A normal street in downtown Manila. Outside a branch of Mercury Drugstore, an employee dressed as Snow White hands out free trial packs of multi-vitamins from a basket like some kind of Disney drug outreach worker. This is Saturday afternoon and families mill menacingly round malls and gangs of tweens tweet at each other as they swarm through the plazas and precincts. As an outsider, it seems to be bizarre to be handing out proto-drugs to kids on family outings.
The Philipines is obsessed with drugs. And not the good kind. Like many countries in south-east Asia, the concept of a prescription only really applies to opioids and other such exotica. Anything from your standard analgesics to Zofren, by way of tramadols, omeprazols and propranalols are available. Ask and you shall receive. Heading out for the evening, I stopped in to pick up some anti-emetics and some painkillers for the potential morning after. The fascinating thing was, that at 9.20 on a Friday night, the place was packed, people buying supplements, sachets of fibre to add to food, cough syrups and balms, quasi-medical products with questionable benefits as well as many concerned looking hypochondriacs, clutching magazine articles proclaiming yet another wonder drug that they had simply decided to walk in and ask for.
The role of the pharmacy in encouraging this self-medication is incredible. They push themselves as the first line of healthcare, and even one of the self-declared ‘small’ chains, who sponsored the ‘power ballad hour’ on my Taxi drivers radio station of choice, claimed 1500 branches nationwide, and Mercury Drugstore, the most visible chain in manila has a distribution of at least one every couple hundred meters. And every one is full.
But this pharma-driven, structural approach to health in the Philippines is pervasive. Adverts for slimming teas, fortified breads and ant-cancer dog biscuits- well maybe not the last one- are everywhere. Coffee with an extra seven vitamins, a new brand of flour that has 8+1, there is an algebraic approach to health which seems wholly at odds with the holistic east-asian stereotype one might expect- Whether it is a legacy from successive waves of settlement and influence- Spanish, British, American ‘empire’, adverts for diet aids, skin miracle treatments, laser hair removal are on every corner, and most streets have some kind of private clinic hoping to get neurotic lower-middle class Filipinos to part with their hard earned pesos. It seems that health isn’t something that you look after, but rather that you buy into, less about man as an organism, but as a mechano kit
Politics and political economy are not my strong point. I was in fact rejected for a history and politics degree when, as an over-enthusiastic 18 year old who claimed to have read Prouhdon, I struggled to explain quite why property was theft. I have always been an overly enthusiastic name-dropper…
However, I have been struck by what seems to be the end of any last remnants within the public domain of genuine debate about the structure of society. I do not claim this to be something particularity recent- as a mere Historian by training, (thanks to that politics tutor!), my idea of contemporaneity is somewhat vague.
The fall of the Soviet Union sped up this neutralisation of real debate, but it was already an almost-certainty during the height of the freeze. The binary language of East and West, of Communist and Capitalist did much to suck the air out the possibility of alternatives beyond this dialogue in the public’s imagination. The fall of the East and the start of what has been termed by some the ‘unipolar moment’ sped this stagnation up even further, though the language of unipolarity had begun to squeeze the life out of free and frank debate about the very way in which society is structured some time before. The fall of one means the triumph of the other. Of course if the the ‘free world’ truly delivered on its own rhetoric, then the fall of the East should have meant a multi-polar reality, where the liberal freedoms, claimed to be so closely tied to capitalism, meant everything was up for grabs. But after the fall of one monolithic bloc, what we saw instead was the consolidation of the other.
What we see now is a confluence of factors, which, black-hole-like, have sucked life and light out of all but the furthest (lunatic) fringes of the political firmament. What we are left with in politics is a discussion of the manner and not the action. Or to use some schlock-Marxist polemicism, we the people are going to get shafted and it seems the question is whether it is enthusiastically, reluctantly or vigorously. Ultimately the result is the same. The last time there was real debate about the action and not the manner in the UK was the 1983 Labour party Manifesto, subsequently termed the ‘longest suicide note in history’- not a sobriquet that is going to encourage constructive and open debate about the way society is run.
There are four factors I want to look at, overlapping and at times not yet fully defined that come together to create this pessimism
-the assumption of capital
-ignorance of the capitalist-democratic tension
-the depoliticisation of economics
-the catalysing effect of the new business of journalism
The assumption of capital is where this thought starts. The rhetoric of the West during the Cold War established a moral basis for Capitalism which tied it up with democratic freedom and liberal rights (more on this later) but this claimed moral authority meant that when Soviet communism failed, Fukyama’s ‘End of History’ moment, there was an assumption of Capital. That is to say, Capitalism took on the mantle that it had prepared for itself as the unchallenged mode of organisation for society, a consumption-driven (consumption-fetishising?) market system was seen as the only backdrop against which free society could take place, rather than one of the elements of how society is ordered that should be put up for debate.
The assumption of capital becomes even more clear when we look at individual businesses. Rrom consumer-facing pin-up brands, the Starbucks, the McDonalds through the industrial heavy-hitters like GE or Royal Dutch Shell, through to the silent giants you may never have heard of- the BHP Billitons of the world all operate as supra-national bodies. They move money seamlessly within their corporate structures and across borders in ways that individuals never can. They commercially colonise, hiring private armies when they move in to trade in unstable regions. They relocate their nominal headquarters to create tax-efficiencies and are wooed by governments, receiving generous subsidies for building their means of production in a given territory, tax breaks for not relocating and huge state contracts, that amount to public donations to the private purse, to not lay off their workers. Governments of every persuasion court them in a race to the bottom and claim these actions are for the ‘good of the nation’. in short they position themselves above the sphere of society itself and the structures that should circumscribe them.
Capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. For some this may seem like a truism, and for others this may represent something never even considered- perhaps because the assumption of capital means then when you hear ‘democratic’ or ‘free’ you presume this is also inherently capitalist. if you even think about this assumption at all. FailToPlan’s last (apologetic) foray into the deep and murky water of political thought touched upon this idea. There is an inherent tension within the concept Capitalist Democracy as a mode of social organisation that has historically meant it was such a fertile and productive form. From the mercantile quasi-democratic elite of the Venetian city state, who tempered their riches with the sombre robes meant to show their unity, to the ‘embarrassment of riches’ of the Dutch Golden age, where the Burghers of Amsterdam would hide their finest possessions in their most private rooms, through to the monuments to civic pride built by the great industrialists of the British north, this tension played out in surprising and fruitful ways. This all stemmed from the negotiation between man as capitalist/industrialist/consumer and man as citizen. Within Capitalist democracy, the rights and responsibilities of citizen- participation, individual freedoms, contributing to the public sphere crackle and spark as they rub up against the enshrinement of property, the opportunity to consume, the state’s creation of a stable and demarcated area in which the market and capital can flourish.
Yet as the two have become (incorrectly) mapped on top of each other, we begin to see a corruption that has come to characterise late (post-)modernity. The act of consumption, of profiteering has been conflated with participation, with citizenship. Whether it is ‘buying british’ as a civic duty, the fetishisation of home ownership as emblematic of membership of civil society ( Britain was never helped on that front by having a property-based qualification attached to the franchise historically) or small business as the engine of civil society, participation in the market is now an imperfect and flawed proxy for participation in society. This is seen in most sharp relief during key societal inflection points. The most recent in the UK was the 2011 riots, when the shooting by Police of general all round- ne’er do well, Mark Duggan, coupled with the economic realities of recession and a pervading sense of disenfranchisement led thousands of (mainly young) Britons to take to the streets. If they had any sense of their role, of their potential as angry young citizens they would have marched on Parliament. Instead their burnt down shops and looted FootLocker. Political frustration was channeled through consumption. I remember one woman outside a branch of Curry’s, interviewed on the second or third night of disturbances, live by Sky News- “I pay my taxes and nothing get better, there ain’t (sic) enough jobs and I have had enough, I am sick of this government” She was holding a widescreen television looted from the store she was standing in front of. Rather than diagnose itself, the governments response to those who took to the streets- however misdirected those very real frustrations were- was to run the Magistrates courts 24 hours a day in order to sentence and make an example of those who had challenged ‘law and order’ in Britain, further conflating the two uneasy bedfellows. It is here of course, as a marketeer that I personally feel most responsible, spending my day-job hatching ever more elaborate schemes to persuade citizens to self-actualise through consumption.
If there was any doubt that the two were not tone and the same, consider the most successful ‘capitalist’ economy of the past decade and a half- China, has succeeded without (perhaps even because) its Capitalist mode was not harnessed to the once-negotiating, ameliorating, moderating tendencies of Democracy. Instead what we see is a triumph of ‘command capitalism’ and proof that the two must exist in a perpetually renegotiating, tense alliance with each other if we think that the freedoms tied up with democracy are important to us as a society. That is something that must also be put up for robust debate if we want to have a chance of retaining them.
As any career politician knows, Economics is Political. It is tacitly acknowledged in the foundational years of their careers, where the archetypal journey begins with a combined courses in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Yet the rhetoric of the current political consensus does little to acknowledge this. Economics, is complex, imprecise, ignorant of the caprices of human nature, and any one version of how the Economy should operate stems from a political-philosophical viewpoint, however, confused, muddied or contradictory it is. That is to say, economics does not exist in a vacuum. Yet, during the current crisis, both government and opposition rhetoric, despite the adversarial approach that the UK organs of power encourage, builds a consensus around the idea that their hands are mostly tied, that though the opposition would take radically different action, it is only radically different insofar as the numbers will allow. Their range for action is narrow and there are no radical solutions because the ‘economics’ will not allow. As political animals, they choose to absolve themselves of this agency in order to avoid potentially difficult, big questions (and therefore radical solutions). The depoliticisation of economics suits any ruling group as it moves some of the most pressing questions out of a self-defined political sphere, allowing them to administer relatively unencumbered, convincing us that the ‘rearranging deck chairs on the foredeck of the Titanic’ that they occupy themselves is in fact the ‘business of governing’, rather than, in truth, the ‘theatre of politics’ .
I have to thank (or curse, depending on the reaction to this rant) Nick Davies’ book ‘Flat Earth News’ for starting me thinking about this and particularly for this last thought, which conversely was my first. The free press has been a place where Capitalism and Democracy have rubbed along for some time. Though a business, the press has performed an important civic function, as a key check and balance on government and also a forum for public debate. It has a responsibility ( albeit only a de facto one) to raise questions about society, both it action and it manner. The business of journalism has always nipped at the fringes of that role, with owners interests shaping the nature of that debate, but the late 20th Century advent of the Media Mogul, best typified by the Murdoch machine threw this productive tension out the window. The business of the news is now simply to sell newspapers and make profit. The tension between Market and Civic functions which the free press had spent so many years navigating was removed, and with it the free press was reshaped to be far more effective than any party-controlled propaganda outlet at neutralising structural debate. It does this by no longer engaging in (with?) structural debate because is difficult, because it asks big questions that aren’t immediately ‘sexy’ for its audience and because it questions the truths they hold to be self-evident and puts its readers/viewers (consumers?) in an uncomfortable position. Far easier to tell people what they already think then to provide a provoking voice of dissent. Market forces at work in news rooms have caused this to happen less through cynicism or by malaise, but rather through chronic underinvestment. In ‘Flat Earth News’ Davies describes modern newsrooms that are chronically understaffed, with writers turning round many times more copy than they were expected to in previous decades during the 20th Century. With this has come the pervasive spread of PR copy and wire copy, hastily cut and pasted into some of the worlds leading news outlets. Which means the word ‘Crap’ appears more often in the UKs most respected newspapers than ‘Capitalism’.
So what is the solution to this? Questioning. Looking at every assumption, every truth seen to be self-evident. Our current structure may be the best there is, or at least the best for now, but frankly without a robust interrogation we cannot even begin to know whether this is the case. The worn-out old adage says to never talk about Sex, Politcs or Religion. Sex has already been commoditised and merchandised, and religion is an increasing irrelevancy. We should probably start talking about politics and the way society is run in its broadest and deepest sense for all of our sakes.
Marie-Antoinette had an interesting way of unwinding at the Petit Trianon, the small Palace that was her escape from the ‘pressures’ of Queenship up at the ‘big house’ in Versaille. In the grounds of the Petit Trianon, she ordered the construction of a hameau, a mock French farming village, complete with rabbits, pigs, cows and some fields of wheat and barley which she oversaw. A.U Wertmüller, some-time a resident artist at Versaille depicts, in one of his portraits from the French court, one of Marie-Antoinette’s confidants, Adelaide Auguie, dressed in a mock peasant milk maid’s dress in the Queens Laiterie. Apocryphal or not, the story runs that the Queen herself had elaborate shepherdess and farm-girl costumes made by her royal dressmakers, in which she would play at the peasant-girl, tending to her sheep or milking her cows until, bored, she would retire to the Trianon, most likely for cake.
Why I bother to relay this story is because the same disdain I have for this playing at the peasant is how I am beginning to feel about the current trend for single-dish and short menu restaurants in London. What once started as a desire for simplicity, great ingredients and an unfussy return to ‘real’ food has become a caricature of itself, what the hameau was to a working rural village. Just as the immediate post-recessionary automotive craze for matte-black coating Porsches, BMWs and Range Rover Vogues as well as other high end vehicle, ( low profile, low sheen and therefore permissible luxury ran the simplistic hedge-funder logic) these restaurants the Tramsheds, Bubble Dogs and Burger & Lobsters of the world are now seen as a permissible display of status by way of discernment in this post-recessionary realignment, the after-Lehman L’Atelier Joel Robuchon. Except, the problem is that once they become a covert status game, the food suffers. Once the thing is that it is ‘a thing’ then the food is no longer the thing. The shred of dignity provided by their stripped back approach is becoming stretched to the point of absurdity, with a restaurant specialising in only champagne and hotdog or only burgers and lobsters bearing little resemblance to the honest culinary ethos that may have been the one iota of authentic grit in the oyster when this whole charade began. This rule can be almost uiversally applied to anything with ‘streetfood’ in its subhead.
The ersatz nature of the whole stripped back food vibe becomes apparent when you eat at some of these restaurants- catering to a certain comfortable chattering class background that wants to play at the peasant girl. Meat Liquor’s burgers are over-hyped, over-greasy and made from poor cuts. They remind me of the kind of burger that I would get for a pound from a burger van at the funfairs of my childhood. Yet for those who venerate these establishments, these vans were were verboten, so now in urban 20- and 30- something-hood their sustenance, or a repackaged version of it, becomes fetishised, an exciting sense of what is forbidden, an element of transgression to add to dimensionalise this status.
If you want a burger van burger, go to a windy car-park by a builders merchant in Mitcham. If you want to open one of these restaurant, make the narrative about the food rather than pretending its about the food when actually its about the catchiest menu combination or newest streetfood novelty.
Amongst the shining skyscrapers of Dubai, a city that doesn’t do ersatz modesty, culinarily or otherwise, I visited a place in porta-cabin, the Bu Qtair restaurant with no menu and whose clientele consisted of a pretty even split of expatriates, from both East and West, and South Asian migrant workers. Plastic tables and chairs were strewn outside and there was no menu, just large plastic tubs of masala-seasoned fish bought each morning from the boats ( Dubai actiually has a working fishing fleet… ), fried to order and served out of a side window of the cabin. No show, no fuss, no ‘concept’ other than serving incredible spicy fish and chapatis to anyone who wanted to eat. Happiness should be good food, not a culinary mock-hamlet.
Mark Twain claimed that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. Waiting by the gate to board a flight at Dubai international airport, there is a sample of a few hundred of the earth’s residents; a tranche selected by quirks of fate as diverse as late-running meetings in Manila or the impulse to visit a newly-born relative on the other side of the world. Looking around the gate, you can see a hundred pairs of trailing white wires into a hundred different coloured ears. A young boy in a dishdasha languidly swats at a glowing tablet screen, his face a concentrated picture of barely concealed contempt for the whole process. If we are to put any stock in this arbitrary thin-slicing of humanity, then there seems to be little to evidence Twain’s epithet.
Historically, travel has been a disruptive act. To undertake a journey meant to leave home and the relative safety that represented. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the act of travel has been romanticised in literature and imbued with an almost-mystical significance. The risk that it inherently contained meant that it had to be prized to be incentivised. But maybe this is stating the equation the wrong way round. The mystical significance comes from what travel had to offer. The romance was linked to the reward; an expansion of human understanding, the opportunity widen and deepen the intellectual pool. Often this would come from the journey as much as from the destination.
Travel is no longer an individual experience, it is a commodity. The travel industry was worth $1,972.8 billion USD in 2011. ‘Adventure’ is no longer something you have, it is a rack of brochures in Trailfinders, after ‘Action Holidays’ and before ‘Americas (North)’. This has been a long time coming. Even in the days of Earhart, and certainly by the time of Armstrong, while the heroic quasi-mystical version of travel was being valourised, the travel industry was fractionalising and homogonising that same sentiment, repackaging it into 7- 10- and 14-day pieces. Since the advent of the grand tour in the 17th century, travel has been losing its genuine power, replaced instead with fictional significance. Since the glory days of 14th and 15th century explorers, as its real importance has diminished, its ceremonial role has grown in popular consciousness. As early as the 18th Century, some critics were deriding the Grand Tour as “a paltry thing, a tame, uniform, unvaried prospect”. The birth of the itinerary was the beginning of a long and illustrious ending.
With a marked decline in the package holiday since the end of the 20th century, the logical thought would be that travel is once again diversifying, that after the post World War II, mid 20th century standardisation, we are rediscovering our instincts to strike out alone and ‘see what we can see’. But in fact, the lineage can be traced from these first accounts of Byron and his contemporaries in Florence, through the pre-planned, pre-paid excursions and identikit apartments of the Costas to the lonely-planet-guide collecting, tick-boxing that typifies travel now- you may not buy all the pieces in one go and from one place, but it is still ‘Sightseeing’ not actually seeing the sights ( whatever you, as opposed to the guide, might define those sights to be) however you dress it up. One involves taking in the air, the atmosphere, the feeling, the people that make up a place. The other involves checking off ‘must-sees’ from a generic list. Suddenly your mini-break is the same as everyone else’s. The ‘Self guided Tour’ might mean that they are configured in a different order, but ultimately the pieces are all the same. Gradually the publishers who produce these books are dropping the final vestiges of pretence that claim to be opening up a new place for their readers to explore, concentrating instead on sending to print big-hitting top-ten ‘best-of’ books, stripping the guides down to their core checklists. At least its more honest.
What all this amounts to is a transformation of experience itself into a commodity. Where travel was once about a ‘being’ mode of existence, it becomes about ‘having’ acquiring landmarks in a place, rather than experiencing it. One of the side effects of this is that certain cities begin to feel like theme parks to certain eras, playing up to their own guide-book caricatures. As Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega puts it, ‘ like a wax museum with a pulse’. New York as ‘20th Century Land’, a kind of ouroborus cliche that feels like it is only one edict away from having Rhapsody in Blue being piped out of the nearest lamp-post every time you look up to take in a skyscraper. There are no real sights left to see.
Where technology meets with travel, it only serves to catalyse this same process, providing ever more subtle and artful tools for acquisition. If only the tourist wandering round, iPad screen 6 inches from their face, would be the apogee of this- adding an intermediary screen between themselves and the real-world, occasionally tapping on the shutter button to capture a moment as they go. Even the near-commodity point-and-shoot digital camera has much to answer for, lowering the barrier to taking a picture, meaning most see the world perpetually through a viewfinder or screen, visually evidencing their progress through their top ten tick list with angles and shots near-indistinguishable from those in the book to start with. The proliferation of social media means that we do not even have to wait until that friend returns to take us through a slide show of their snaps. Instead we get real-time over sharing of every meal, every landmark, every minutiae of their trip before they have even finished it. And every set-piece shot indistinguishable from the last acquaintance that went to the same place. That same standardised experience is shown when you overhear two ‘intrepid travellers’ who have recently visited the same place. ‘and did you go to X?’ ‘yes we went to X after Y then to the Z that the bar recommended’ ‘ah yes, we went to Z on out last night’. And what both parties thought of it was exactly what the guide thought they ought to.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the international airport terminal, a liminal space cut adrift from time or place, where you are at once everyman and no-one. From check-in to duty free to air-bridge to pressurised cabin, it is a sanitised and efficient process that give no hint of ‘arrival’ or ‘departure’ beyond the lit up signs on the terminal walls, adding to the wholly alienated and alienating experience of modern travel. As we criss-cross the world with increasingly regularity, we continue to shrink it. As states and culture become closer and more porous, the reason to travel, the need to discover becomes less relevant. As destinations become cross-checked and indexed with increasing levels of granularity and every back-street bistro ‘discovered’ by a constant stream of directed patrons, clutching their ‘insider’s guide’, the question remains whether there are even any outsiders left.
But it is not just the increasing efficiency of the physical act of travelling that is reduced the act of discovery to simulacrum. The pervasive technology that connects us, creating an always-on world, that we are told brings us all closer together- highlighting our similarities over our differences diminishes the need to leave home in the first place. Sub-cultures or movements, whether it is Portland Hipsterism or the Darbawia Boys of Saudi Arabia are mainlined into the general consciousness as fast as they can begin to develop. There are no more cultural Galapagos’ left, and soon all the creatures will begin to look the same. Disconnection helps diversity to develop but the danger of this constant connection is the creation of a ‘Grey Mush’ of culture. You can hear it in numerous Top 40 or Hit 100 or any other of the many near-meaningless music rankings around the globe. The same artists crop up across charts, swamping local music trends with magpie-like tracks that steal with pride from any number of genres. When was the last time you heard an RnB track that didn’t include a 90s dance piano riff and a dubstep middle eight? Microsoft are even using dubstep to sell internet browsers. Talk to a current teenager and their music taste will probably encompass anything from Elgar to Gaga, perhaps with some Miles Davis and Frank Zappa in the mix. Even within a given place’s culture, the idea of any sense of tribalism seems dead. Mankind as a species has a long (pre)history of the divisive effect of tribalism, but there is something to be said for the biodiversity it can bring. Looks and sounds used to come from individual cities and were radiated out, from Madchester to Northern Soul, from Tin Pan Alley to Detroit techno, there was a sense of place, or at least of origin that was transmitted with the pop movements they spread. Now the cultural behemoths are transnational, with Lady Gaga as a 21st century Nemo, and her stage show a vast, Nautilus, constantly touring, spreading its agnostic gospel.
Located within this wider movement towards the transnational, the current trend towards craft- the growth of market, micro-brewing, niche designers- feels like an oddly futile gesture in the face of this homogenisation. As companies operate as supra-national missionaries, spreading their brands values and core benefits from place to place, everywhere begins to look the same. The same logos give cities from Lago to Los Angeles an increasingly eerie sense of Deja Vu. Inside the industry they talk about ‘missions’ and ‘reasons to believe’ as if buying and the self-actualisation it is meant to bring is a new religion that could save us all. With one million people a week moving to cities to be bombarded by these companies proselytizing mission-statements, our very aspirations are being standardised. It is the same transnational brands that provide empty ciphers into which we pour our hopes, whether we are a student in Chengdu or a single mother in Quito. It is Apple phones and Nike trainers and Johnnie Walker scotch that will save us, make us look 5 pounds thinner, put a tiger in our tank and a giant in our toilet bowl.
Linguistic trends are only serving to quicken the shallowing. Language serves as the framework from which ideas and culture hang. The peculiarities of grammar and syntax of any given language help to shape its cultural tropes. The lazy cultural stereotyper might want to assign directness in the German character to its penchant for compound words for instance or British circuitousness to the Passive Voice. Sweeping over-simplifications aside, language is an integral part of the cultural narrative of the place where it was evolved and where it is used. It is a living record of an evolutionary trajectory, such as Autumn, reflecting the Renaissance’s influence on 16th century British society in displacing ‘Harvest’ and ‘Fall of the Leaf’ from usage over time. (Incidentally making the continued preference for Fall in American English more English than the English, something no doubt that every (small R) republican and Anglophile will unite in horror over).
The growth of English as a second language because of its dominant role in business, due to the convergence of the growth of America in the 20th century with the legacy of Empire from the 19th century is only part of the 21st century linguistic shifts. UNESCO posits that over half of the 6000 ‘living’ languages in use today will be extinct by the end of the century. When they go, they take with them 3000 cultural histories, 3000 oral traditions, sets of superstitions, beliefs, verbal tics- ways of understanding and interpreting the world. These are instead replaced by a shared lexicon of urban experience, a way of articulating problems and ideas peculiar to the city and at once universal to them all, as that becomes a dominant mode of being, and as cities develop to ape previous templates laid down in the urban environment. It doesn’t help that many newly-urbanising countries are looking to older cities rather than their own history of the communal living experience to set down a path for development, drawing on expertise from the very same ‘Wax Museums’ that are re-imagining themselves as parodies of their own pasts.
At the same time, there is a strong, countervailing movement being brought about by the very same technology that is shrinking the world outside our front doors. While at once bringing the mainstream together into a kind of transnational grey-mush popular cultural consensus, it is also allowing diversity to flourish at its ever-increasing ( and increasingly bizarre) fringes. To experience other cultures we must look to online spaces, where this diversity is being driven. This new transnational eclecticism may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is doubtless something for everyone there and it is undoubtedly made more extreme by the marginalisation it revels in, when faced with an increasingly blander mainstream- a point that is patently obvious after about 30 seconds on 4chan or any online pornography listing site. But what it does do is give life and depth to a sense of other and in doing so celebrates difference in a way that travel no longer can.
But it is not just alternative tribes that are developing online that make this the golden age of staying at home. Greater definition and higher fidelity makes the experience of staying at home more real than most of what you can experience in real life, especially when so much of that is now being viewed through a screen with headphones firmly placed in ears. A friend who was about to head to the mountains of Nepal trekking for two weeks was suffering a sleepless night before departing, worried that he didn’t have the right music selection for this trip on the iPod to walk to. Forget the birdsong or the sounds of nature, if the foothills of the Himalayas needs augmenting, why not do away with the imperfect reality and all that tiresome travel it requires and just immerse in the experience the technology can provide? As trips become tick-lists, and access is limited and planned, surely the Discovery Channel can give you the kind of unparalleled access that going there never could? The Blue Planet in HD, tablet open to wikipedia on your lap is a more immersive and educational experience that a second rate diving holiday or trekking trip could ever hope to provide. How far are we away from the kind of full-wall, holographic viewing technology that mean this will really be the case. And if immersing in this reality isn’t what switches you on, why not immerse in an alternative one? Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games offer an expansive alternative which you can spend days in. For some it has been too seductive a prospect with a number of deaths being reported amongst the most hardcore of these gamers, including a 3 month old child in South Korea who died of malnutrition after being left to fend for herself by its game-addicted parents who were engrossed in an online child-rearing game in an internet cafe for hours each day.
Though, in-extremis, it is shocking, it does show how attractive an option this technology provides. In a world where the experience that we once sought from going abroad is standardised to the point of absurdity, these immersive technologies suddenly offer something more original, something more real than reality. As travel becomes a process to be endured and one city becomes indistinguishable from the next, getting on a plane or train somewhere seems as likely to narrow the mind as it is to broaden it, spending time in identikit terminii with the same jaded nomads. In the next decade and beyond, perhaps it will be the experiences that we have in our front rooms that will challenge and surprise us more than anything we might find up a mountain in Morocco or on a beach in Indonesia if we do not start some kind of cultural conservation. Truly this is the golden age of staying at home.