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Saving history from the iconoclasts – the academics ride to the rescue

Palmyra

There aren’t many stories in this horrible, death-strewn summer that lift my heart. But here’s one of them.

The London Times reports a plan to equip thousands of volunteers throughout the Middle East with 3D cameras. The idea is that they will take photos of every monument and artefact threatened with destruction or theft by ISIS or any other gang of iconoclasts intent on wiping out the pre-Islamic history of the region.

Teams from Oxford and Harvard Universities hope that before 2017 the volunteers will have taken 20 million pictures of objects, using digital cameras that cost as little as £20 ($30) each. What is subsequently destroyed will be able to be recreated using 3D printing.

I think it’s a brilliant idea. The only questionable aspect is whether they can find the volunteers to do the job. I hope they can, and quickly. Palmyra may be lost, but there are many more sites and museums not yet within the clutches of the barbarous ideologues with their sledgehammers and dynamite.

A few months ago, after the destruction of Hatra and Nimrud, I wrote a post called Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance. I pointed out that whatever ISIS manage to destroy, there is much that they cannot reach, either because it still lies underground or because we already have extensive photographic evidence that is available to all of us via the very tool that they use so effectively for their own purposes: the internet.

This plan goes another step towards putting history beyond their reach. And when people use the hackneyed argument that we should be more concerned to protect the living than to preserve the heritage that the dead have left behind, I will always argue that it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. Both are achievable, and both are important.

For the dead nourish the living, and without a record of what they thought, achieved and built, our ability to make sense of the world would be much diminished. Which of course is what ISIS want; in the world they seek to create, sense is irrelevant. Belief is all.

So the Oxford/Harvard project sends a message to the iconoclasts that no matter how many archaeologists and museum curators they decapitate, and no matter how many objects they destroy, what is remembered can no longer be forgotten.

So esteemed academics, please, please, make it happen, and soon.

Jeremy Corbyn and Iraq – a meaningless apology?

Iraqi families continue to leave Basra in southern Iraq, across one of the town's bridges manned by British soldiers. Iraq warned it would use all means, including suicide attacks, to stop the coalition's advance on Baghdad, as US and British war planes pounded the capital and the southern city of Basra 30 March. AFP PHOTO POOL/DAN CHUNG (Photo credit should read DAN CHUNG/AFP/Getty Images)

Basra 2003 (Photo: Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)

So that’s how we sort the world’s problems out, is it? With apologies?

Jeremy Corbyn may have been quietly working away on the sidelines of the Labour Party for the last thirty years, but he certainly knows how to grandstand. And during his time in the sun, he’s clearly making the headlines while he can.

According to the BBC, he intends to apologise to the people of Iraq on behalf of the Labour Party for the 2003 Iraq War.

Now when I was a child, I was taught to apologise only when I meant it. And meaning it meant that I would endeavour not to repeat the action for which I was apologising. If Jeremy had the same responsible parenting as I received, presumably he is undertaking that his party would never again partake in what he views as an unjust war.

Fair enough. We would all endorse that sentiment, provided we could have a clear definition of just and unjust. But this is where things start to become problematic. And two of the most problematic areas are motivation and retrospection.

Is a war entered into for one reason, possibly malign, but remembered for another, possibly benign, an unjust war? The abolition of slavery was not the cause for which the north went to war with the south in the American Civil War. The principle at stake was the right of the southern states to secede from the Union. Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation eighteen months after the war started, and the amendment of the US Constitution abolishing slavery did not come into effect until after the war.

Americans might have a more nuanced understanding of the causes of the Civil War, yet outside the US the war is mainly remembered for its most fundamental outcome – the end of slavery.

Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. Whatever was known before and during the war of Hitler’s genocidal intentions towards the Jews, the Holocaust was not the cause of the war, yet the justice of the struggle has ever after been framed in the context of the Nazi regime’s murderous actions.

Looking at Iraq, does the failure of nations to take military action against one country whose regime oppresses its people and threatens its neighbours – North Korea, for example – invalidate the justice of going to war against another country whose regime is equally malevolent?

And if the war against Iraq had resulted in a stable government free of sectarian bias and dedicated to re-building the country for the benefit of all within its borders, would we now be describing it as a just war, even if the casus belli turned out to be false and potentially in contravention of international law?

Then there is the question of to whom Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to apologise. To the Kurds, whose villages Saddam Hussain gassed? To the Shia, whom the dictator ruthlessly persecuted in the aftermath of the 1991 war? Or to all the other ordinary Iraqis victimised by his regime – with which, incidentally, we had cordial relations for much of the period up to the invasion of Kuwait under both Labour and Conservative governments? Presumably he is not apologising to any of those people, even though many of them are the same folk who suffered in the 2003 war, and most likely would have been delighted with the fall of Saddam.

I’m fine with his apologising for the consequences of the war. We and our American ally made some disastrous mistakes. But it should not be on behalf of his party. It should be as prime minister on behalf of the nation. But should that moment come, he should apologise not just for failing to see through the motives of the Bush administration and ignoring the frailty of the pretext. He should express national contrition for standing by while Saddam murdered his own people and made war on Iran. And while we’re at it he should apologise for other decisions made where good intentions seemingly coincided with the national interest but which had disastrous consequences in the Middle East: the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Gulf mandates, the Palestine mandate.

But of course that way madness lies. Personally I would like Mongolia to apologise for the massacres of Genghis Khan and for the destruction of Baghdad. I would like Uzbekistan to apologise for the mountains of skulls Timur left across the plains of Mesopotamia. I would like Turkey to apologise for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

And in my own country, I seek apologies from Italy for the Roman conquest, from Germany for the Saxon invasion, from France and Denmark for the Norman conquest. Except that I am as much a Roman, Saxon and Norman as I am an ancient Briton. Who knows – I might even be a descendent of Genghis Khan or have the genes of Ottoman janissaries in my blood. So to whom am I apologising? Myself?

Yes, I know that this is different. The Iraq war is recent history, and that many of the decision-makers are still alive. Yet to apologise for 2003 is a meaningless gesture unless it is accompanied with a genuine intention to learn from mistakes, and backed by the power to do things differently in the future. And Jeremy Corbyn cannot change the way we do things until he stands at the dispatch box in Parliament as the leader of a Labour government elected on a manifesto that enshrines those intentions.

The six hundred thousand people – one percent of the population – who might elect him leader of his party in September will not give him that mandate. What’s more, if he eventually achieves power, it would be an insult to suggest that the governments in the United Kingdom and the USA that succeeded those in power when we invaded Iraq have learned nothing from that conflict and are doing nothing to avoid future ill-advised wars, even if many, including Corbyn, would disagree with their policies.

The bottom line is that motivations for war are usually muddy and multi-layered. The pursuit of war is always fraught with risk. The short-term consequences might be predictable, but the long-term outcomes are frequently not. And the verdict of history usually depends on who is writing it.

If you dismiss these words on the grounds that I am unqualified to utter them – not a general, a politician, a historian, a lawyer or an academic – I will plead guilty as charged. But I do think I have a nose for unproductive rhetoric, especially when it comes from a person who has never had to face the challenge of doing what he advocates. Apologising to the people of Iraq might make Jeremy and his supporters feel good, but it won’t make a jot of difference to the lives of those who are living with the consequences.

Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should have a word with Alexis Tsipras about the difficulties of turning rhetoric into results. Failing that, there must be a thousand equally cogent examples of good intentions failing the test of reality in the public libraries that I hope he supports and sustains should he have the opportunity to do so in the future.

The Migrant Crisis – Somebody Else’s Problem?

Syrian Refugee

I have never met a migrant who has managed to enter the UK illegally – at least as far as I’m aware. I’ve seen a few on a number of occasions when passing through Calais. So beyond what I read in the media, I can’t say I’m cognisant of the individual motives of these people or the circumstances that are driving them to risk their lives trying to enter the UK and other EU countries.

But I do know that they are being exploited, directly and indirectly. Directly by people smugglers who charge them huge sums for the privilege of boarding an overcrowded boat in conditions that slave traders of previous centuries would regard as common practice. Indirectly by newspapers whose pundits have also never met an illegal migrant, and by politicians using them to incite a wave of paranoia and xenophobia among their prospective electors.

I also know that on the political extremes there are many who find in the flood of desperate people a rich opportunity to blame their selected scapegoat for their plight. It’s because of Blair and Bush. It’s because of the Turks, the Sunni, the Shia, the Saudis, the oil companies, the arms dealers, the neoconservatives, New Labour, the Bilderberg group, the Zionists, the Freemasons, the Safavids, the atheists, the capitalist system. And so on.

Somebody or something is always to blame for something. And the more we blame, the less we think forward and look for solutions. The more we wring our hands and point fingers, because that’s far easier than effective action. And also because we don’t seem to have coherent solutions.

But for what they are worth, here are a few thoughts.

Without laying blame, we need to accept above all that these people are human beings, not marauding swarms. We need to look back to 1945 and ask ourselves whether these people are any less deserving of our assistance than the victims of Hitler and Stalin.

We need to ask themselves what it is about these desperate people that is different from the displaced Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and yes, Germans, whom we fed, sheltered and protected after the war. Is it race, ethnicity, religion, level of education? Is it because Eritrea’s vicious regime oppresses its citizens in a faraway country of which we know little? Because Syria has become a vicious battleground for factions and religious extremists? Because Afghans like to beat their wives and force them to wear burkas? Because Sudanese cut off the clitorises of their women? Is it because “these people” are seemingly far more alien than the white Europeans who suffered equally in the shattered ruins of their countries?

This is not to say that our post-war record was as white as the skin of the refugees we allowed into the country. We abandoned many Europeans to their fate as boundaries were re-drawn and ethnic revenge flourished under the benign gaze of Josef Stalin. We also stood by as millions were slaughtered after the partition of India and Pakistan.

But should we help the migrants out of a moral obligation formed of guilt over our past actions or inaction, or because we can? Because we are a wealthy nation that has the resources and the humanity to welcome the few thousand in Calais, and perhaps another hundred thousand waiting in other countries? Just because we’re an island at the western edge of Europe, does that mean that we shouldn’t take a significant share of migrants?

We can and we should. And I personally would accept a hike in income tax to support and assimilate them into the workforce, confident in the belief that the vast majority of people seeking entry into the country don’t want to live on benefits, but do want to work hard to create a future for themselves and their families. Damn the consequence for our social cohesion. This is an emergency, for goodness sake.

But that’s not enough. We need to be part of a strategy on the part of the same players who negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to make a concerted effort to eliminate the reasons why the migrants feel compelled to come to our shores. I’m not just talking about Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, Ethiopia, Mali, South Sudan and Somalia too. To resolve the conflicts in each of those countries, let alone ones that subsequently flare up elsewhere, will take time, effort, resources and patience.

And no, I’m not stupid enough to believe that China, Russia, the US and the EU will suddenly set aside considerations of national interest for the sake of a few thousand people about to drown in the Mediterranean. But big problems are often solved step by step, in little increments.

All this is obvious. But here’s a final thought.

If a super-volcano wiped out most of France, leaving a million or so starving people on the margins of the devastation, would we in the United Kingdom not take a goodly proportion of them in, feed them, shelter them and enable them to build new lives here?

Why then do we categorise man-made disasters – the legacies of war, political mismanagement and other human failures – as different from natural ones? Are we not life forms also? And in that respect are the results of our folly not also natural disasters?

If one species achieves dominance over a particular domain – and I’m not talking about humans now – and as a result manages to so devastate the habitat of hundreds of competing species that it drives them to extinction, would we not consider the event as a disaster of the natural world? We think of our species as the only one capable of doing this. Yet in South Georgia, the arrival of rats over 200 hundred years has, according to one report, wiped out 90% of the sea birds that use the islands as a nesting place. A man-made disaster? Yes, because we brought the rats there on our whaling ships. A natural disaster? Surely also true.

So if we thought of the current wave of migrants as the result of a natural disaster caused by the malign genetic disposition – to make war, to oppress, to ignore the fate of those whose lives don’t matter to us – of our species, then surely we would open our hearts, our purses and yes, our land, as generously as we might to the victims of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding and crop failure in countries close to our shores.

Thirty years ago, when famine devastated Ethiopia, the well-meaning and the wealthy came together to stage Live Aid, and event that raised both awareness of the plight of the starving Ethiopians and money for their relief.

I see no sign of a massive wave of sympathy for those who are flocking to the borders of Europe today. No rock stars ready to perform at Wembley for the boat people. Is this because as a continent we feel threatened, diminished by the European project, keen to hold what we have after the successive financial disasters of the past seven years? Does self-preservation trump generosity? Do we see the migrant crisis as a problem for our governments to sort out, not a disaster that should engage each and every one of us?

I have no smart answers that might transform the lives of those so desperate that they risk everything on a boat that might never arrive. But what is happening in the Mediterranean is a natural disaster, and the sooner we start thinking of it in those terms, the sooner we start following the best instincts of humanity rather than the worst.

It’s our chance to prove that as a species we’re more than just another colony of rats mindlessly eating seabirds out of South Georgia.

Temptation Bundling, or why broccoli with ice cream doesn’t work for me

temptation

The Temptation of St Anthony – unknown artist

I very rarely have a visceral reaction to a business fad that causes me to describe it as codswallop – or worse. But so it was when I read a piece in Business Insider about how “A Wharton professor discovered a psychological trick that will help you stop procrastinating”.

The theory, it seems, is that if you bundle two activities – one that you don’t enjoy and are forever putting off, and another that you love – you will end up doing the thing that you would otherwise avoid.

Professor Kate Milkman came up with this stunning concept:

“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.

And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.”

Other examples quoted include listening to audio-books while working out, clearing work emails while getting a pedicure, only watching TV favourites while doing the ironing, and combining a meal  at a favourite restaurant with meeting a difficult colleague.

The fancy name for this technique is temptation bundling.

That the Wharton professor is a woman is probably not surprising. When I ran some of these ideas past my wife, she thought they were great. She already irons while watching TV, and would be very happy to do what she does with her IPad while her feet receive some welcome attention. She is, in other words, a dedicated multi-tasker. The good professor can’t teach her anything.

I, on the other hand, have great difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time. While I was writing this, I was listening to some music. I had to switch it off so that I could concentrate on a serious subject. No great loss, because I wasn’t really listening to it. It just got in the way.

What really sends me into orbit is the idea that for every pleasurable experience we should have to go through pain, and that the pleasure and the pain should be administered at the same time. What kind of rubbish is that? The same kind of rubbish that we dish out to our kids when we tell them that they can watch TV for half an hour after they’ve eaten their broccoli, but with a particularly cruel twist. While they endure the ordeal of chomping through mouthfuls of green mush they can watch Sesame Street. How can anyone enjoy Sesame Street when they’re eating broccoli?

So I’m supposed to refrain from eating in my favourite restaurant until I have the company of my least favourite person. How, pray, am I going to enjoy an exquisite pasta when I have some weasel-faced waster in front of me whose every utterance makes me want to pour the food over his head?

Let’s consider some other temptation bundles that might put us on the path of rectitude. Eating an ice cream while mowing the lawn, perhaps. Sorry, doesn’t work – the ice cream melts into the mower and you get splattered with red and white goo. Having endless skype business calls while on holiday? Done that all too often – the combination degrades the call and the holiday. Answering emails while on a date? I haven’t been on a date with anyone other than my wife since before emails existed, but I can imagine the enthusiastic reaction of the object of my desire.

Enough! To hell with productivity and to hell with procrastination. If something is worth doing, be it pleasure or chore, it’s worth giving it one’s full attention. We half-do too any things in the name of efficiency. Perhaps that’s why we don’t spend enough time considering whether something’s worth doing in the first place.

All of which perhaps explains why I could never be a Wharton professor or an inspirational speaker. I’d end up laughing at the nonsense that came out of my head. And anyway, ironing and watching TV at the same time is way too complicated for a man with my limited powers of concentration.

The only temptation bundles I’m really good at are combining pleasure with other pleasure. Obligations and chores don’t get a look in. Enjoying a good cheese and gazing at my lovely wife. Guzzling ice cream at the cinema. Seafood in a restaurant overlooking an Aegean bay.

That kind of multitasking I’m really good at. Anything else, it’s one task at a time. Self-flagellation while indulging in a pleasurable act has far too many overtones for my taste. So I will continue with the fight against procrastination in my own way: do nothing, have an ice cream and hope that the broccoli goes away.

The Inside Amazon furore: culture or cult – and does anybody care?

Amazon

If you knew that a company used and abused its employees, sold you things it sourced from sweatshops in Bangladesh whose owners lock the staff into their premises so that they can’t escape in a fire, bought its components from countries where combustible materials duly combust in spectacular fashion, and kept its prices competitive through the use of indentured child labour, would you give them your business?

Yes, you probably would. You might shudder at revelations about conditions in China, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and then keep on buying the products you love from the likes of Nike, Primark and Apple, duly satisfied by reassuring statements from their corporate headquarters. Well maybe you wouldn’t, but most people would, because otherwise a host of big-name companies would be out of business by now.

Amazon is an interesting case in point. It’s an online retailer that aims to sell more or less anything – except, presumably, the fruits of the Dark Web – to anyone. Yet it manages to do so without suffering the kind of reputational damage that sticks to the makers of the products it sells. Sort of.

The other day I read Inside Amazon, a long piece in the New York Times about what it’s like to be an Amazon employee. It’s caused a bit of a stir both on the social media and among other news publishers, some of them most probably because they’re envious that they didn’t pick up on the story first.

Depending upon your outlook, you can read the piece and admire the company as visionary, innovative, dedicated to setting the highest standards – the present and the future of online retailing.

Or, as the NYT portrays them, you can see them as a corporate cult, built on the values of the founder, Jeff Bezos. A business that demands 24/7 commitment from its staff, encourages people to inform on colleagues who fail to meet standards for any reason, be it illness, the demands of family life or personal crisis. That culls its staff on regular basis regardless of mitigating circumstances, such that managers feel the need to nominate sacrificial lambs in order to avoid losing other valuable team members. Effectively a business for which people are a commodity, to be hoovered in, sucked dry and disgorged. Disposed of like cows at the end of their milk-producing lives.

This view is vigorously disputed by Bezos and, in this blog post, by Nick Ciubotariu, one of its eloquent employees.

The NYT article is not the first to put Amazon’s treatment of its people under the microscope. And it’s not the first company with a founder whose ego is the size of the planet he seeks to dominate. Steve Jobs, for example, was not exactly a pussycat. Yet people turned up to work for Apple in full knowledge that Jobs had a talent for making people feel smaller than a pinhead. They did so because they loved being part of a company that made cool things. The share options probably helped as well. Amazon employees don’t have all the goodies offered by other technology companies like Google and Microsoft – free meals, pinball machines and so on. They too, I suppose, get their kicks out of being part of a ground-breaking enterprise. They buy into the cultish fervour because some people love belonging to cults, if that is what it is. The dividing line between culture and cult can be very thin. If you believe the NYT, Amazonians are required to be true believers – those that don’t embrace the creed either get out are forced out.

I’m a regular user of Amazon. I buy books mainly. Sometimes music, and occasionally electronics. I buy from them because it’s easy. I like being prompted with suggestions based on what they know of my tastes. I like the fact that I can compile a wish list and turn the items into purchases in my own time. I read book reviews every week. When I see something I like the look of, I put it on the wish list. Sometimes I wait until the book is out on paperback. Other times I don’t want to wait that long.

When the time comes, I go to the list. Five minutes later, the order’s done, and I get an email telling me when the goods will arrive. Within a couple of days, there’s a ring on the doorbell. What’s not to like?

My needs are pretty simple. I have no desire to summon a drone that will hover outside my door within thirty minutes of my placing the order. No gratification needs to be that instant. I’ve resisted Amazon Prime. I don’t need video streaming and I’m profoundly uninterested in Top Gear Mark 2.

Yet every time I buy books from Amazon I feel a pang of guilt. Because ten minutes’ walk away in my local high street there’s a little bookshop that doesn’t get my business. There’s a WH Smith as well, but I don’t care about them. After all, they’re just another corporate that happily gorges on the VAT savings at airports where much of their business resides.

The bookshop is a family business run by people who love books. They have an antiquarian section, and they have most of the stuff I might otherwise buy from Amazon. But they’re about 30% more expensive.

I’m not sentimental about small businesses. They survive by offering things that the big retailers don’t. In the case of bookshops, the attraction is customer intimacy, personal knowledge, and most importantly the ability to put your hands on the product, turn the pages and leave with stuff that you hadn’t the least intention of buying when came into the shop. Yes, I know that Amazon gives you some of this in a geeky, online sort of way, but it’s not the same.

So I do buy stuff from the bookshop as well as from Amazon. Just as I buy electronics and clothes on the high street, and would buy fruit, vegetables and meat from small shops if the superstores had not sucked the life out of local butchers and greengrocers a couple of decades ago. High streets should be more than collections of bars, restaurants, Starbucks outlets, charity shops and hairdressers.

Parochial concerns like mine are unlikely to be a barrier to Amazon’s future success. But its people practices might be. The company described in the NYT article might not be the Amazon of today. Or it might be. Any firm with thirty thousand employees will find it hard to avoid fracturing into sub-cultures, especially when it has large number of workers in different countries. Ask HP, which has long faced the challenge of maintaining the common approach represented by the HP Way across its far-flung empire. After all, the French have a very different way of doing things than Californians. Subcultures develop into informal schisms that threaten the overriding philosophy and purpose of the enterprise. As they do in countries.

Multinationals also have to contend with more assertive tax gatherers in countries like the UK, whose politicians have picked up on corporate structures designed to minimise tax liabilities in lucrative markets. Amazon has not escaped their scrutiny.

Another threat to its global dominance is that for each innovative service variant it launches, there are a dozen smaller, more agile tech companies looking to find ways of stealing – oops, sorry, I meant re-engineering – its inventions and adapting them for their own purposes. Smaller scale, more personalised, for specialist markets perhaps. There’s only so much that copyright lawyers can do to protect their clients’ intellectual property, especially when the predators have the assistance of a state at their disposal. And even more especially when that state is China.

No matter how touchy-feely the Amazon experience might be for its employees, by its size and dominance it has become a big bad wolf – like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. Used by billions yet resented by many, and mistrusted by even more. Which is why so many people are prepared to believe the New York Times exposé, whether true or not.

One Twitter user I came across a couple of days ago claimed that Amazon is the dystopian organisation described by Dave Eggars in his novel The Circle made real. An interesting comparison, though as far as I know, Bezos has no plans to suborn political establishments and control our behaviour with his drones. More on The Circle, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, in a post called The Circle, the Court and the Illusion of Privacy.

Personally I don’t see Amazon as an evil empire. If it’s that rotten to their employees, it will fall apart in due course, especially if its ability to fly new kites becomes increasingly cramped by its Achilles heel, namely a dubious profitability history. It will lose its best people to the tender embrace of rivals. And anyway, it’s just another company that enthusiastically lives by the capitalist mantra: if I can I will. It has some brilliant people who do brilliant things. So do its rivals. And so do future rivals we’ve never even heard of – yet. It’s a dog that’s having its day, and sooner or later it will be supplanted by other dogs.

So I will continue to use Amazon for my purposes, much as I would also like my local bookshop to stay open, and for all the other millions of small retailers to find a way to coexist with the online giants. But to do that, they will have to evolve, to find ways to offer things that the big retailers can’t, just as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are continuing to evolve.

And their best hope lies surely in another business mantra: when all other things are equal, people like doing business with people. As opposed to some disembodied Happiness Engineer in Seattle.

Tinder for Tortoises

 

Tortiose 2

I’ve just read an article in Vanity Fair about how eagerly New York’s young professionals are embracing Tinder, and thereby each other.

It seems that in the cities of America the evening entertainment of choice for marketing executives, investment bankers, interns and students is to hang out in bars, meet up with someone they’ve never met before and have sex with them. Not occasionally, but several times a week, and sometimes more than once a night. Each time a different person.

No article on a social phenomenon would be complete without an expert being wheeled out to pontificate on its significance, and sure enough, Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the piece, duly obliges:

As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex. Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” he says. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.”

To which my immediate reaction was yeah, yeah. As someone who grew up in the sixties and seventies, who witnessed the so-called sexual revolution and watched while extracts from the poppy, the coca leaf and marijuana plant went from being the recreation choice of a few to challenging alcohol as a mainstream social lubricant, I’d put it another way.

One of the major impacts of the internet on society, whether on sexual relations or any other social activity, is in the way it reduces the time needed for cults, fads and fashions to take root, develop and go mainstream internationally, as opposed to locally. Hence the growth of ISIS, and, dare I say it, the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK from the far-left margins of the Labour Party to frontrunner in the forthcoming leadership election.

To borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology, it massively accelerates the tipping point.

But to suggest that all around the world, from Hyderabad to Omsk to Alice Springs, it will be “normal” in the near future for people hook up with each other in bars or bazaars and disappear for evenings of no-strings fornication is as much a delusion as the idea that listening to a Grateful Dead album on a scratchy gramophone in a smoke-filled room would usher a new era of world peace.

That said, it’s easy for followers of cults to believe that they’re on the cutting edge of something that will change the world. And exciting too. But the flipside of the internet as an accelerator is how quickly the wildfire cults it facilitates degenerate, and if they don’t fade away, mutate. Facebook is no longer “our thing”, for example. It’s everybody’s thing. Likewise Twitter. And so, eventually, will go dating apps like Tinder. Corporate imperatives – the compulsion to grow revenue and profit on an ever-upwards line – will take care of that.

I find it interesting that the growth of Tinder coincides with the nannying of sexual relations on university campuses. Several of the people interviewed in the Vanity Fair article were female students. So when they go out for their nightly doses of sex with strangers, do they ask the objects of their desire to sign a contract of consent? I very much doubt it. Just a reminder that sexual politics in America are as torturous and fractured as they ever were.

The students and young professionals busy coupling away all over America, Britain and other western societies won’t want to be reminded that that youth is not eternal. Sooner or later they’ll be bored and sated by an endless stream of meaningless encounters, just as most of us oldies got bored with hanging around in the kitchen at parties waiting more in hope than expectation for the next girlfriend, and getting wasted as the next best thing. Most of us moved on when we finally twigged that actually it’s difficult to achieve much the day after if your brain is still enjoying the effects of a night with weed or Newcastle Brown.

And sooner or later, like us, they’ll come to realise that the narcissistic bubble of hedonism in which they do what they do is little more than that. They’ll see that they were just a bunch of kids indulging in an opportunity that was denied to their parents. And if and when they become parents, they’ll reflect on the influence of pornography on their sexual behaviour and expectations, just as we used to reflect on the influence of drugs. They’ll not want their kids to conform to the values imposed on them by those who make and sell porn, just as we worried about our kids permanently altering their brains with the evil stuff that made billionaires in Colombia, China and Chicago.

Hopefully they’ll also understand that they were duped, just as we were duped, and that the only way to help their kids not to be duped is to raise them to think for themselves, not to judge, ban and disapprove. To educate rather than indoctrinate.

When I think about those kids in New York, it’s with no sense of disapproval, and certainly not envy. Each generation – or, in the age of the internet, sub-generation – takes its pleasure, excitement and risks in different ways. And in regard to sex, what is easy to come by is devalued. Relationships are still difficult, though potentially more rewarding. That much has not changed.

So no need for agonising, political and religious point-scoring, or for prohibition. No need for sex tsars. If you feel the need to regulate, ban and punish, there are many parts of the world you can go to where you will meet that need. Syria, for example. And remember that the Tinder generation is but a tiny slice of society, the result of a vertical and horizontal cut that hives off a few million out of billions. It’s not that much of a big deal.

What’s more interesting to me is how the dating apps will mutate so that older generations can get involved. Not for instant sex, you understand, though there may well be plenty of oldies who might find that of interest, judging by the very significant increase in sexually-transmitted diseases among the over-fifties during the last decade.

Just as Facebook has become the application of choice for families and distant friends as much as for preening youngsters, perhaps a variant of Tinder can transform the lives of the ageing lonely. Anyone fancy a game of dominoes? I have a spare ticket to a concert – anyone interested? I’m off to the coast for the day – anyone fancy a lift? I’m sitting at home with an injured knee – anyone fancy a cup of tea?

I should have thought that there are far more internet-enabled lonely people of a certain age out there with money to spend and nobody to spend it with than there twentysomethings who want to hang out in bars waiting for the next hook-up. Surely a commercial opportunity for some bright app developer.

Now there’s a thought – Tinder for Tortoises….

Summer at Home: Thoughts from the Urban Promenade

hogarth_beer_street

Hogarth Beer Street

One of the pleasures of summer in almost any city where the temperature isn’t meltingly hot and there’s no shrapnel whistling past your ears is sitting outdoors in a café. Maybe having lunch, maybe a succession of coffees, or a bottle of wine or a piece of carrot cake.

My wife and I regularly go to a high street café about a mile from where we live. We try and find seating that works for both of us. Me in the shade, and she in the sun. Either way, we both have to be facing the street. Because the essence of the experience is not the conversation. We manage to talk quite enough at home about the things that matter, and plenty about what doesn’t matter.

Also it’s not about admiring the view. That might apply on holiday for an hour or so, after which it’s been there, done that, time to look at something else. But if you’re sitting in your favourite local place, the scenery doesn’t change, unless you happen to be opposite a building site.

No, the experience is all about people-watching. Otherwise we might as well be at home in the garden watching as the dog dig holes in the lawn and dreams of foxes. People-watching is a sublime opportunity to project your likes and dislikes, your phobias and envy on to other people. To fantasise, to admire, to pity and to laugh.

You might think that you run out of mind fodder sitting off a main road in a small English town. Not so much variety as St Mark’s Square in Venice, the Medina in Marrakech or even Brixton High Street. Suburbia is boring in comparison? Not so. You just look at the little things instead of the obvious.

How people park for example. Yesterday we watched a little old lady make six attempts to align her car opposite the cafe. She stumbled out, blowing her cheeks with a mixture of relief and frustration, and probably embarrassment because she was being watched. Before she showed up to take the space, there was a guy who parked in such a way as to deny room to any car in front or behind him. He didn’t seem to care if he was watched or not. In fact it was pretty clear from his demeanour that he didn’t give a damn.

These coming and goings were a delicious opportunity for us to cluck to each other in disapproval, and agree that some people were too old to be allowed to drive, and others were too bloody selfish. I’m not sure if self-righteous condemnation gives you an endorphin rush, but it feels pretty good, so long as you don’t reflect on your own equally reprehensible shortcomings behind the wheel. People who live in glass houses should switch to armoured perspex before they cast the first stone.

Even if you’re not afforded the additional pleasure of overhearing the asinine conversations of your fellow customers, just watching the physical foibles of those walking – or running – past is enjoyable enough. If the traffic’s slow enough, you even get the people-watcher’s equivalent of tweets: a few seconds of drivers in their cars. Fat, complacent men in their Bentleys. Ratty, stressed women with a carload of screaming kids. People having rows, talking on their phone, picking their noses.

And young women who by rights shouldn’t have the money to be riding in brand new Range Rovers. Are they footballers’ wives? Do they have rich daddies? At which point the misogyny override switch kicks in. Perhaps they’re entrepreneurs or high-powered executives. How unfair to assume they’re kept women.

My wife and I often have different thoughts about the ordinary people walking by.

Me: how can that woman let herself get that fat? What is it about tattoos? Look at that pretentious guy in his linen shirt, panama hat and cream shorts; why doesn’t he realise how ridiculous he looks with his spindly varicose legs? Tell me, what on earth is the purpose of that dog the size of a rat with its tongue permanently lolling out of the side of its mouth? And why is it being lovingly carried along by the woman who looks great from a distance but whose weathered face up close betrays her age? Is it incapable of walking? Check out that guy – which bank has he just robbed?

My wife: how dare that woman have such a perfect body? Where did she get that blouse from? You (meaning me) would look great in that guy’s linen shirt, panama hat and cream shorts – why do you insist on wearing that tee shirt two sizes too small? Look how his shirt disguises his belly.

And other thoughts that we care not to share. Perhaps dark thoughts about wishing we were someone else, or in a different place, or were young again, or what might have happened if things had turned out differently. Usually fleeting thoughts, because really we have nothing to complain about, either between each other or in the quality of our lives.

Lately I’ve been focusing more on how people walk. I’ve noticed how young people sometimes shuffle along as if bearing an impossible burden. Some people walk like moorhens, heads popping forward with each step, like Margaret Thatcher. Women in heels totter along with their backsides swinging like church bells. Small men strut, striving for height with each dainty step. Tall men shamble, shoulders sloping and backs becoming increasingly bent with age. Fat people waddle, thighs chafing against each other, seemingly oblivious of how others see them as they display their massive frames in leggings and tight shirts.

When I look at how the elderly walk, with varying degrees of difficulty, they seem to be telling me not to get old, it’s not fun. It’s not fun being crippled with arthritis, having to watch every step to avoid hidden dangers like protruding paving stones or unexpected steps. Even in the summer, they walk as the rest of us do in winter when the pavements are covered with ice and snow.

Worst of all is when I realize that it won’t be long before I start to look like that. In fact, when I get up in the morning, for the first ten minutes I do look like that. Eventually, with the help of stretching exercises prescribed for me when my back went earlier this year, I start to walk in a manner I would consider normal. Maybe not to people-watchers like me, but for my own purposes, fine. Having done a bit of acting in my time, I know a little about posture and movement, even if I don’t always practice what I know. But usually I make a conscious effort to override the bad habits that come with age and preoccupation.

Sooner or later, though, the arthritis or some other ailment will take a grip, and if they don’t already, other people watchers will eventually see me as an old man walking slowly down the street. The worst thing about how you walk is that it’s a tell-tale sign of somebody who is at the end of their economic usefulness. More so than faces, I find.

I often play golf with people in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Often it’s hard to tell their age from their faces, but the walking is usually a giveaway. As a matter of respect I never assume that a person has retired, and anyway I don’t believe in retirement. Are you retired because you don’t have a job, don’t need the money, or because you are incapable of doing anything useful with and for anyone? Was a friend of mine who worked for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau well into his eighties retired? Not in my book, even though he wasn’t paid a bean for his work.

Yet we make these blithe assumptions about the usefulness of people, and the way they walk is one of the prime indicators. Shame on us, we who forget that our grandparents or elderly parents taught us to play chess, or helped us to decorate our first apartment, or looked after our kids, or were a rich source of experience and advice if only we would listen.

So people-watching is an addictive pleasure because we can make bitchy comments with impunity, make snap judgements without challenge and imagine lives for the people who pass by. But we should never forget that everyone has their own story, which most likely isn’t the one we’ve invented for them. And that even more rewarding is to engage as well as watch. Because sooner or later watch might be the only thing we feel able to do, on our own, through the front window of our homes, or maybe through blank eyes in an old people’s home.

So the moral of this post is never lose the art of conversation. And never make assumptions about that old person shuffling carefully down the street, because the chances are that they’ll have a few stories to tell that might surprise and amaze, as anyone who reads obituaries will tell you. And one day, if you make it that far, that person will be you.

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