The Age of Whatever
You know how you have all your really good ideas in the shower? Or maybe when you’re out walking the dog? They come to you in a flash of inspiration. And then your mind plays with them, tosses them around, tweaks them here and there until eventually they become something really quite impressive. Of course, you’re never anywhere where there’s a pen and paper handy so you have to retain them in your head. But that doesn’t matter because they are good ideas, aren’t they? I mean; really good ideas, yeah? And then at some point – usually quite some time later – you sit down at the keyboard, your ideas still bubbling away, ready to knock out 4,000 words that will change the world, or at the very least make it sit up and take notice. Then the truth dawns on you; you realise that actually your good ideas are only OK ideas. Or possibly even just average ideas. Or maybe completely crap ideas. You know?
All this is a fairly convoluted way of saying that not that long ago I had a few good ideas. Or maybe they were just OK ideas, I don’t know. If we were still at the shower or dog walk stage of the process, this piece would probably be called something like The Age of Untruth; it would be well planned and elegantly written with a slightly ponderous tone to indicate the great import of its content and the learnedness of its creator. People would read it; it would be talked about; and in its own small way it would create ripples. But we’re not at that stage anymore. Far from it. The ideas have percolated, effervesced and then gone slightly flat. Now we’re at the oh-fuck-it-let’s-just-get-the-thing-written stage. So, we’re left with a meandering rant which may or may not get to the point. Welcome to The Age of Whatever.
Every writer dreams of leaving some grand work to history – we all want to be John Berger and have everyone seeing things our way, or Robert Hughes leading everyone on a walk along our fatal shore. But, let’s face it; who’s got the energy for that anymore? And, as much as the pen is mightier than the sword, half the world seems to be at each other’s throats with an armoury a lot deadlier than a sword right now, and no amount of strident opinion pieces or dramatic speeches-via-video link seems to be changing that. It’s becoming very easy to wonder about the power of words.
If I had to perform a quick health check on the species, I’d say our collective batteries have been drained and humanity’s charger is on the blink again. It feels like we’re now at the stage when we are heading home, but saving some battery power in case we have an emergency on the way. It would be easy to blame two years’ worth of insanity, isolation and general pandemic-based twitchiness, but the truth is the rot set in long before that.
Just as a quick aside: God bless mask wearing, the real gift of the pandemic. Never have so few been able to mutter so much about so many without being caught. If only I had a dollar for every “For fuck’s sake” I’ve muttered. But I digress.
Sadly, we are living in an age where, not only does truth no longer matter, but I suspect that an unsettlingly large portion of the human race has to one degree or another lost touch with reality. This is not on a grand scale, you understand; no Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds kinda thing going on here. No, this is more a self-induced, reality-TV-driven, don’t-talk-to-me/look-at-my-Instagram-feed-instead sort of thing.
In some ways this is glaringly obvious; starting at the top it seems nigh on impossible to find a world leader who thinks that an honest answer is what we want to hear any more. And there seem to be more than a few whose default position seems to be to lie. It would be far too easy to fill paragraph after paragraph with the collected untruths of Messrs Trump, Johnson and our own recently departed local hero Morrison. But it’s not that. The sad reality is that these masters of the throwaway falsehood are just the tip of the mendacious iceberg, the canaries in the collectively delusional coalmine that we all inhabit. In fact, the age of untruth starts much closer to home.
Not too far from where I like to call home lives a perfectly ordinary, middle class, respectable, white bread family. They have the regulation number of adults, kids, pets and cars. They live in a house that won’t shock architecturally, but equally nor will it win any design awards. Average, mean, median or mediocre – they will always fit somewhere in the middle of whatever range is being discussed. There will never be a blip on the radar of their existence.
But then there was a birthday in the family – not just any birthday, rather that once most significant of birthdays, a 21st birthday. Of course, unless you want to go drinking in the United States or Canada, being twenty-one is a complete non-event these days. You can vote, drive a car, drink alcohol and probably take out a million-dollar mortgage with no deposit if the banks have their way when you turn eighteen. By the time you’re twenty-one you’d hope to be proficient at all three of those things and possibly even bankrupt too. But to an ordinary, traditional, average family, twenty-one is still an event of significance. Something to be celebrated. An excuse for a party. And definitely an excuse for a Facebook post.
“My darling angel …” it began. I won’t go on, nor will I name the person in question, lest they come down the street on their ride-on mower brandishing a pitchfork seeking revenge, but suffice it to say there followed a litany of unvarnished untruths that painted a picture of someone destined for sainthood somewhere around year 9, let alone by the time they’d turned twenty-one. And of course it was a pack of lies. Now, we’re not talking about a serial-killing, homicidal fuckhead here, to quote Eddie Izzard’s marvelous description of Hitler; far from it. But neither are we talking about Mother Teresa crossed with the Dalai Lama. The real problem lies in not just the fact that the drivel posted to Facebook was clearly sanitised and totally false, but more that the person writing it, as well as those reading it, either believed it or simply chose not to disbelieve it. As a species we are far too ready to believe our own publicity.
As much as there is no such thing as completely true non-fiction, the filter of the writer, the editor and so on taking the story inch by inch away from the absolute truth, there is even less truth on social media. Hell, for all I know there many not be any truth left there at all. The social media version of the truth is essentially whatever we think we can get away with, or what used to be known in more enlightened times as called good, old-fashioned lying.
But social media is only a recent manifestation of this phenomenon. I think a historic look at the rise of ‘hey-look-at-me-ism’ will show that its birth came on April 3, 1973 as a direct result of the DynaTAC 8000X. It was on that fateful day that Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call on this 1.1 kg marvel of modern technology. Not quite the social leveller (its weight was not the only hefty thing about it – its price tag was $3,995, probably around the ten grand mark today), to my mind it marked the beginning of the end. But not just because the technology necessarily facilitated, even encouraged the inward, self-absorbed focus that affects us all today; it was something much more superficial – celebrities had mobile phones, important people had mobile phones, busy people engaged in meaningful activities had mobile phones. Ergo, put a mobile phone in our hands and suddenly we were busy, important, and akin to being a celebrity. Certainly, someone to take notice of.
And then inevitably the mobile phone begat social media – the place where people with nothing to say can say it, and where they can talk to an adoring audience of millions, even if that audience only exists in their imagination. On March 21, 2006, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey started a long tradition of stating the bleeding obvious online with the world’s first tweet “just setting up my twttr”. This, of course, begs the question: who was he tweeting to? And did he think someone was going to like or retweet his tweet? If he was like every other Twitter user to come, he probably didn’t care but then he had the last laugh when fifteen years later he turned his first tweet into a non-fungible token and sold it for $2.9 million. Not a bad profit margin.
And then there’s YouTube. I once talked to a much smarter man than I am who was doing research into social media in all its incarnations. He had unearthed a fascinating fact that I think bears thinking about just a little. His research had shown that, of all the videos posted on YouTube, half of everything is never watched. That’s ‘never’ as in not ever. Now, this is astounding; even the crappiest, most inconsequential, technically disastrous video requires a modicum of effort to get it to the stage when it can be posted on YouTube, and yet in 50% of cases the person doing all this can’t be bothered to click the play button and have a quick look.
I confess I have problems watching a lot of YouTube content and often have to turn away in the same way that the squeamish avert their eyes from gore at the movies or at the sight of a car crash. I simply can’t look at the kind of people who have the unshakeable self-confidence to wander around Venice or Disneyland or even their local shopping centre holding a camera on a gimble pointed at themselves announcing “Hi, guys …” for all the world to hear. To do that, you have to believe that you have something to say, something worth hearing. Which, and this is where I have problems, in 99% of all cases, they don’t. They really don’t.
Here’s a suggestion. And, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, if you’re reading this, you can have this one on me. Just before you post anything on social media, I think a big, impossible-to-ignore, brightly coloured pop-up box should ask you “Are you sure you want to post this? You know no one cares, don’t you?” And then, after you’d clicked yes, as everyone would, an even bigger box would fill your entire screen: “Seriously, dude; no one fucking cares.” OK, I admit it probably would make very little difference and would only deter a tiny number of people, but it would make me smile. And isn’t that what everything is about these days? Me.
Which brings us to selfies. What in God’s name prompted us to turn the camera around? There was a time when, even though an evening of holidays photos would have filled most people with dread, at least those photographs were of something – the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, Uncle Frank’s new shed. But now these shining monuments to human achievement are obscured by grinning idiots mugging for the camera, relegating the scenery or the architecture or symbols of human achievement to the background in an endless series of self-indulgent self-portraits presumably only of value or interest to the subjects in front of the lens. And, even if you can justify the need for one or two pictures of this nature – which, quite frankly, I can’t – why, oh why do you need to take dozen upon dozen of these things on a daily basis?
We were not always so bereft of imagination in our self-portraiture; nostalgia makes me recall the photo booth. Remember the photo booth? No, not the digital version that people hire for parties these days, but the original little kiosk you’d find on the pier next to the candy floss stall outside the amusement arcade. You got inside this miniature Tardis – often with a friend or ten – put your money in, pressed a button and got to take four photographs. Four individual, different photographs. The unspoken challenge was always to make these four pictures interesting so that when, decades later, you found them lying neglected at the bottom of a dusty drawer on house-moving day, you’d wonder: how crazy were we then? Who’s that in the hat – what was her name? And how much had we drunk that day? These days the challenge is to identify the differences between the selfie on your screen and the other ninety-nine versions of it queued up behind it on the camera roll. Kind of like the Spot The Difference feature in the comics, only much less interesting. Why do we take so many of the things? Are we trying to get the photograph just right or are we just trigger happy and conditioned to keep filling up our hard drives?
So where are we going next? How is all this going to end? It’s hard to say. Mostly because it’s very hard to imagine just how much more vain and self-obsessed we, as a race, could get. We have developed an odd and very self-important sense of instant legacy. Our mindset is: see it, record it, post it – ideally with one or more of us standing in front of it with an inane, fixed grin. But then what happens? What is the point of all these pictures? Maybe a handful of people will look at them and some of them may even go to the effort of moving a finger or a thumb a centimetre or two and ‘liking’ them. And, of course, your mother will get your brother to print a few of them out and stick them on the fridge. But then what? Surely at some point The Cloud is going to collapse and come crashing down on our heads. There can’t be much room left up there. Maybe civilisation will come to an end buried under a huge pile of zeroes and ones.
But, as bad as the cult of the selfie is, there are worse things; alongside ‘hey-look-at-me-ism’ comes ‘always-have-an-answer-ism’. It’s as inevitable as turbulence during the meal service. I am old enough to remember when, if you were a kid, always having an answer was something that inevitably got you a clip around the ear – “You always have to have an answer to everything, don’t you?” So now you can be as good and virtuous as you want and say you want world peace for all races, all nations and all people, and there will always be someone who finds a way to take exception and to take offense. Often it will be on self-appointed behalf of some minority group they don’t actually belong to, but on whose behalf they are perfectly capable of taking self-righteous objection. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Comments section. Whatever happened to the lost art of reading, understanding and then sitting quietly on our hands? There was a time when having an opinion was left to those who … well … had an opinion. Certainly, those who knew what they were talking about. Sadly, no more.
Sometimes I wonder if I missed the briefing on social media. Was there a meeting when the rules of engagement were explained that I should have been at? Or does my extra-thick coating of cynicism make me impervious to humble-bragging or what-about-me-ism?
Of course, in an era where there is a screen in every pocket, office and home, Big Brother parallels are always easy to make. So, let’s make some. But we’re not talking about a cameras-in-the-streets, undercover surveillance, “We-know-what-you-are-up-to-6079-Smith-W” sort of way. Far from it. 1984 is by far the best book ever written. It should be taught widely – if not compulsorily – in schools. I read once a year – if nothing else as a very necessary top-up for my cynicism battery. But the key phrase for me is not that Big Brother is watching me, but that 2 + 2 = 5. Whether it’s 1984 or 2022, it seems that not only can we be made to believe anything someone wants us to, but much more worryingly we seem to have removed the middleman in this process and are able to convince ourselves to believe anything we want to believe. And with very little persuasion necessary.
There’s also currently an interesting disconnect between how much we care about … well … anything – this really is the age of “whatever” – and how much we want other people to care about us and what we have to say. There’s that old therapist’s line that you can’t love anyone until you learn to love yourself, but I do wonder if the problem isn’t that we all love ourselves far too much and, even though we can’t be bothered to love anyone else, we expect everyone else to love us.
So back to the future: what next? Let’s just admit defeat on society’s current woes and assume we will all burn and die in some fiery Nero-fiddling-style end of empire (presumably captured on a billion Instagram feeds only to be immediately deleted in the subsequent end-of-days inferno). Instead let’s jump forward a few centuries, millennia even, and ask the hard-hitting questions: what happens when the aliens land? Or, probably more realistically but less interestingly, what happens when archaeologists of the future dig down a few layers and come across the remains of our current society? What form will these future memories take? It’s easy to imagine a thick seam of selfies separating various strata in the rocks, but the reality is that, celluloid no more, these pictures only exist on little hard drives in ever shrinking devices that presumably will be unplayable by the time these future memory hunters brush away the final layer of sand or dust that covers the end of our existence. Ironically it is entirely possible that this civilisation that is obsessed with leaving an instant legacy may well find that legacy utterly unplayable.
Of course, there will be other evidence – the fossil records, for example; future paleontologists might examine the muscle structure of preserved specimens of homo Twittus and find our face muscles distended from constantly smiling for the camera, our thumbs grown longer from texting and the tendons, muscles and bones that make our fingers work enlarged from gaming. If they’re clever, they might see our mouse-clicking elongated index fingers as evolutionary evidence of our online shopping addictions.
It would be nice if this piece ended with a few answers. An intelligent opinion on how we could do better. But, unfortunately, all I’ve got is a deep and continually growing desire to run away – there’s particular run-down hotel that overlooks a mostly unused beach in a remote part of Thailand where the government tells us not to go on its travel advisory site that I long to disappear to. In fact, I think the words “do not travel” are the best possible recommendation for somewhere to visit that I’ve seen for a long time. Huge thanks should go to the good people at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for providing us with such a comprehensive list of places where we won’t have to endure idiots. On this beach a family runs a small restaurant – the usual Formica tables and mismatched chairs affair – that has the best crispy duck salad on the face of the planet. To be honest if you asked me whether I’d prefer to fix the problems of the human race or spend the rest of my days crunching my way through mountains of crispy fried duck, I know which I’d choose.
Which brings us back to the age of untruth. Is anything in this piece actually true? Are any of the anecdotes or even quoted facts and figures accurate? And can you be bothered to check? Of course you can’t. And why should you? No one really cares. All I ask is that you like this, or retweet it, or link to it. Come on; give me a break. My numbers are down. Just share the fucking thing, won’t you?!
Melbourne, June 2022