April 23, 2015
Social media satire The Circle made you scared about the screens that have enslaved us. Now Andrew Keen’s polemic against the winner-takes-all Web 2.0 will make you angry. It’s a smart, concise exploration of the impact of new technology, but also a howl of rage at the digital disruptors relishing the havoc they have caused. “Failure is success” is the bizarre, Orwellian mantra of the Silicon Valley innovators – and big failure followed by bigger success is the story of Travis Kalanick. He likes to boast that he was sued for a quarter of a trillion dollars by the world’s entertainment companies over his peer-to-peer service Scour. Ultimately, it may have failed but – along with Napster – not before laying waste to the music industry. Now he’s unleashed Uber, a taxi app that’s prompted protests from traditional taxi drivers around the world.
Perhaps that’s just progress. But consider Instagram, which sold to Facebook for a billion dollars when it had 13-full time employees. Around the same time, Kodak was closing 13 factories and 130 photo labs and laying off 47,000 workers. Last year Facebook forked out $19 billion for WhatsApp, which had 55 employees. These are the frightening numbers behind the job-killing digital economy. And those internet giants that do recruit an army of coders to their cults pay hardly any tax and contribute little to the local economy. Keen’s particularly scathing on the segregation in San Francisco (and he’s found an ally in Rebecca Solnit), where the digital overlords travel to work in private buses and never have to leave their plush office complexes. There are plenty more villains – and a few heroes – in this history of the internet. He compares Google with the Stasi, rails against the oddball libertarians who became billionaires and rubbishes the long tail theory, which claims that any creative person can make a living thanks to the reach of the Web (mid-list authors are actually disappearing). As William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
May 27, 2013
Philosopher John Gray has written a sequel to Straw Dogs that is hauntingly beautiful, sometimes bleak and often admonitory. Certainly liberal humanists and Christians alike will feel challenged by Gray’s arguments, particularly the debunking of his opponents’ faith in the “myth” of human progress, which he compares to “cheap music” for its simultaneous spirit-lifting and brain-numbing effect. “There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself,” he writes, rejecting any demarcation between the savage and the civilised. The rational human is, according to Gray, a modern myth; he even questions the notion that humans desire freedom.
There’s a lyrical, discomforting quality to the literary quotations he deploys. J.G. Ballard writes of the sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment” when he recalled the abandoned casino he tiptoed through as a boy in wartime Shanghai. “Progress in civilisation seems possible only in interludes when history is idling,” notes Gray. The flood of quotations – from Norman Lewis and George Orwell, Joseph Roth and Ford Madox Ford, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Georges Simenon – sometimes makes The Silence of Animals read like the finest footnotes selection you’ll ever encounter. However, Gray’s own voice is just as quotable: he’s scathing about the “post-modern plantation economy” of the US, describes a perpetual search for happiness as like being burdened with a character in a dull story and regrets that “the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life”. The title alludes to the human struggle for silence as an escape from language. Turning outside yourself and contemplating the animals and birds, Gray writes, may finally enable you to “hear something beyond words”.
March 24, 2013
Museum exhibition catalogues are probably purchased more out of a sense of self-improving duty rather than pure pleasure, but the accompanying volume to the V&A’s blockbuster Bowie exhibition (until 11 August) is essential reading for fans – and it seems everyone’s a fan since the surprise comeback – of the man who defined an era with his avant-garde refashioning of pop. Far more than mere nostalgia, the exhibition is a visual and aural celebration of the Starman – the 1972 Top of the Pops costume is framed by footage of that memorable performance – as well as an exploration of the concept of ‘inner space’ (JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition from 1970 is one element that gives the exhibition its wider cultural context). Bowie soaked up so many influences it’s almost worth an exhibition in itself: at the V&A we get to see the cut-up lyrics inspired by William Burroughs (there’s a photo of their meeting), the Diamond Dogs tour designs based on 1984 (Sonia Orwell refused permission for an official 1984 show) and the photo of Little Richard he kept from a young age (an early clue to Bowie’s flamboyant theatricality).
The hype surrounding this exhibition is justified by its bold, non-chronological design and the access the curators had to Bowie’s extraordinary archive: the book and the museum show allow us to gaze at such items as his Berlin house keys, the legal letter changing his name from David Jones and the singer’s sketches and hand-written lyrics, as well as an array of outlandish costumes that provoked family arguments during 1970s editions of Top of the Pops. The book is a lavish, visually stunning companion to an exhaustive, eye-popping exhibition that chronicles Bowie’s reinvention over five decades and definitively captures this alien pop icon’s pioneering performances and his enduring influence on contemporary culture.
November 26, 2012
In recent years, a few of the more hidebound members of the science fiction community have sniped at Margaret Atwood’s unwillingness to fully embrace the SF label. It turns out that she’s a lifelong reader – and writer – of genre fiction who’s frustrated that such classification feels like books ‘being sent to their room… for the misdemeanour of being enjoyable’.
The essays in this collection are both fannish – Atwood discloses her childhood stories of flying rabbits and ponders the origin of superhero outfits – and erudite as she discusses the power of science fiction to explore the outer reaches of the imagination, the consequences of technology and the nature of being human. As the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s typically strong on dystopian and utopian societies in literature and she explores SF themes from pioneers such as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell – authors whose ‘other worlds’ she’s been visiting for 60 years. It’s not an exhaustive survey – for that you’ll need Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, or Adam Roberts’s masterly The History of Science Fiction – but it’s a persuasive, superior primer from an author who’s employed SF as a powerful literary warning about the loss of freedom.