March 22, 2010

When The Age of Absurdity appeared I hoped that the world would give me a break and stop being absurd for a while but of course it has carried right on and in heartbreaking ways that would have been perfect for the book.

For instance, an efficient new way to update your friends is via the Withings wi-fi bathroom scales that do not just provide a weight reading but instantly tweet this to your social network. Many other such labour-saving communicators will surely follow. Without even leaving the bathroom, how about a wi-fi toilet that first murmurs, thank you for your input, then analyses the day’s achievement with a readout of weight, composition, transit time and delivery rate and finally tweets all this crucial information to your friends? If you should suffer an entirely unproductive day, the caring, supportive toilet will inform all your friends of the problem and, as contemporary friends should, they will be ‘there for you’ with messages of consolation and reassurance.

But the big new thing in gadgets is Augmented Reality, the very name proving my point that reality as we know it is no longer up to the job. Traditional reality is grey, dreary, sluggish and boring. But now Augmented Reality offers special goggles that can recognise your environment and perk it up with relevant images and information. This could be a godsend for frustrated singletons. Imagine being able to go into a bar, focus on someone attractive and have flashed up before your eyes this person’s internet history – all the books, music and movies ordered recently. You could even be provided with a chat-up routine based on these tastes. Of course goggles would be a bit of a bummer for pulling – but the technology will soon be available in contact lenses.

And as reality needs to become more fantastic, fantasy needs to become more real. It should soon be possible to incorporate images from real life into pornography and games – Reality-Augmented Fantasy. So after a hard day at the office you could insert yourself into your favourite porn scene and then, refreshed and empowered, return to the office in a wrath-of-God vengeance game where you yourself would be the implacable avenger, first calling in helicopter gunships to soften the place up a little with a rocket attack and then moving in to mop up with an RPG launcher, assault rifle, flame thrower and hunting knife.

As for screen fantasy, I acknowledged that the screen world has long since exceeded reality – but missed the perfect example of this in the 3D phenomenon. Apparently, after seeing Avatar many cinema-goers find the real world so disappointing that they become depressed and even suicidal. Though it is difficult to keep up with the dimensions. Already a South Korean cinema chain is offering 4D, which includes smell, and an American company called Silver Odyssey will soon bring to London a 5D experience adding taste. The obvious next development is 6D, where the sixth dimension is touch and, during a movie’s intimate love scenes, cinema staff visit all parts of the theatre to fondle patrons.

On celebrity culture, I regret not being able to include a recent conversation with a retired primary school teacher. This woman said that, when she started teaching, children wanted to be train drivers or nurses, later they wanted to be actors or pop stars and by the end of her career they just wanted to be famous. If asked, famous for what, they said, dunno just want to be famous. So, to complete the decoupling of celebrity from talent, there ought to be a TV talent show for the talentless. On Celebrity Idol the contestants would not have to sing or dance but merely demonstrate an aptitude for celebrity by urinating on the floor in nightclubs, punching photographers and smashing cameras and making a public apology to a spouse for repeatedly cheating in motels and limos.

On tourism, I listed in the book some of the new concepts developed for the jaded traveller, for instance slum tourism and dark tourism (visits in air-conditioned buses to concentration camps and torture sites). Now LA Gang Tours provides a two-hour journey through South Central Los Angeles visiting ‘high-profile gang areas’ and offering a souvenir T-shirt saying, ‘I Got Shot in South Central’. Some astute entrepreneur should develop a UK equivalent – Tower Block and Problem Estate Heritage Tours, where, at the end of the trip, each tourist is presented with a personalised ASBO.

And the USA is also at the forefront of sports innovation. I thought nothing could compete with Competitive Eating but a serious new contender is Freestyle Alligator Wrestling (FAW), which gives contestants ten minutes to dive into a pool, seize an alligator, drag it out and perform stunts such as inserting hands, head or genitals into the brute’s open jaws. In fact FAW is not new but a revival of a traditional Seminole Indian sport. Competitions are staged in the Okalee Indian Village, though this is not on a reservation but part of the Seminole Hard Rock casino complex in Hollywood, Florida. The Seminole organisers, shrewd businessmen who have made a fortune out of gambling, see ‘major growth potential’. The UK, short of alligators, could create the indigenous sport of FPW (Freestyle Pitbull Wrestling).

At least the UK may be leading the world in innovative eating out. The concept of the chef’s table in the kitchen has been taken further by a restaurant in Kensington where, for a hefty sum, two privileged diners may eat direct from the chef’s worktop, a new experience well worth the discomfort of sitting sideways on stools and being spattered by grease. Short of climbing into the pan with the seared scallops, it is difficult to see how anyone could get closer to the action. But, to make the kitchen more widely accessible, new restaurants could be designed like boxing arenas, with an open-plan cooking area in the middle and diners charged extra for gasringside seats. Those seated further away would of course be provided with screens to follow the kitchen drama and/or see what everyone else is eating.

So much to look forward to! I will obviously have to write a sequel – Beyond Absurdity, closely followed by Absurdity: the Next Generation and Absurdity: Resurrection. Then others will take the franchise forward with Absurdity V, Absurdity VI and so on to infinity.

Because Absurdity Rules and will reign in glory till the end of time.


January 13, 2010
It began several years ago when an old friend and I, reviewing over a glass of wine our confused and confusing lives, wondered if there was any consensus among thinkers of different kinds on how to live. Do philosophers, religious teachers and literary writers share any views on human nature and how to make the most of it – and if so what are these views? So far as we knew, no one had attempted this kind of triangulation exercise, no doubt because it would take several lifetimes to research properly these three areas, each with a vast literature stretching back thousands of years. Then, just to simplify matters, we realised that a contemporary consensus search would have to include psychology and neuroscience – it would now have to be a pentangulation. Total insanity, we laughed, and had another glass of wine.

Besides, the thought of writing a what’s-it-all-about book filled me with multiple horrors. The experts, the professional philosophers, religious scholars, psychologists and neuroscientists, would scornfully expose my lack of knowledge and training. My cynical Irish friends would ridicule me as a pretentious wanker. My literary friends would shun me for becoming contaminated by ideas – describe, don’t explain is the central axiom of twentieth-century literature. And everyone would agree that it was insane to venture into ideas as well writing novels and poetry. To be any good in any one of these areas requires a lifetime of dedication. Worst of all, if the book ever got published it might be classified as Self-Help. A happy clappy smiley face? God forbid.

But I’d always been a surreptitious reader of what’s-it-all-about stuff – and now I surreptitiously dug out some of my old black Penguin Classics, shocked and saddened to discover that they were as faded and spotted as their owner. But the ideas they contained were still thrillingly vital – and there were indeed many surprising correspondences. More surprising still, a little research in psychology and neuroscience turned up the same ideas. It seemed that thinkers of all kinds, from all cultures and periods, did indeed say much the same things, often in much the same language.

The next inspiration came from an unlikely source – a contemporary IT student in a baseball cap. I was introducing the first seminar of a new semester, reprising the content of the introductory lecture with an enthusiasm and vibrancy that could have inflated a bouncy castle just by looking at it. When I had finished I turned upon the blank faces the full effulgence needed by the contemporary teacher: ‘Any questions?’

A hand went up in the back row. This was especially gratifying because the cool dudes slumped along the back never ask questions.


            A vexed look came over his features. ‘Is this all it is?’

            What did he expect? This was the module he had chosen and we were following the programme announced and using the material distributed. I was still pondering a response when I realised that he was no longer aware of me but looking out of the window with a troubled expression. His question was directed not so much at me as at the world and life in general. Is this all it is?

            Later still I realised that this question summarised perfectly a common contemporary attitude - a toxic mix of demand, dissatisfaction, resentment and blame. And this attitude is the opposite of everything recommended by the thinkers. So the common strategies they propose have never been more difficult to implement – and a contemporary what’s-it-all-about book would have to address this aspect of the problem, the cultural conditioning of the age.

But there was still something missing. A book should be infused with a personal vision. Finally it came to me that absurdity should be a running theme. The twentieth century discovered that the human condition is essentially absurd – and regarded this discovery as bleak. But the twenty-first century, now accustomed to the notion, can learn to relish absurdity. One of the advantages of this approach is that it encourages a comic vision of life. This is not the bright public smiley face but a private dark laughter at the insanities of the contemporary world.

So the particular brand of snake oil I’m peddling could be defined as Absurd Positivism (or Positive Absurdism). Maybe I should start an Ab Pos Cult with, as a maxim for T-shirts, coffee mugs and fridge magnets: Life is absurd – but divinely absurd.

I certainly don’t believe that there is any way back to simplicity, innocence and faith.

Welcome to The Age of Absurdity.