barbarella. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Balletic spacecraft, stewardesses serving cappuccinos in zero gravity. Back then the future was something to look forward to. It came with free energy and zero-gravity sex. People assumed that by 1999 they’d be boiling an egg with nuclear power and popping down the chemist’s in a hovership. 

Then come the dirty seventies and cyberpunk and steampunk, and the future got grunged up. Ridley Scott’s Alien brought us a space-age that looked less like a utopia and more like an industrial dispute in space; the L.A. of Blade Runner combined noodle stalls with eternal night and the microclimate of Manchester. 

But the truth about the future is that it’s is neither an unblemished paradise nor an apocalyptic hell. It’s just boring. 

How do I know? Well, I don't - but I have thought about it quite a bit. In fact I’ve done some rough calculations and worked out that if everything goes to plan, I’m due to die sometime around 2070. Think about it: 2070. Close your eyes and what do you see? Boutique cloning perhaps. Wi-Fi brains. Ears rewired by Talk Talk. Mark Zuckerberg projected onto the back of your eyeballs. The future sounds all shiny and exciting until you remember that you’ll be in it; that you'll watching all these things from the fat-arsed impotence of advancing age, with time carving crevices into your skin and each new generation of embryo-faced squealing twenty-somethings smugly redefining the world that you’re struggling so hard to feel relevant in. This is the terrible truth - the future won’t feel like glitzy sci-fi; it’ll feel like an incredibly boring, 24 hour video feed from a geriatric reality show. Albeit with better phones. 

The future just ain’t what it used to be

Part of the problem, of course, is that we take our inspiration about the future from famous books and films, which tend to centre around shooting robot prostitutes or coming back to 1984 to save John Connor. Do not be fooled. The future won't look like that. It'll be far, far more boring. Yes, sure, the Times Square of the late twenty first century will probably feature dancing hologram advertisements and other orgasms of cyber-puff if we haven't all been swallowed by rising oceans. But most of us won't be there.We'll be in Wigan. Or Ramsgate. Or in Basingstoke, in an old persons' home. Even in 2070 Basingstoke will still look like Basingstoke; Basingstoke is one of those places that will always look like Basingstoke. The motorway services off a slip-road on the A24 will still be boring in the future - as will rain, or Scrabble, or taking a pee, or Tuesday morning. Even Mark Zuckerberg on the back of your eyeballs won't change that.

This, you see, is the strangest thing about the future: everything you're going through now is just a very slow dress rehearsal for it. The people who will be changing your bedpan in your care home in 2070 aren’t even born yet. The woman who'll replan your town centre is at this very moment watching Peppa Pig over a cup of squirty chocolate milk. If you want to contemplate the real future, your future, remember that a toddler currently spooling mucus into its pram will one day be handing you a melanoma test result with a sympathetic smile and asking if you’re covered for life insurance. 

Life, you see, is just a terminal disease in slow-motion - and one of the symptoms is gradually losing your ability to be suprised by it. I'm already a fair chunk of the way through, and I can report with some confidence that taking a pee is considerably less thrilling the 59,000th time than it was the first. As are Tuesday mornings - or Scrabble. Or Basingstoke. If I'm really lucky, if everything goes to plan and I survive the deaths of most of my loved ones, I’ll end up dribbling porridge in a care home while a nurse who hasn't been born yet empties my bed pan. Maybe those rising oceans aren't such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Solve climate change? Just turn down the sun!

Space mirrors and sky volcanoes: the rise of "planet hacking"...

To read my latest article for The Baffler Magazine click here

Sunday, 9 November 2014

I don’t want a Like button. I need a “Hmm” button

“Just after midnight on 19 August 2014, police received a call from a member of the public who reported concerns for the welfare of a woman who lives at a house on Wigan Road, Leigh,” the Greater Manchester Police’s Facebook page said. “On arrival, a woman was found deceased in the back garden.”

Then, at the bottom: “12 people like this.”

Alright, before you start – I get it. I know they’re not liking the murder itself. It’s a show of support for the investigation - though quite why anyone unconnected with the murder itself feels the need to go on a police Facebook page to cheer them on is quite frankly beyond me. Come to that, why the police are even on Facebook is a question well worth asking (Make new friends? Share photos? Sorry, am I the only one that feels it's somehow innapropriate for the cops to be on Facebook?)

That aside, my particular bugbear is with that “Like” button.  

“Someone Liked your post, Dale,” commented a thoughtful friend recently, one who’s been attempting to give me a bit of basic media training. “Go on their page. Like their Like.” 

“Like their Like?”


I sighed wearily. “Why do I have to Like their Like?”

“It’s good for your algorithms.”

I knew he was probably right. Still, like their Like? I don’t even like my own Likes. It’s not that Likes promote relentless narcissism or turn people into approval begging machines, nor even that they’re an easy route for arse-kissing and Facebook flattery (just watch how anybody famous or successful gets five thousand clicks of approval the moment they Instagram a piece of toast). 

No. It’s just the name of it. “Like”. It’s a monosyllable. A digital grunt. Ambivalance, complexity and uncertainty: those are just some of the many things that this kind of binary language utterly fails to convey. It's like asking a pocket calculator to write a love poem.

I understand that people express all sorts of things by Liking something – support, admiration, guilt, friendship, I'd quite like to sleep with you – and that their feelings for doing so might indeed be complex and nuanced, with subtle reservations and caveats. If they’d called the Like button “express admiration in a complex and nuanced way, with subtle reservations and caveats,” then I might have liked it a bit more.

But they didn’t. They called it a Like button, and if you are attempting to express admiration in a complex and nuanced way, your subtle reservations and caveats regarding the subject are squeezed into a dumb, thumbs-up McEmotion. The Tesco Value Range of language. If supermarkets did feelings, they’d look like the Like button. In fact the purpose of the Like button is to turn feelings into a supermarket – in other words, the people really gaining from all these likes are the tech giants who are given indispensable data on their subjects in the largest project in customer data mining ever commenced on planet earth.

But I need ambivalence. I'm not good at smiling, surefire certainties. I don’t need a Like button. I need a “Hmm” button. Or a “Well... maybe,” button. Or, in other contexts, a “Oh, fuck, you're more successful than me...” button. I need lots of buttons to be honest, for expressing a whole range of emotions, and I need them combinable and re-combinable within a structured framework of signifiers that agglutinate to form semantic units - oh, hang on. That's a language isn't it.

Perhaps I shouldn't complain. Apparently several alternatives were mooted by the company prior to the button's introduction - “Cool!” and “Awesome!” among them. At least people aren't going on the Greater Manchester Police’s Facebook page to show how Totally Awesome they think they are. And perhaps I'm being snobbish to insist that language should express more than basic binary states; after all, many languages revolve around the grammar-free expression of real-time desire - most of them, as far as I know, spoken by apes. The Facebook Like is perhaps the most persuasive argument for reverse-evolution in human history. Reduce language to grunts and you help to reduce thought along with it. Baboons would really like the Facebook Like. Banana? Like! Water? Like! The Schleswig-Holstein Question? Er... 

Like. I guess.

Well, good for the baboons. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg could install a few of them in the Facebook corporate lobby: on current trends, it's a model of what the human race might look like by the time he dies. Now, let me go and share that awesome murder.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Cops on Facebook

Why not use the same kind of algorithms Amazon uses to predict a killer’s life?

"Predictive policing": Read my latest piece for the Baffler here

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Who says literature’s dead when masterpieces like “Penis Pokey” are still being published?

“Books: like a movie, but happening inside your head,” runs the staff note in Waterstones a motto for a media-hungry post-literate world that's just too busy for books. Look around you and the writing’s on the iWall: buses swipewashed with faces lost in screens; the Äppärät-touting teens of “Super Sad True Love Story”; novels sold for a quid in Tesco’s. I got my nephew a book for Christmas, but he couldn’t work out where to plug it in… Don’t laugh: the first generation is now being born that will grow up with formative memories of the iPotty.  
But who says the book’s dead? True, the bottom’s falling out of the fiction market, and true, writers earn less than they ever did – which is a bit like saying that street beggars have taken a painful hit in their incomes – and yes, those of us who still care will no doubt be stepping over the rubble of Waterstones and Blackwells before long, grasping for fire-sale trophies like hungry survivors of the Fall. But from these ashes a new phoenix is rising. We’re on the threshold of a new age for fiction. Bit by bit, illustrious new homes are appearing for books.
Take my local PoundStretcher for example, keeping literature alive with celebrated titles like “100% Unofficial Jedward” and “Shoot! The Ultimate Football Activity Book”. Take the arena-sized supermarket near me, whose bargain bin throws up gems such as “Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku DVD Game”; “The Crossword Puzzle Flip Pad (Find the answers on the flip side!)”, or my favourite, the cryptic, gnomically titled “Pasta”.
Or take that bastion of artistic standards, Urban Outfitters. Today, such an August institution (it may soon be the most prestigious physical bookshop left standing) exudes the musty fumes of literary excellence. From the erudite “Slam Kicks: Basketball sneakers that changed the game” to the richly textured “How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity”; from the ribald “Penis Pokey” (a book with a hole to poke your penis through in a variety of amusing positions) to the robustly formalist “101 Places to Get Fucked Up Before You Die”, Urban Outfitters caters for all tastes.
There’s “Mini Babybel: the Best Recipes”, the companion piece to the original masterpiece, “Nutella: 101 Great Recipes” which set the literary world alight on its publication as a landmark in the emergent chocolate spread recipe genre. There’s a probing exploration into the depths of the human soul from the acclaimed memoirist Alexa Chung and a treatise on philosophy from that thinker of world renown, Karl Lagerfeld. Why, it’s not just books you can find in the books section – I accidentally stumbled upon a bit of bunting bearing the colourful injunction to “Party with my Bitches”, something that truly livens up any book pile – and highbrow tastes are catered for too with a pristine deluxe edition coffee table sized book bearing the title “Fuck You”. Who said literature was dead?
Were Woolf, Fitzgerald or Hemingway alive today, they’d be up at night trying to come up with masterpieces like “Photocrafty: 75 Creative Projects For You And Your Digital SLR” or “Understand Rap: Explanations of Confusing Lyrics for White People”. Joyce himself would feel humbled by the experimentalism of a work like “Why You’re So Awesome (Fill in the Blanks)” with its daring deconstruction of the relationship between writer and reader.
Of course, some might question whether replacing Lolita, Catch 22 or Tender is the Night with a book centered around sticking one's penis through a cut-out hole is a healthy substitution for literature. As bookshops die and hipster craft stores become the last place in the city to actually make a profit from paper pages, can we really rejoice at the fact that "Peek-a-Boo Cakes" is the first thing people are splashing out a tenner on?
But to take that approach is to ignore the fertility of these dazzling new literary forms. “Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary,” Boris Pasternak once said. Who could take a book like "Nutella: 101 Great Recipes" and not agree? 
Contemporary classics like “52 Things to Do While You Poo” promise fascinating new journeys for the reader that not even the author of Zhivago was daring enough to envisage - something that storied literary publishers like Jeff Bezos are helping to reinforce. Perhaps writers who want to keep literature alive just need to get off their pedestals and back on the toilet - after all, that might be the last place anyone has a chance of being read.