Walking the (on)line

I think I’m becoming an irascible old man (and I’m only 31) because this blog is yet another kvetch-piece. I don’t mean ‘old’ in silly pop song jargon, where 25 year olds like Ed Sheeran sing about when they were ‘young’ and how they’re so much older, as if from some great vantage point of age-earned wisdom. But if I’m this grumpy now, I wonder what the future holds…

I suppose this piece is a spill-over from my previous blog about the English language bookshops of Berlin and how many of these places (where they sold food/drink and had tables) were frequented by those on Macs who eked out one small coffee all day. I was talking about how hard it is to get into these bookshops and look around, let alone find a seat, because people now usurp coffee-shop spaces as an extension of the office, whereas traditionally they were places of leisure and relaxation.

The singer Mark E. Smith, as all will know, died recently and while I admired him from afar, I was never a hardened acolyte of The Fall. Yet when I’ve been procrastinating I’ve found myself looking up interviews with this famously abrasive man (a grumpy old man – GOM – to aspire to, or perhaps not?) and in this one (from 2 minutes 40 seconds in) he lets rip about the internet, mobile phones and Facebook. Oh the irony – looking up this anti-internet prophet online and writing a blog criticising the internet…While I find a lot of Mark E. Smith’s political ‘acumen’ in this interview very questionable to the point of being distasteful, but he’s definitely got a point about the tyranny of the internet over our lives: ‘Why does everybody have to be online?’

I’m from a generation that grew up on the cusp of the big technological epoch that brought us internet, mobile phones, laptops. I can just about remember looking in bookshops before they had easy and lazy recourse to the internet to price their books, and it was in many ways a golden period because bargains were much more readily available and were the reward of those who had a bit of know-how. I know that sounds elitist, but knowledge in other walks of life is also rewarded. Of course, I don’t want to indulge in romantic or wistful myth-making, I’m aware of the myriad benefits of the internet.

But what really are those benefits? Pulling us out of the benighted dark by making knowledge (or is it disinformation and alternative facts?) available to all? I’m not talking here about the really grim aspects of the internet, such as trolling, abuse, stalking and all that. I’m assuming my readership is pretty civilised and is using the internet to learn, work, socialise, interact, add to the knowledge pool. Or just to buy loads of guff off Amazon?

For one thing, the internet has increased, intensified and depersonalised bureaucracy. I remember watching Ken Loach’s I Am Daniel Blake and hearing the audience titter when the protagonist tries to sign on at the Jobcentre only to be told ‘we’re digital by default’. Some kindly soul is showing him how to work the computer (but it’s assumed that we all have computers now…) and they tell him to use the mouse to scroll up the screen. So, Blake lifts up the mouse and rubs it up the screen. Ha ha ha! Except it isn’t funny – it depicts a horrible truth of how we are coerced into going along with something. Computers aren’t an option any more, they’re mandatory. Adapt or die.

I’m not some sort of militant Luddite, I know this is the future and I reluctantly get swept along with it. I’ve not had a mobile phone since my early twenties and many people think it’s a quaint affectation, or else they are unfeignedly shocked, being unable to imagine the deprivation of my life without it. Truth is, in the decade I’ve been sansmobile phone, I’ve only had two occasions where having it would have been a bonus. Not having a phone must have saved me thousands of pounds and that’s not what the technology companies want to hear. You buy a new iPhone, and chances are they’ll have a new one out in a month or two, and once you’ve bought the ticket for that endless upgrade ride, there’s no getting off. Technology engineers the need for new technology to replace it. And yet, even in those situations where I needed a mobile phone, I thought my way out of difficulty.

I think mobile phones are a nightmare. Really I do. What have they created? (Self-righteousness alert – if you are allergic to overt displays of sanctimoniousness, please look away now). Generation upon generation of solipsists who view the physical world through their digital familiar. Tidal waves of selfies – so many that no future civilisation will be able to process the quadrillions of carefully curated and posed images. As a tourist you can’t walk down a street anywhere without interrupting half a dozen snaps or selfies in the making. You’re constantly trying to dodge them.

I know fine well I’m not above all this. As the author of a blog I inherently think / assume that at least someone else online will read what I’ve written and I too am adding to this huge Babel of stuff generated online. I’m as guilty as everyone else of what I rail against, like being on a crowded train and complaining about it – you’re as much of the problem as the others. But the culture of ‘liking’ or approving things online I think is something of an error, turning us all into self-promoting somnambulists seeking our next endorphin fix (that almost sounds like the opening line to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’rewritten for our times…). How is it any different from being in school and being forced to line up for PE and then the teacher picking their two favourites who in turn pick teams for football? It’s just a peer-based popularity contest where people get genuinely hurt.

More sinister though is, and you might think my phrasing hyperbolic, that phones are a means of backdoor enslavement (not to mention the overt slavery involved in finding the ores to make them and the fabrication of them in the first place!). What’s the favourite phrasing of our times? – ‘Designed in California, made in China’. What absolute balls! They (the phones) go hand-in-hand with the annexation of the coffee shop by the laptop for an out-of-hours office. It’s about making sure everyone is easily contactable, but that means they are also being nudged towards working all the time, crucially during times at which they are not being paid. It’s this aspect which I find one of the most disturbing. Not being a careerist and a bit of a drop-out, I can get away without needing a phone. That said, I know I’m also making a pariah of myself by doing so.

However, closer to home my major issue with the internet is that it has turned us all into sciolists. Who was it who said a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? The internet actively promotes that sort of thing – self-diagnosis of serious ailments etc. For me, the problem is the effect it’s had on the book market. Big deal eh? Sure, books that were once thought rare have been proven to be common, as the book-selling sites (such as Abe.co.uk) flushed out all available copies, where once upon a time they were all in hiding, waiting to be found. No real problem with that, it’s shown the genuinely rare books up. But the way bookshops now go about pricing their books (particularly charity bookshops like Oxfam) is just absolutely nonsensical. If a book isn’t listed online, the seller automatically assumes it’s extremely rare and then puts a crazily high stab-in-the-dark price on it (usually in the high three or low four figures). Subsequent bookshops then use that delusional price as a benchmark and undercut it by a little, which means that a book (probably worth about £20-30) takes years online to reach its real value. No one is actually paying these prices. That’s the major rookie error – how many times have you been in an antique shop or at a car boot sale and the seller has come out with the old chestnut: ‘Well, it’s selling for hundreds on ebay’… No it’s not, someone is asking hundreds, but no one in their right mind is buying. I hate picking something up only to be pre-empted by the seller – ‘oh, be careful, that’s a first edition’. One time I was told this and the book was in fact a reprint (because most of these sellers don’t actually know how to identify what they’ve got and all consideration of the condition of said book gets defenestrated). I know this will sound arrogant, but telling me the book is a first edition is kind of like telling Yehudi Menuhin that the little varnished wooden box with strings on it is in fact a violin. Also, most books only had a first edition! Others, such as second printings of Baron Corvo, for instance, are much rarer in the secondary states, though less valuable. Another one of my favourites is picking up an old fountain pen (say a 1930s Conway Stewart) only to be told it has a 14k gold nib. News flash: they were fitted with gold nibs as standard!!!

There are the beginnings of some murmurings of dissent about mobile phones and the internet, but I know they’re here to stay and it’s only a matter of time until I’m forced to kowtow to them completely. The internet for me saps the fun, novelty and discovery out of things. No more bargains, no more kidding yourself that you’re going somewhere uncharted, because millions of reviews online will tell you what and what-not to do (which I did in my previous blog – guilty again guvnor!). The age of adventure is dead. And I don’t want to go about the world and my life viewing it as if through the little screen of a periscope, which is the view from a mobile phone. Online, if you like something, there’s a never-ending queue of people telling you the folly of your ways. Which is pretty much what this blog has done. But I’m just a grumpy man, old before my time, pay me no heed.

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