Thursday, 9 May 2013

Give Me Cheats, Liars, and Ignorance: The Virtues of Disconnection

When I wrote yesterday that Wednesdays can sometimes hit the skids so badly that the next thing you know, you’re being slammed nose-first into Friday and Thursday has punctured your lung, I didn't expect that to happen to me. It might not have punctured my lung but I’m definitely not feeling myself. I’m wearing my non-sexy underwear and reading Nietzsche.

In lieu of some erotica, I thought I’d post this piece of sub-standard journalism I wrote on Tuesday. I thought it might be the kind of lighthearted talking point they might accept for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’. They didn't  so clearly it isn't  They possibly don’t agree with my argument that if we filter too much of the world from our vision, we turn the world into sport without cheating. We might think it’s safe but it’s hardly living.


The proper way of starting an article of this kind would be with a suitably pithy quote from George Orwell about the loss of individuality in the face of some greater other. Perhaps it would be the one from 1984 that goes: ‘History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’

The wrong way to begin an article probably involves a description of a game of snooker that lasts two sentences with annotations for readers who don’t understand the world’s most boring game since my local council outlawed fully nude Boggle.

I wouldn’t normally choose to take the second option except I can’t overcome the grim feeling that it’s been a bad week for the individual and a good week for ‘the Party’. During the twenty-third frame of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s semi-final match against Judd Trump, the ‘Rocket’ (O’Sullivan) attempted a safety (a strategic shot that doesn’t pot a colour) only for the cue ball (the white one) to rattle in the pocket (one of six holes on the table). Annoyed, O’Sullivan returned to his seat (just a normal chair) where it is alleged he made an obscene gesture with his cue (the phallic object he had cradled between his legs).

Although it’s not the sort of thing that usually catches my attention, the collective media tutting directed towards O’Sullivan happened only a few days after the same media oohed themselves hoarse over Google’s latest publicity for its new head-mounted display/camera/doomsday machine, innocently dubbed ‘Google Glass’. For me, the two events were symptomatic of a culture that exhorts liberty and the dominance of the individual but doesn’t appear to have thought either thing through…

When Google Glass does finally arrive, as it probably will next year, the divisions between those connected and disconnected to and from the internet will be as obvious as the nose on your face, or more specifically, the computer screen sitting on the nose on your face. Those of us who prefer to have our daily lives undocumented for Google’s shareholders will have even less choice in the matter. If you don’t want your face on Google, then the formal ability to reject their terms and agreement will be replaced by a less formal necessity to stick your hand into somebody’s face.

Of course, this concern is often couched in more libertarian terms: that technology invades our privacy, tracks our movements, and anticipates our actions in ways that question our free will. If Amazon knows what you’ve read and can recommend what you read next, then, although you still retain the free will to choose what you do, that free will is certainly given a nudge in one corporately-sponsored direction. Enough small nudges and somebody, somewhere, starts to control the ways we think, what we believe, and ultimately, make us argue that buying Justin Bieber’s next album really is a very good idea.

If I phrase that with more backspin than necessary, then I’m still not convinced that it shouldn’t worry us. Why? Well as a BBC newsreader might put it: it’s now time to return to the snooker…

When O’Sullivan won the snooker World Championship on Monday night, I wanted to cheer even louder than usual, had I previously had any habit of throwing my underwear in the direction of a snooker victory. Like beach volleyball for octogenarians, snooker only reminds me that life is short and too often ends wrinkled. Yet O’Sullivan is one of the few recognisably disruptive human stars in TV sports that have otherwise become obsessed with rules, good sportsmanship, and the need to ‘give the kids a positive role model’.

When I think of the most memorable sporting moments I can remember, I think of Gazza crying, Paula Radcliffe pooping, Venus William’s threatening to break a lineswoman in two. I remember the twitching fool who led the Open by a country mile and lost it all when he lost his nerves standing in a river trying to hit the ball out whilst shivering in just his socks. Then there was John McEnroe’s temper on numerous times when the nation cheered and turned him from just another dull American sportsman into a cult hero. Bj√∂rn Borg might have been the greater player but the only reason I mention his name here is to make the point that I otherwise wouldn’t have needed a reason to learn to type an umlaut. Barely a year on and what do I most remember of last year’s London games? It’s the sight of the South Korean fencer having an Olympic-sized sulk on the edge of the stage.

I accept that I might be abnormal in that my mind seems to remember sporting defeats yet I would argue that these sportsmen and women actually accomplished something more valuable than any gold medal. We, as a species, delight in noticing oddity among homogeneity. Do you remember Quincy Watts? If you’re an athletics fan you might know that he won the 1992 Olympic men’s 400 metres final. I had to look that fact up. There are dozens of Olympic 400 metre final winners whereas you’re much more likely to remember Derek Redmond, the British runner who snapped a hamstring during the semi-final and whose father, Jim, ran onto the track to help his son finish. It’s that kind of discrepancy that makes you understand that sport is merely a vehicle for very memorable human moments and that sometimes those moments just happen to occur within the rules.

Of course, prescribing ‘good behaviour’, whether on the football pitch, the snooker arena, or the high street, seems rationally like a good idea. The assumption that companies like Google make is that you would be also a fool not to embrace a technology that enhances your life choices. Yet the act of belonging to this worldwide community is increasingly becoming as much a ‘given’ as owning a mobile phone. Alongside the rules that state that you should not cheat, you should not lie, there is a new moral imperative: you must join the collective. And unlike previous iterations of that collective, Google (and others) now want to bring everything together under one controlling service with everything filtered through their virtual or (in the case of Google Glass) non-virtual eye.

But does that new reality really expand or reduce choice? When recommendations are based on what we already know, do future choices become self-fulfilling? You like J.K. Rowling? Then why not try this which is just like J.K. Rowling? It might be clever technology but where is the chaos, the random event, the change of heart, the alternative viewpoint, the dissent that will deeply annoy you yet might have prompted change if only it hadn’t been filtered out?

It’s as worrying a vision of the future as that recent TV ad that boasted that the last grey hair on the planet has been found and normalized. I want to live in a deeply connected world about as much as I’d want to live in a world without grey-haired people or a world without Ronnie O’Sullivan and bad sportsmanship. This is something I’m not entirely certain that Google is capable of recognising. The excitement within the Googleplex at Mountain View in California is palpable even from a very great distance. Yet the sense of people excited by what they can do is not being matched by a feeling that anybody is really asking what people really need and want.

I’ve drawn a rough equivalence here. On the one hand, we have corporations who use technology to identify our interests, guide our actions, and influence our decisions. On the other hand, we have sports where rules guide a player’s actions and influence their decisions. The first uses formal membership to increase our freedom. The other demonstratively uses membership to limit the kinds of behaviour sportspeople are allowed to display in their game.

So, let me end with a contentious suggestion: perhaps sport, the country, and even the world, are better for the likes of the biting-diving Luis Suarez, the diving-grinning David Luis, the diving-rolling-posing Ronaldo, the diving-rolling-backwards-flipping-they’ve-shot-me-in-the-eye-Guv Gareth Bale. Will snooker be richer for Ronnie O’Sullivan going back into exile because he isn’t media friendly? Which Beckham did we really want and need? The one who kicked an opponent and became a national pariah or the corporate shill for an anodyne nation whose greatest expressions of individuality have become sleeve tattoos and the occasional thirty second shot on X-Factor?

Isn’t it time we acknowledge that it is the rule breaking that defines us as a species? Sport may suffer from poor sportsmanship but it might also be its lifeblood and those disconnections from the rules are perhaps the price we pay for retaining out humanity. And even if it means that we might not be as well informed as we might have been about a thing that interests us, perhaps being disconnected from the internet allows us to widen our outlook and look more to the periphery instead of limiting ourselves to a feed of filtered news in the corner of our vision.

Being disconnected might just be as much a way of the future as it has been the way of the past. And when Google Glass arrives, perhaps we might need to ask ourselves whether we’ll be wearing it or sticking our thumb in its eye.