Discard your bucket list and rely on serendipity

Rainbow Mountains in Peru

Rainbow Mountains in Peru

When I first went “travelling” I remember planning it and thinking: I’ll see the Taj Mahal, Ayers Rock (Uluru), Carnival in Rio, etc etc etc. A bucket list. It seemed a good idea at the time. Since then legions of cheap air fares and general affluence have opened up every corner of the world to Johnny Tourist and even Barak O’bloody’bama has a bucket list. In the media a bucket list is a standard piece of filler for the travel section of newspapers and today a friend re-posted pictures of the amazing rainbow mountains in Peru originally posted by “Bucket List Travels”. They look fantastic.

But really? REALLY!? Are we really all supposed to visit these bloody place before we die? There are 7 billion of us for God’s sake! OK, not all of us are affluent enough to take these holidays but The World Bank reports that the total number of tourism arrivals for 2016 was 1.2 billion!

International tourism, number of arrivals

International tourism, number of arrivals

The number of tourist attractions is minuscule by comparison. On a recent Sunday in Sussex, in preparation for a Sunday walk with The Ramblers, I boarded a bus and found it stuffed full of Germans! But of course. Think about it: Tourists visit the places sold to them by the tourist industry and in England this means Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and The Seven Sisters in Sussex.

There are far too many tourists clogging up every beautiful place on Earth. The New Zealanders are cottoning on to this as are Berliners. Tourism is wrecking every unique and beautiful place on earth. From the beaches of Thailand to the streets of London.

The counter argument is to present mass tourism as a reaction against elitism and to question why the masses should be prevented from experiencing the wonders of the Earth. The answer is not that they should be “prevented” but that the tourist industry is not some altruistic charity bringing culture to the masses. It is, like all unregulated capitalist enterprise, a voracious profit seeking machine with little interest in culture or sustainability. It is driving ambivalent couch potatoes to destinations they only want to see to say they have.

Why should we allow corporations to commandeer public space for profit? Why should we stay silent while communities are eroded by legions of disinterested “consumers”? It’s not just me that’s irritated by tourism. An excellent video posted recently shows a Nepalese woman chasing a tourist down a mountain path and throwing rocks at her for whining about the price of a cup of tea. Good for her. Perhaps we should all throw rocks at tourists.

When so many people visit Thai beaches or Borough market the experience changes. It’s the tourist equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You can’t be alone and serene on a gorgeous Thai beach if surrounded by five thousand beefy faced, pot bellied, jug eared Europeans like yourself. You can’t experience the authentic ambiance and irreverent banter of a working fish market when most of the wholesale vendors have been driven out by the tourist trade.

I visited Rome with a friend and she told me “I only want to see the Sistine Chapel, I’m not interested in anything else”. Then why come? On arrival at said Chapel, after being told numerous times that all photography was banned, a surly American stood videoing, his face pressed to the viewfinder while he growled “Don’t touch me, don’t you touch me” at the attendance asking him to stop. The rest of the Italian holiday we meandered from one objective to another with no real enthusiasm other than getting these things out of the way. Ticking them off the bucket list.

Part of the problem is over population. Scientists refer to the current ecological era as the Anthropocene because mankind is the dominant factor affecting the planet. They also believe that human activity is causing the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history.

But the scourge of tourism is also a lack of imagination. It’s reliance on someone else to sell you an experience. Let me make a suggestion: If you you’re visiting Italy and you’re not interested in history or religion then don’t visit the Sistine Chapel. It’s not obligatory. There’s no shame in it. And there’s no shame in having interests outside of the agenda sold you by the travel agent. Consider what you’re interested in and research that. Italy has plenty to offer the keen horticulturalist (Cervara garde) and the car fanatic (The Alfa Romeo Museum ) as it does the religious nut.

During my original around the world trip I stopped in Hong Kong. When grilled about this by a friend he asked: did you see this and did you see that? And I answered no and he said, it doesn’t sound like you saw much at all.

But I did. On my first night I headed straight for Ned Kelly’s Last Stand and ate my first western food in three months (gammon and mash). I then got drunk as a skunk. I woke in in a tiny hotel room in Chungking Mansions where the occupant of the top bunk got frozen feet while the occupant of the bottom bunk sweltered in the heat. I weaved my way through the crowded streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, I argued with theatrically rude camera salesmen. I saw taxi doors that closed themselves and I visited a former colleague in hospital. I drank in absurd English pubs from the 50s and watched equally absurd British ex-pats talking of slacks and Bass (pronounced Baaaaasss) beer and I crossed from Kowloon to Victoria on the Star Ferry. I can still feel the tropical air and the salt spray now. It was wonderful and I planned none of it.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor. Discard your bucket list and let serendipity be your guide.

Population Matters

Population Matters

Advertisements

Friends, Romans, Countrymen – don’t consume stories, listen to them

Religious Consumption

Religious Consumption

Sunday morning I listened to Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4 and heard how technology is affecting radio and TV. The presenter referred to how we “consume” radio.

I am not about to give a lecture on lexicography but the adoption of the word “consume” for every social interaction is part of a commercialisation of society which we are only now beginning to understand. Starting under Thatcher and continuing under Blair a political vocabulary was deliberately adopted to encourage us to view society as nothing more than a system of commercial transactions. It is responsible for a change in mind set, a coarsening of discourse and an emphasis on materialism.

Building societies morphed into banks, the borrowers changed from members to customers and the building market was opened to dubious practices including a flood of foreign money which helped drive property prices to obscene levels.

Football clubs became Plcs, the supporters became customers and were milked for money for branded shirts. The new PLCs then abandoned their traditional supporters for the much larger TV market.

Railways were privatised and passengers became customers. The emphasis moved from transportation to sales. The trains are newer, the stations packed full of shops but the seating is worse.

Even airports morphed into enormous shopping malls. As a frequent flyer I am continually irritated as I clear security and am deposited in the middle of a perfume section of some department store.

Humans are amazing animals. We live in complex social groups and each person plays many roles. We’re friends, brothers, mothers, lovers, teachers, neighbors, locals and strangers…..at least we were at the time of writing. We are also passengers, football supporters and club members.

So, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. The essence of radio is storytelling which existed millennia before double entry book keeping and we do not consume stories. We listen to them.

One leg and half an inch of carpet

London Bridge

London Bridge

London last night. A birthday bash in a boozer near London Bridge. On entering the pub my heart sank. Rows and rows of young automata sitting on stools gazing up being “entertained at” by a TV screen showing football. No conversation. No shenanigans on the terraces. Just sit on your stool and drink your beer.

However, a brief word with the barman, a door appeared where no door had been and I was escorted up stairs to drink excellent pints of Harvey’s and talk of Ebbsfleet, Canterbury, SQL, medical conditions, Europe, Christmas and football (Charlton 4, Northampton 1).

Half an inch of carpet

London

Returning home I noted how dismal were the seats compared to a recent trip to Oslo. British trains are becoming progressively more uncomfortable. Last night was a ghastly experience. The train lurched about and I was shaken around like a cat in a tumble dryer. The new trains and stations are very smart of course. The robotic doors, illuminated displays and automated announcements more reminiscent of Hollywood Science Fiction than Stephenson’s Rocket but the ride quality is crap! One impetus for this deterioration is the alliance betwen corporate greed and left wing iresponsibiity. A sort of metropolitican arrogance. The corporations want an endless supply of cheap labour and the left persue a doctrine that anything other than an ever expanding population equals facism.  So when a business wants more office space they ignore the residents of Rotherham or Blackburn or Weymouth who sit idle outside betting shops and they build The Shard bang in the middle of London. Business gets cheap labour, close to other busineses and the London Left get to boast about London’s GDP and call themselevs a World City. Meanwhile the rail links have to cope with another 3000 passengers!

Make the trains hold more people but keep the price down. Consequently new trains on the Brighton line have fewer seats and more room for standing. The seats remaining have only half an inch of carpet to sit on and the seats next to the window only suitable for one legged passengers as a metal box runs the entire length of the carriage where one’s other leg would normally rest.

Oslo

Oslo

Bollocks to the passengers, it’s only an hour and fifteen! So what if many of them are approaching retirement and their knees are giving out, many more will be too young to remember comfortable rail travel.

It’s not all the fault of efficiency of course. Safety plays its part. On London Bridge enormous bollards have been placed to prevent Johnny Terrorist driving vehicles along the pavement. Considering the times we live in it’s a good idea but having been part of the vast lemming like horde who crosses the bridge every day this constriction must be infuriating to commuters. While I type BBC Radio 4 is banging on about terrorism’s effect on air travel. The twin evils of our time, efficiency and terrorism. The corporations force us into uncomfortable, restricted spaces and the terrorists pounce.

Of course terrorism is not really a problem. Incidents have actually declined in Western Europe since the 1970s and far more people die on the roads than in terrorist attacks. 1,713 on British roads in 2016.

Perhaps corporate efficiency and terrorism are conspiring to protect the planet? Perhaps the fear of terrorism and the abhorrence of Southern Rail will deter us from travelling and thereby reduce our carbon emissions?

Mad World – P300 shortcut to the subconcious

An article in The Economist this week reports on scientific work on a specific signal in the human brain named P300. It seems that P300 activates when we recognise something and can be detected electronically before we’re consciously aware we’ve recognised whatever it is. You will be aware of course that the brain takes a few fractions of a second to assemble all the sensory signals and knowledge into a coherent model of reality and this is what we call consciousness. It has been shown by Johnny Scientist that this consciousness runs a few fractions of a second behind reality.

So what this lot of loons have worked out is that they can attach an electrode to your head and detect a signal quicker than you can become aware of it yourself. Who’s doing this? You ask. Well it’s Andy McKinley, head of brain stimulation at the American Air Force’s Human Effectiveness Directorate at Wright-Patterson air base in Ohio. Yes, old Whacky McKinley again. He’s been tasked with weaponing this phenomena and is looking at the way soldiers recognise targets.

Now all this is fascinating and no doubt infinite good will come of it……NOT! My prediction is that they’ll embed this technology in a soldier’s helmet and as he’s sitting in his bunker stressed as hell scouring the battlefield for enemy activity. He’ll be watching and waiting and he’ll see a little movement and be just of the verge of thinking,….”is that……that looks like…..hey, sarge I think that’s a…….” – and a loud siren will sound and cause him to yell…YES, YES, I know, I was about to fucking shoot if you give me a chance!

And of course this is progress.

The Reasons for WannaCry are Systemic

"we take the issue very seriously”

“we take the issue very seriously” – Really?

Years ago I attended a lecture given by the head of IT Security at a major oil company. He said that nobody takes IT Security seriously and nobody would until an attack was so severe as to bankrupt a major corporation. Yesterday we heard that the NHS, Nissan and many other organisations, have been severely hit by the, so called, WannaCry malware. Could this be the one?

Following incidents such as these there are cries of “Why did this happen?” and experts will make the usual recommendations about ensuring systems are patched and staff adequately trained but these are tactical measures. The real reasons IT systems are so insecure are deeper rooted and the bottom line is that management don´t take IT Security seriously. In addition, two systemic trends which underpin most large organisations, impede implementation of good security: Complexity and Business Process Reengineering.

Perhaps complexity is inevitable with technology today but the risks of massive complexity are not adequately appreciated and the NHS, in particular, has often been guilty of biting off more than it can chew. Risks, including security risks, are neglected by over ambitious managers egged on by service companies which over promise. IT professionals would do well to follow the U.S. Navy design principle from 1960s: Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). The idea being that systems often work best if they are kept simple so simplicity should be a key design goal.

In a way, large organisations can be considered “systems” akin to computer systems with information and human beings as their components. Starting around the 1990s the corporate world began trying to design intelligence into the system. They called it Process Reengineering and, in part, it is responsible for efficiency gains in the past couple of decades. The idea was that you pay consultants to ask all your most gifted staff what they do and why. The consultants then draw up a lot of workflows and “processes” to reflect how the organisation works. After that they reengineer the processes to make them more efficient. That was the idea. In fact what happened was that, wherever possible, they ensured that each process was simple enough that it could be performed by a numpty so that staff costs could be drastically reduced. This was good for efficiency but it resulted in those idiotic call centres with people incapable of responding to new situations.

No problem! cried the consultants. We’ll build another set of processes called “Kaizen” or “continuous improvement” where failures will be recorded and teams will work to refine the processes. While removing the need for gifted people they would design intelligence into the system itself. This sounds good too but a problem is emerging which cannot be solved by more of the same.

We have become indoctrinated with the idea that all human endeavour can be reduced to a written document, a set of processes which can be followed like a computer program. But it can’t. The idea that the system can be intelligent is bollocks.

Modern organisations and systems are so complex that staff are given view of only a small part. Not all staff are numpties obviously but managers will use cheap, low skill labour wherever possible and most work in silos having experience only of following instructions and not thinking for themselves. As staff become more senior they move away from technical aspects and become bogged down in a set of management processes such as annual assessments and negotiating. Nobody is encouraged to gain any understanding of the system as a whole. Standards such as ITIL and PRINCE2 are useful but often seen as disciplines in themselves rather than tools to assist the technical process.

I recall being a member of an improvement team which gathered 8 people together for an hour in the first meeting where nothing was discussed but the name of the team! Another team had a mission to bring the elapsed time of a process down to zero and no matter how hard people explained that it was physically impossible to achieve anything in no time at all this could not be understood by the “customer representative”.

The nature of good IT security is that it exhibits no obvious results other than an absence of breaches. This combined with the obsession with process means that many companies pay lip service to security and cross their fingers. Security becomes, like everything else, a paper exercise where the staff tasked to operate the “security controls” to prevent malware are of such a junior level as to be unable to understand or defend the the controls’ importance in the face of constant pressure for greater efficiency from non-technical managers.

It is time to treat IT Security the way we treat Safety. In a reputable shipping company if a security officer decides that a ship is unsafe it doesn’t sail. They don’t blame the security officer they blame the guys tasked with keeping the ship in good repair. The management will not accept the risk of loss of expensive ships, cargo or, worse still, loss of life. Most large scale engineering infrastructure is also subject to stringent safety standards which must be met before passing into production. Contrast this with the sloppy way many IT systems are implemented.

The ongoing palava surrounding fake news is not a security breach in itself but it is related to the integrity of our information systems. In a recent BBC Panorama program the Facebook Policy Director, Simon Milner, was asked repeatedly to quantify how much money they make through “fake news”. Instead of being open or admitting that he didn’t know he flagrantly just repeated his silly little sound-bite preceded by “we take the issue very seriously” and this is what the IT industry does with IT Security. It trots out platitudes while treating security as secondary to business as usual.

At the time of writing the attacks on the NHS had yet to result in fatalities but it can be only a matter of time. Perhaps then, we’ll all start taking it seriously.

The Prince George to The Dog & Duck

Dalston Lane

Dalston Lane

Up The Smoke again Thursday. London Bridge Station goes from strength to strength. A new exit carved from the platform directly into a street packed with The Children of Thatcher. Now mature adults. All thoroughly indoctrinated. “No such thing as society. We are all individuals. We must all compete. No alternative to markets. Our work is our identity. Our preferences are our community”. A legacy of materialism bequeathed by a generation of hippies turned bankers.

Even so……it’s the month of May and I’m in London. Busy streets, tall buildings, big red buses and still a trace of soot in the air. Commercialisation of everything continues apace but London is big and complicated and it takes time. London endures. There is still time before some marketing “creative” decides to advertise brand London by putting a picture of a London bus on the side of a London bus.

12:30pm in Dalston but hipsters drink coffee so The Prince George is shut. The campaign to save the parade of run down shops along Dalston Lane has not been in vain. They have had a facelift to make them accdeptable to the gentry. Facades in tasteful green and authentic looking retro brass spot lights. As yet there are no tenants but we can have fun guessing the nature of the new retailers. Artisan bakeries? Cycle shops selling carbon fibre frames? A contrast from the ghastly Indian restaurant, the taxi office and the chippy.

In the West End technology has done for the area around Centre Point. No teenage school boys flock to Tottenham Court Road to gaze longingly at Quad and Tandberg but settle for a Garrard SP25 Mark IV. No letters fly between New York playwrights and antiquarian booksellers in Charing Cross Road. The Cross Rail development has doomed even poor Denmark Street. Attempts to save it merely resulted in developers realising they’d missed a marketing opportunity and its dead past is to be the theme for a commercial complex including “An 800-seat subterranean performance venue” (according to Wikipedia). Very soon tourists will flock there to buy T-shirts and tick off “Tin Pan Alley” from their bucket list.

Krishna Outside The Dog and Duck on Bateman Street a handful of punters stood enjoying their pints. I sank a few myself and the handful became a throng. A patrolling  bouncer ensured we stood behind a yellow line painted on the pavement. As the population increases more measures are needed to keep us in order. There are even ideas of introducing rules for where to stand on the escalators!

We talk of prehistoric man and Catalonia and motorcycles and science as a religion. We convince the potman that our friend in the dark suit is  an undertaker. A gaggle of Hare Krishna followers are heard before they are seen trooping up Frith Street as they have done for decades. Then tottering up Dean, across Great Marlborough and on to Oxford Circus. Then Victoria and home. Thankfully I no longer do this for a living so avoided the monstrous queue for cabs at Brighton station and took the bus.

Royal Academy of Arts – Propaganda and Culture

Grant WoodUp The Smoke Friday night. Two very good exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. “America after the Fall, Paintings in the 1930s” had a lot of work that had been overshadowed by more fashionable, abstract styles. Some, like Grant Wood, were almost childlike yet others dealt with gritty issues such as Thomas Hart Benton who depicted the lot of African Americans in the 30s.

Then “Revolution, Russian Art 1917-1932”. Very clever to juxtapose the two exhibitions. The Soviet art all industry and architecture, peasants and athletes. Mostly paintings but some sculpture and a few examples of tableware depicting socialist aparatchiks. A fantastic painting of Lenin showing humanity in his face perhaps painted before he was completely obscured by politics. Most of the work fairly authoritarian and ideological of course but, for me, this had an odd resonance with 21st century political correctness – Every TV American police chief a black man; a token gay in every sit-com and womans “turn” to play Doctor Who. Creative control managed by check lists. New York and London as templates for the world. 21st Century political correctness is no less social engineering than the Soviet art.

I’m starting to wonder if all ideologies follow a similar curve. They start with an optimistic minority encouraging various causes (equality, community, solidarity, diversity) and end by a  authoratarian minority “calling out” anyone with nuanced opinions for straying too far from the script.

Eat Up

Eat Up

Within the past week, Ming Campbell appears to have banned the word “foreigner” and the woman who has run Woman’s Hour for the last thirty years has been told her opinions on womanhood are “hurtful”. In the end people get sick of pictures of commissars on their dinner plates.

The exhibition was very busy and we had to book a specific time for the visit to allow the proprietor to maximize the profit from the art. Lou Reed claimed that he was an artist and not a businessman but these days you couldn’t fit a cigarette paper between the two. In the 21st Century all human endeavor is business and paintings are just another piece of capital infrastructure like cotton mills or computers. They must be worked continuously to maximise efficiency.

Many companies run night shifts to ensure work is constantly shoveled into their machines and the RAA should do likewise. Flexible pricing, discounts for coach trips and vouchers given away with donuts. Load smoothing. Bill Gates or Phillip Green might pay extra for a glass of champagne and the right to hold a party there. Students could be given discounts to squeeze in before 6am. The key is to ensure that at least somebody is being pushed past the art 24 x 7. I hear that they’ve installed a conveyor belt for the Mona Lisa…or was that the Crown Jewels? Of course nobody would want to visit at 3am so you could pack in the homeless. Have some art millionaire claim government funding for bringing “culture” to the masses. All the drunks and druggies herded in after closing time. Tab smoking warehousemen in khaki coats pushing them along with wide brushed old brooms.

Didn’t I see a BBC Four program about using Virtual Reality to view real art? Why not use HD cameras to import physical artworks into computers then kit out Battersea Power Station with ten thousand VR headsets. Have cruise ships dock there and herd the tourists inside and let them blunder around in the dark. Better still let them plug in from home. Email them the template file to print a VR headset on their 3D printers. While we’re at it we could also digitise the inside of a single London apartment and flog it ten thousand times as an investment.

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station

As my train crawled back across Grosvenor Bridge I noticed that Battersea Power Station is now almost completely surrounded by luxury flats for Chinese investors. This is a key policy of the Vision for London. Every historical landmark to be entombed in a block of flats and the flats flogged to rich foreigners as investments. Battersea Power Station will be followed by St Paul’s Cathedral and The Royal Albert Hall. The Vision was developed by PWC and is entitled “Selling Our Arse – Profit through globalisation and diversity¨.

This is what The Soviets should have done with Chernobyl really. Built a sarcophagus of apartments around it and included a viewing platform and theatre as a sop to the left. That was the trouble with your Soviets, no commercial sense. Beautiful “wheat fields, Over Kiev and down to the sea” but a complete failure to grasp the economic potential of making a drama out of a crisis.

Who is Alain de Botton? – at Ropetackle

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Who is Alain de Botton? Anyone? – A philosopher? Some kind of author…… isn’t he? …. That guy who did all the stairs going up and down?….Or was that Escher?……he wrote that book, didn’t he?…what was it called….

I know the name Alain de Botton but I have no idea why. Probably he’s been mentioned in the media so many times in relation to something or other that I’m interested in that his name is now embedded in my consciousness but I can’t recall anything he said or did. So, when City Books announced that he’d be speaking at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham, I decided to go along.

The venue was packed and as Mr. Botton took the stage his head was strangely illuminated in electric blue and bright red like a poorly received television signal an effect not helped by his throat mic rendering his voice from speakers located elsewhere. For the first few minutes I had the imrpession of some kind of ventriloquist telepresence…..or was that just me?

For some reason I had expected a sort of puzzle solving psychological/philosophical slant to the evening. Tricks, techniques and lots of rhetroical questions. But Mr. Botton was having none of that. Like a comedian on a panel show, he was whimsical and insightful. I’m tempted to say that his style was that of a machine gun but it was not so aggressive or fast. Perhaps a child’s pop gun made from soft wood with plastic bullets chugging out digestible dollops of wisdom, thunk, thunk,. thunk.

Mr. Botton has just published a novel entitled “The Course Of Love” but I knew nothing of this. He told us that he would not discuss the novel but various ideas surrounding the novel.

His topic was love and how we go about it all wrong. How it takes us well into our forties to learn and accept failures in ourselves which can be spotted by complete strangers after talking to us for just five minutes. Our friends know of course but never tell us……. until it’s too late.

He blames Romanticism which, against thousands of years of tradition and all rational thought, presupposes that, for everyone alive, there is another perfect match if only we can find them. That, when we find this special someone, we shall know immediately that we have met the love of our life and that person will fulfil our every need.

In the 21st century we accept that education and training are required for every aspect of our lives from getting a job, to learning to drive to public speaking. We are obsessed with this idea and now even embrace the concept of “lifelong learning“. Only one area of life is excempt from learning and that is love. Romanticism rejects the idea that marriages should be founded on family ties and practicalities and dictates that we should choose our partners based on instinct. We should “just know”.

In truth we all have types that we are attracted to and these types are imprinted on us in our childhood. When we seek a romantic partner we are instinctively seeking someone who will love us in the same weird way that we were loved as children. And since, most of us are, in many ways, psychologically damaged by our childhood, we are really seeking someone who will torture us in the same was as our parents did. A remote father or an alcoholic mother translate into similar spousal choices.

Once we find this person we expect perfection. Again, this is the only area of life where this is applicable. We fool ourselves that our partner is perfect. We expect them to know what we’re thinking. There is no need to finish sentences, words are for the little people. We are in love.

We ignore their flaws…but we can only ignore them for so long and then one day we burst out: “Stop chewing so bloody loudly, you always do that and you sound like a cow!” – our partner us mortified. Or we sulk because they have done something that they SHOULD HAVE KNOWN annoyed us. But we wont tell them. We expect telepathy.

Mr. Botton’s style is conversational and chatty but he drops bombshells of well formed prose: “Catastrophic outbreaks of sulking”, “I may have married an idiot”.

We are expected to love EVERYTHING about our partners even the odd and grotesque imperfections. Mr. Botton, rarely pauses, he presses on with more and more examples of the idiocy of modern romance. The aversion we have to being changed. Again, contrary to every other aspect of our lives where we constantly seek improvement, if our beloved tries to change us, that’s it! Break up is imminent.

One of the most interesting ideas emerged during the question and answer session when Mr. Botton was asked if smartphone dating apps would assist in the pursuance of love. He pointed out that modern computer dating is a mere continuation of the romantic ideal as it places all the emphasis on search and selection. It assumes that there is a perfect partner out there just waiting for us to find them and then supplies the miracle of computing to attempt to identify the correct partner. It has no more hope of success than meeting random strangers at a party.

Mr. Botton seems to accept that our partners may change us and that we should allow relationships to grow. In previous centuries, when our 2 year old daughter threw her breakfast on the floor we may have punished her but in these enlightened days we know that we must try to understand her and teach her how to behave. Yet we would never dream of extending the same love and care to our romantic partners. He sugests that we need to nurture our partners. I guess his thesis can be summed up in his statement: “We need to learn how to love”.

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2011

A couple of years ago I became excited about an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the WeekSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. I have just read it and it’s fantastic! An insightful take on the complete history and pre-history of humanity. In short, Homo sapiens existed for around 70,000 years as hunter gatherers and then, around ten thousand years ago, transitioned to agriculture. Only in the last thousand years or so have we become industrialised. The book contrasts the different stages of humanity, how our physiology is still basically hunter gather and how, in many ways, humanity was better off before we settled down.

Mr. Harari is an Israeli tenured professor at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a very clever man. He explains that while hunter gatherers may have had no access to the benefits of modern medicine, television or draft excluders their lives were spent fulfilling their instincts. They were not driven to work all the hours God sends. When we settled down as farmers the effect was not to give us leisure time but to make us work harder, support more people and have any excess value creamed off by an elite. Harari’s focus is not merely that of a dry history professor. He gives great examples such archaeological records showing that ancient farmers had severe back problems due to constant stooping.

He notices how our expectations change with society. Many young people start off in life thinking that they will work hard, make money and retire at forty only to become accustomed to good wine, luxury cars and prestige.

SapiensHe explains how our readiness to believe in myths underpins much of our civilisation and by myths he is not only talking only of King Arthur and Jesus. He’s talking about stuff that we believe in that does not physically exist. Money, Nation and the Public Limited Company. These myths depend on what he terms the intersubjective. That is something that does not objectively exist nor is it purely subjective. In a way, it is an illusion which is agreed upon by society because it is useful. The concept of the nation allows us to work together in large group and the concept of money allows us to trade with complete strangers.

In the early 21st century we all proclaim the mantras of equality and individualism but can it be coincidence that we all believe the same thing? Obviously our beliefs are, to a large extent, programmed by society. The belief in individualism and equality proliferates because it is useful for capitalism to have a population with few ties who can be easily moved from one task to another.

We all consider that a wide range of experiences are beneficial and it is common for young lovers to whisk themselves off to Paris for a romantic weekend. Yet, the elite of ancient Egypt would have never dreamed of wasting their wealth on taking their new love to some foreign land. They would much prefer to impress their intended by building a gigantic tomb.

To my mind Mr. Harari’s book begins to fade somewhat as he approaches the present and extrapolates the future as the themes he chooses seem fairly arbitrary. Yet as a whole the book is jam packed with ideas which must be well known in their respective disciplines yet unfamiliar to the layman. When placed together they represent a profound understanding of the state of mankind today.

2017-02-13-10-47-44Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindHe explains how, prior to fully developed capitalism, the rich would hoard or spend their money. Capitalism introduced the idea of investing capital to generate more capital which in turn produces economic activity and this has powered the industrial and technological revolutions. But the dependence of Capitalism on future profits raises the worrying concern that it is not possible for capitalism to reach an equilibrium. It must continually develop new products, services and markets in order to grow. Without growth, the system collapses. He suggests that capitalism has evolved a society which can only be run by capitalists. Perhaps this explains why opposition to capitalism seems so difficult: Other forms of society do not generate the material wealth to which we have become accustomed.

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindHe also considers that we have achieved, to a large extent, a global society. Most forms of currency are freely exchangeable and it is possible to trade across the whole of the globe. Our religions are stabilising around fairly similar concepts of a single god and similar moral standards. Written prior to BREXIT and Trump, Harari suggests that notions such as the extended family, nation and race are now withering and being replaced with brand loyalty and lifestyle communities. In many ways, society has been shattered into atomised individuals which more readily useful to a global capitalist system.

His predictions of the future are fairly conventional including genetically modification and silicon based life but it his easily accessible narative of the history of humanity and the context in which we live that Harari marks this book apart. The evolution of the human species is not merely biological but cognitive. Our society and our sociology is evolving and with this in mind we should probably not become overly obsessed or self-riotous about our current dogmas. These, like everything else, will pass.