From artisan coffee to road-worn guitars, Beyoncé to Sartre — what does authenticity really mean?

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, North London, earlier this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee-shop, had just learned to their horror that supermarket chain Tesco owned a 49% stake in the company. Tearful caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset”, since they thought it was an “independent” coffee-shop. A rival coffee-hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values”, though presumably he was too. Most charmingly, the manager of the controversial café confided that head office “had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible”. “We try to be independent,” she said. “We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.”

She’s right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is just one symptom of our current predicament: there is no way out of the simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still just a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminate, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now just another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

11 February 2013

Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is it us?

It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

1 February 2013

Best European Fiction 2013, ed Aleksandar Hemon

In a European short story, anything can happen, whereas in an American short story, it is almost guaranteed that nothing will. This richly strange collection of tales, from all over the old continent, features a nameless thing growing behind a television set, an itinerant theatre troupe who take Brechtian alienation to alarming extremes, and a music shop in which you can buy a CD of Oscar Peterson’s nonexistent “solo recorder recital” in 1967 New York. Aleksandar Hemon’s agreeably obstreperous introduction to his fourth edited anthology itself offers a couple of rough-and-ready heuristics for identifying European writers – they will, for example, show a “disinclination to entertain by deploying TV-friendly banalities masked as social commentary” (I confess I immediately thought of Jonathan Franzen) – but he rapidly tires of the whole question. “For the past few years, every single review of the anthology brought up the question: what is European fiction? I am happy to report I have no clue.”

Read the rest at the Guardian.

19 January 2013

It’s a melancholy fate for any writer to become an eponym for all that he despised, but that is what happened to George Orwell, whose memory is routinely abused in unthinking uses of the adjective “Orwellian”. On Monday it is “Orwell Day”, the 63rd anniversary of his death. This year also marks the more pleasantly round number of 110 years since his birth (on 25 June), so there is a Radio 4 series about him forthcoming, and Penguin are reissuing his works, including a standalone edition of “Politics and the English Language” for 99p.

“Politics” is Orwell’s most famous shorter work, and probably the most wildly overrated of any of his writings. Much of it is the kind of crackpot screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers. So why do so many people still genuflect in its direction?

Read the rest at the Guardian.

17 January 2013

Downtrodden employees of the world, take heart: a rebel hero walks among us. A man in his mid-40s, identified in reports only as “Bob”, was a star programmer earning a six-figure salary at an American infrastructure company. When the company commissioned a network-security audit, they belatedly discovered that “Bob” had outsourced his own job to a Chinese software company for a fifth of his pay. Relieved of his workload, Bob would spend his entire office day on the internet, flicking from eBay to Facebook to cat videos, before writing a progress-report email for his bosses and knocking off at 5pm. Sadly, upon finding out how resourcefully Bob had managed his own productivity, the firm sacked him rather than marvelling at his initiative and promoting him to senior management.

Described as a “family man” and “quiet and inoffensive”, Bob is a tech-wizard Bartleby for an age of “flexible” labour markets.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

19 December 2012

Genes, Cells and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon.

This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

7 December 2012

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson thinks you might be a toy company. After telling the heartwarming anecdote of how he fabricated some doll’s house furniture for his daughters using a new 3D printer – which works like an inkjet printer but sprays down layers of liquefied plastic to make a solid object – the former Wired editor says he might never buy doll’s house furniture again. “If you’re a toy company,” Anderson threatens, “this story should give you chills.” I didn’t get chills, but then I’m not a toy company. This is the sort of book, however, that is mainly aimed at corporate persons, and at individuals only to the extent that they work for corporate persons, cherishing the dream of becoming an “entrepreneur”, that perfection of the human spirit to which all human history, at least as Anderson recounts it, has been leading.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Like every other era, the internet age has its own class of booster gurus. They are the “cybertheorists”, embedded reporters of the social network, dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

8 November 2012

On the history and future of human enhancement

In The Matrix, one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: “Only human.” Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven humans themselves, over the millennia, to pursue self-enhancement. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been “only human” in the sense of getting through life solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all these are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body, and thus enhancements. Even clothes, adopted according to the Bible after a moment of Edenic shame at what is “only human”, are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Now, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hi-tech prostheses enable some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen; cyborgs; post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

6 November 2012

Recent news suggests an internal war at Apple over its “skeuomorphic” interface designs: making software visually resemble real-world physical objects. I here republish my anti-skeuomorphist manifesto of February 2011, originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily.

Please tear your eyes away from this elegant and curiously seductive prose for a few seconds and look at what surrounds this webpage on your display. Unless you are browsing in full-screen “kiosk” mode or kicking it old-school with Lynx, chances are your browser program is designed to look like some sort of machine. It will have been crafted to resemble aluminium or translucent plastic of varying textures, with square or round or rhomboid buttons and widgets in delicate pseudo-3D gradients, so they look solid, and animate with a shadowed depth illusion when you click them. Me, I hate this stuff. I think it’s not only useless but pernicious and sometimes actively misleading. Won’t you please join me in declaring War on Chrome? Continued →

25 October 2012

In this week’s New Statesman comes more saddening evidence that foodists have trouble understanding any text longer than a menu or a recipe. Self-confessed foodist William Skidelsky’s review of my book, You Aren’t What You Eat, takes the rather courageous tack of actually denying that foodism is culturally omnipresent:

Modern-day Britain doesn’t strike me as a country obsessed by food.

What? Really?

A fast-growing minority of people, it’s true, take cooking and eating extremely seriously, perhaps to the point of overkill. Yet what this group has to do with the millions who tune into Gordon Ramsay’s or Jamie Oliver’s latest TV show, I don’t know.

Um, they are both obsessed with food? Continued →

17 October 2012

Late one Friday evening, my phone played the codec-out sound from Metal Gear Solid, and an email arrived. My stolen laptop had been taken online, and now — like a resourceful kidnap victim — it was phoning home, unknown to its captor. The laptop was beaming back all the information needed to rescue it. And so began one of the strangest episodes so far of my life with technology. Continued →

12 October 2012

According to his bio, the Wall Street Journal writer and professional foodist Bruce Palling has “an intense relationship with food”, and “indulges his passion for fine food and wine in most continents”. In a spirit of collegial charity, I will suppose that only an unfortunate pre-deadline overindulgence in this dual passion, “in” at least one continent, can explain the style and content of his review of my book, You Aren’t What You Eat. Continued →

4 October 2012

An extract from my new book, You Aren’t What You Eat, was published in the Guardian; another one at Hazlitt magazine; and another in the Herald. It is out now in the UK & Eire, Australia, and North America. More information and reviews now at the book’s own page here. Bon appetit!