My Corona

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It seems to render all irrelevant:

the selfishness of each of us,

the tiny hopes and dreams we held,

as if a shroud had dropped upon us all,

a leveller if ever there was levelling,

our lives on hold, the future now postponed.

 

Or is it only in my head? For when I step outside

the cordoned zone that is our home,

the world looks pretty much the same.

There are no bodies in the lane,

the strapping dads are pushing strollers in the park,

the planes are roaring overhead.

 

But sure as hell, my missus and her mate

will not be seeing Rome in May.

We may be dead by June.

More likely we will wonder at contagion,

at this tabloid Armageddon

and the rumours pushed by half-informed buffoons.

 

The core of all is insignificance,

irrelevance of what one’s done:

these words in notebooks, washed away and powerless

against the force of what is coming anyway.

Fighting for our lives: Shoshana Zuboff’s Age

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SHOSHANA ZUBOFF’S The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has followed me around for the last two months, ever since my eldest son gave me the paperback edition for Christmas.

I’m relieved to report that I have finally reached the end of its 500-plus pages (not including the even denser 130 pages of notes) and feel compelled to recommend it – more than that, to urge everyone to read it, however slowly, as an act of what Naomi Klein in her blurb called “digital self-defence”.

Subtitled The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, The Age is a truly phenomenal thing: a bible of indignant protest at the deeply sinister manoeuvres that Google, Facebook et al. have gotten away with in the last 15 years. Zuboff writes a rigorous, hypnotic, almost monotonously poetic prose that rams home the jaw-dropping infringements on not just our privacy but our human nature – hoovered up as “behavioural surplus” for Silicon Valley’s “renditions” of every move we make and every breath we take.

More than anything, the great fear is that the numbing impact of Big Tech’s “inevitablist” appropriation of our souls – and distortion of our democratic values – has been so stealthy and so uncontested that the youngest human generation will not realise their freedom has gone, allowing a new totalitarianism to take root and take control of all human life.

Reading Zuboff – a true prophet for our terrifying times – prompts me to dig up a poem I wrote almost four years ago on a trip to San Francisco: a visit on which I witnessed how the soulless geniuses of “the Valley” had destroyed the social fabric of a great American city… and how, unchallenged and unchecked, they will inevitably destroy the social fabric of human trust, reciprocity and freedom.

Zuboff deserves a medal of honour for this heroic book.

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Disruption

 

Was I ever young and thrusting?

I was young but dumb – and timid too.

I typed out words with clattering keys

before the words got processed by PCs

and all got sucked into the seas.

 

I have a foot stuck in the past,

the other’s stepping terrified.

A crazy scrum of lemmings on a cliff,

we drop into abysses hollowed out by billionaires

and nerds in UberCHOPPERS

scheming to replace us with machines.

 

We’re prey for predators, we’re tapping at our phones,

the zombie surfers of the shallow flats:

too busy sucking up the glut of pointless stuff to see

we are the product we’re consuming,

mere regurgitated selves.

 

And so I sit, a broken frightened man, half in, half out.

My soul’s been digitised to death,

an insect flailing in their web.

 

Perhaps it all will be alright:

the maniacs may yet recall

that life is flesh and feeling,

writhing mess and mass that can’t be mapped

by algorithmic fiends.

King of the Weirdo Misfits: My 1993 interview with the great William Gibson

The deranged Dominic Cummings’ recent call-out for weirdos & misfits out of William Gibson novels prompted me to dig out this Vogue profile of the cyberpunk seer, whom I interviewed in Vancouver in the summer of 1993. I liked him so much, and so much of what he said in this piece was so eerily prescient – and, frankly, terrifying.

 

 

Against Narrativity

bruce

(with apologies to Galen Strawson)

 

Bruce on Broadway, born to run and run,

the burr of Everyman whose tales of bars and father

constitute the story of a life well done.

So why does life for me instead feel like a murky mess,

disjointed, pointless, scattered, inconclusive,

never like the lives in songs and films?

For only there is our existence tragic, glorious

or merely meaningful; only there is life a valiant lie

delivered by a righteous standup guy.

Munch’s Girls: Oslo, 2014

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I’ve lapped this circuit once before,

and stopped before the girl in Puberty,

the long wrists crossing her pudenda still.

I’ve turned from wanting to protect her,

scanned The Dance of Life from left to right and birth to death,

tried not to see that leering fiendish face lean in,

and of course have heard the Skrik that sounds around the world.

 

Today the one that caught me and called out from its frame:

the study of the trio on the bridge,

a moment frozen for all time that nonetheless

moves form and matter so all swirls and flows,

vibrates as matter does,

the stilled and staring girls themselves a single shape in aureole,

road rushing down in shooting lines

and all forms molding into one another

as the physics mystics say they do.

 

I stood intoxicated, psychedelicized,

stood swimming in those lines and shapes

and saw again how all great painting takes the apprehended world

and melts it down to show it as a single intermingled thing.

In three dimensions we’re deceived, believe we are

discrete and solid selves,

and so we stop upon the bridge and scream.

 

National Gallery, Oslo, February 2014

civil war

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I try to stay away,

stay off the grid, resist

the impulse to let fly.

No good can come of this:

I cannot change your mind.

 

But sometimes I’m too stoked,

I have to vent or else explode.

And then the invitation’s there: please step this way.

The silo and the echo chamber usher in

the apoplexies of the day.

 

So up it goes, the link, the pic, the facile howl.

I’ve posted what was “on your mind”,

I’ve shared the shit that swills about the brain

and straightway know the soapbox hollowness

of howling out the pain.

 

But still I leave it there and still I check

who Liked, who Commented,

my very own below-the-line:

the kitchen-table trolls and, worst of all,

the Friends who seem entirely blind.

 

I thought I knew them,

thought they had a heart,

but here they are, they’re fuming,

fulminating, spewing out their poison.

Even worse, they’re quoting Jordan Peterson.

hate again

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Ahead of the POTUS’ UK visit next week, a limey snowflake writes…

 

The massed white faces in the blood-red caps

are what the monster sees and what he needs to feed,

but still I ask myself if they believe or merely

blind themselves to creeping evil and to cruelty

they never would have countenanced before.

Are these God-fearin’ folks the enemy

and must I hate them as they hate the likes of me?

 

For in the end I’m unconvinced they want

the opposite of what I want.

Without the monster stoking fear

they would not sneer

at children torn from Mama’s arms

and would not harden like Good Germans

laughing at old pelted Jews.

 

If we could talk, not be transfixed

by terror of the Other,

we might see instead we are

a single species in the stars.

 

I fear it is too late, for they are drunk on hate,

with little left to lose and limitless supplies

of folks who aren’t like them to vilify.

Only disconnect: Jaron Lanier in London

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A rare visit to our capital by the brilliant Jaron Lanier, in conversation in the wonderful (and appropriate) Marx Memorial Library with dapper Idler host Tom Hodgkinson (centre) and trenchant Guardian columnist John Harris (left). Lanier brought, and played (thrillingly), two of his obscure wind instruments and addressed the main points from his brand-new Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He is a genuinely fascinating Silicon Valley maverick and I urge you to read all his books. He and his like may be all that stand between us and a dystopian hi-tech nightmare of total control and dehumanisation. (N.B. the Socialist Society banner below was apparently woven by William Morris and his son…)

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Judd Apatow’s Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

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LAST NIGHT I finally came to the end of Judd Apatow’s extraordinary four-hour film about the late Garry Shandling – the so-called Zen Diaries of said comedian.
As the director of There’s Something About Mary read aloud a letter that Shandling had written to the older brother who’d died, as a child, of cystic fibrosis, I completely lost it – I broke down and sobbed. I’d come to the close of a remarkable, hilarious, neurotic life haunted by the loss of Barry Shandling (a death never explained to the little brother) and felt overwhelmed by compassion for the witheringly brilliant creator of the meta-show about host Larry Sanders.
It made me realise how much Shandling and his Comedy Store peers – a particular strain of American-Jewish humour that slices through to the heart of the human condition – have meant to me. And it prompted this short distillation of gratitude for the sheer fearlessness of Shandling, Seinfeld, Silverman, Larry David – and of Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and the many who came before them. Out of such pain has come the purest comedic joy I’ve ever known.

 

comedy store

Always I’m in awe of them:

unsparing men and salty women

lancing my illusions

and my gentile self-delusions.

No hugging and no learning,

nothing left to lose:

ancestral agony of pogroms

and the terrors of the Zyklon B.

The balls it takes to work that space,

illusion of a mastery that masks

the backstage whimper of a fevered need:

  “You think they liked me?”

“Man, you killed out there.”