Life hacking, smart cups, a surveillance state in a smartphone: is this the age of the "time-motion human"?
Read my piece for the Baffler magazine here
Sunday, 14 September 2014
Astonishingly nobody’s solicited my opinion on the Scottish referendum. Everybody else in the UK has been consulted: economists, journalists, MPs, people on the street, the Prime Minister, your local chemist, politicians from Scotland, politicians from England, politicians from Canada, the guy in the bagging aisle at Sainsbury’s, Sean Connery – but not me. What gives?
“Maybe it’s because you’re an English person with nothing whatsoever to do with Scotland, Dale,” I hear you cry. Well, okay, but when has that ever stopped anyone writing an article about something? Or simply crop-spraying social media with badly-spelled bluster? Google #scottishindependence and you’ll see an army of gobtrepreneurs howling out factoid-fuelled opinion until they go blue in the mouse pad. Google anything remotely controversial and you’ll see an army of gobtrepreneurs howling out factoid-fuelled opinion, in fact: all over the press people are paid to have an opinion about something, because, in an age where digital developments are gathering to demolish the last standing pay wall, what used to be known as “journalism” is becoming harder and harder to fund.
The answer is an ocean of provocative click-bait that’s cheap to produce and draws in the eyeballs: grazing grounds for the commentariat, who can then howl out more factoid-fuelled opinion in the comments sections. And someone can respond to them, with more factoid-fuelled opinion. And so on.
Here’s my take on Scottish independence: I don’t have one. Or to put it another way, I think the question of a referendum is a phenomenally complex bag of socio-political thorns that probably needs unpacking by an intelligently chosen army of technocrats, planners and economists. Neither Yes or No campaigns used that one for some reason. But I feel strongly about being ambivalent. Ambivalence isn’t indifference – it’s ignorance. And the proud admission of ignorance is the bedrock of scientific enquiry. How can empirical investigation proceed without first doubting absolutely everything you’ve assumed? A world that admits its ignorance is a world better poised to actually know something. So yes: I’m passionate about being ambivalent. Forget Yes and No. What the independence debate is missing is the “Don’t Really Know” vote.
This is partly because either alternative is kind of dismal. Support Yes and you align yourself with Cameron and an army of swivel-eyed nationalists, bullying corporations and the kind of people who buy dollhouses for their children with Union Jacks hanging out the windows. Support No and you let the warnings of high profile economists get swallowed in arguments tinged by patriotic sentiment; more sinisterly, you’re complicit in perhaps the smiliest positivity-based marketing campaign this side of the Scientology AGM.
An extra terrestrial visitor stopping off on planet Earth for the weekend might assume from all the YES signs everywhere that Scotland was a sophisticated emotional dictatorship engineered by an unelected ruler called Alex Salmond. Indeed there’s been so much positivity that even I briefly wanted to become independent from England, and I live there. These are the limits of political for or against: you’re caught between a rock and hard place – or rather you’re stuck on a rock that wants to become two rocks.
Democracy is a demanding beast. The politics of “not really any of my business” has little currency in the modern world, where in the course of little more than a century we’ve gone from only being allowed to vote if you owned a castle and the wives of half a dozen peasants to one where your opinion is a sharable commodity and must be exercised at maximum volume on a minute-to-minute basis. Or else nobody will click Like. Of course not everybody’s that enthusiastic about expressing their democratic right in determining the fate of the not-entirely-united Kingdom – as we saw last time with the plebiscite on the alternative vote, when millions passionately stayed at home to ignore the future of a breathtakingly boring electoral change which you’d have had to be a qualified political scientist to understand how it affected you.
And good for them, I say. Our ambivalence is something worth fighting for. If we should feel strongly about anything, it’s the right not to feel strongly about anything. I wish the Scots all the best in deciding their future, but I’m not going to pretend to have an opinion about it. On that one I’ll put my foot down.