Living in an Artificial World
Extract from Chapter 1 of Authenticity
We have come through a period of unprecedented prosperity and aggressive certainty, ushered in by the end of the Cold War and the internet revolution. We have been told endlessly that the future is going to be overwhelmingly global and gloriously virtual, and that the two strands are intricately related. We have seen the pictures of rabbis in black robes with ringlets, putting their mobile phones up to Jerusalem's Wailing Wall so that relatives in New York could pray. We have read about the call centre staff in India who are given detailed lessons in the niceties of Eastenders, so they can exchange chit-chat with callers ringing about gas leaks in Weybridge. We've probably talked to them ourselves without knowing it. The recession may have slowed down the 'inevitable' progress towards a virtual world, but we most of us accept that globalisation is with us for good.Yet that ubiquitous trend has begun to spawn its opposite, and - although the demand for the real is barely showing itself above the horizon yet - it has already begun to make itself felt in many different areas of cultural life, from poetry to politics and from food to fashion. It is beginning to be clear that the dominant cultural force of the century ahead won't just be global and virtual, it will actually be a powerful interweaving of both opposite drives - globalisation and localisation, virtual and real, with an advance guard constantly undermining what is packaged and drawing the rest of society along behind them.
The New Realists increasingly want 'real' food - maybe organic - that tastes of something, doesn't involve the genes of fish for temperature control, and comes from a real place somewhere on the map. They don't want the kind of consumables leached of flavour and interest in the form of pills or tubes that the experts used to tell us represented the future of food because the Apollo and Gemini astronauts used them.
They want real sound of people working, not the fake recorded mutter that the BBC shelled out £2,300 in 2000 when they worried that their accounts department was too quiet.
Or the fake smells that London Underground tried in their tunnels the same year.
Or the fake places that all look the same, with the same global storefronts in every town and city around the world, in the cheapest international style of glass and concrete.
Or fake politicians whose slightest utterance is tested before focus groups and scripted, and who - like George W. Bush - even have the word "Wow!" on the teleprompter.
Or the fake relationships people create online, never having to meet, using fake names - sometimes even breaking up real flesh-and-blood relationships in the process.
Or fake community activity, like the Holiday Bowling Lanes in New London, Connecticut, which social theorist Robert Putnam describes in his book Bowling Alone, with giant TV screens above each lane, where the players never talk to each other between turns, but just stare sadly upwards.
Or the kind of world where, except for the very rich, most of us will have to rely on virtual bankers, virtual doctors, virtual pharmacists, virtual carers and virtual teachers.
That's not to say that there's no market for internet chat rooms, Pot Noodle, NHS Online - or George W. Bush for that matter. There clearly is. But there's also a growing suspicion of a world where we don't have to see people or touch anything, and a longing for something we can't quite put our fingers on. Just how big that market is, I'll discuss later - but what large numbers of people in the Western economy want, they tend to get.
It's a key reason that so many people are starting, in the media equivalent of a dim light, to feel around them for something firm to grasp."