The Ultimate Ego Trip?

Photo by Steve Soper (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Steve Soper (copied from Flickr)

I once used a website to generate anagrams for my name (my real name, not the pen name I’m palming you off with), and found to my delight that I am in fact “a verb wild sod”. This neat piece of nominative determinism pleases me, as I am a writer, and quite fond of indiscriminately lobbing verbs around.

Behind this joy, of course, there is an assertion: I am a Writer. And it’s a statement many of us have adopted because we are constantly being nagged by real Writers in blogs and books for Writers to think of ourselves that way. Being a Writer carries a certain presence – not for us the normal going-about-one’s-business; we sit back and observe the world, retire to our isolated study, banish the distraction of loved ones, and meticulously craft our messages to the world, our legacy. I get respect from acquaintances who haven’t read a word I’ve written because people describe me as one of these special beings. We are artists, with discipline, and our primary function in this world is to write – although perhaps we don’t take it quite as seriously as William Faulkner, who wrote: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Perhaps what these scribes really want is for us to realise that we are already writers. “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman,” according to Paul Auster, “You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and… you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days”. Or, as one of my university tutors put it, “writing is like a disease, a compulsion. You have to do it even if you don’t want to. If you aren’t born that way, you won’t succeed on this course”. Given that said course had “media” in the title and took anyone with a couple of D-grade A-levels, this caused great discomfort. (Yes, I studied creative writing at university. No, I haven’t had any novels published.)

But the long hard road, the chosen vocation, the isolation of the job – it’s romantic isn’t it? A seductive image – the lonely author straining his eyes by candlelight, dabbing his quill into the ink pot, not even half-way through his magnum opus but fighting against fatigue and the terrible reality of the blank page. Ascetic effort, arcane art. And just maybe something of an ego trip? While Soul Mountain author Gao Xingjian is writing to “ease his suffering […] and re-affirm his own existence,” what are those poor non-writers to do?

There are pitfalls with this whole “I’m a writer” philosophy. It’s a label. I don’t trust labels. To carry a label is to carry a sense of certainty about the nature of one’s self, which seems a dangerous thing to do. The opinions of human beings are inconsistent, and drift like feathers in the wind. The things we believe about ourselves guide the way we act – and the limitations we perceive turn real. The coward, for example, says, “I can’t! I’m a coward,” and he doesn’t. We label others too, as easily as we label ourselves, and the labels that others give us are significant. Do people really know us or have we become what they’ve suggested? To what extent are we what other people, from our parents to our peers, told us we are?

Oh dear. I’m in danger of turning into a Philosopher, which is even more decadent than being a Writer. But stick with me here; my notion is of some inner truth, and I hear that truth is a big concern for us writer-types. It’s said that writers write to discover truth, or even act out truth in their writing to inspire its perception in others. But what if the truth is something we cannot appreciate while locked in the mindset of the writer? Would we put down the pen if it could get us closer to truth? Or would we rather rob our mothers?

The idea of being a writer brings to my mind Nietzsche’s idea of a spectator watching a dance. As we writers watch the world, and congratulate each other on our powers of observation, are we missing out on something? It’s a paradox: the dancer dances without awareness of the action, yet the spectator sees the dance and sometimes wishes he could just be there, inside the dance, oblivious.

I’m not attacking the idea that we should perceive ourselves as writers, merely examining it. After all, it doesn’t seem impossible to combine an innocent joie de vivre with the ability to write about life. The notion of being a writer brings many benefits – discipline, a sense of purpose and self-confidence that all go a long way to make our musings worth reading – and importantly, make us sit down and write them.

I tentatively wonder though whether the writers who get the lion’s share of the Muses’ time are the ones who could give up the prestige of the writing identity – who are so committed to life and truth that they would put their pens down if some capricious god told them if would get them closer to the heartbeat of it all.

Still, if one day I stop being a writer, I can always be something else. And I must admit to being quite enticed by another anagram of my name, “Lord Bad Wives”. Sends my writer’s imagination reeling.

(David Glass is a writer.)

Need an Exit

Photo by BagoGames (copied from Flickr)
Photo by BagoGames (copied from Flickr)

Virtual reality is returning to the public consciousness. Sony have announced a PlayStation 4 headset called Project Morpheus (presumably named after the god of dreams rather than the anti-VR activist of The Matrix), while fifth horseman of the apocalypse Mark Zuckerberg has gobbled up Oculus Rift, a PC-compatible technology largely responsible for the VR renaissance.

The child in me wants a go. I was brought up on Knightmare,and once had the pleasure of being bewildered by the crap polygons of Virtuality (an attempt at VR in the early 90s). The idea of such immersive games has appeal. As mobile technology makes us the last generation who can remember the feeling of getting lost, we could soon experience that confusion afresh in unmapped alien worlds. And who doesn’t want to experience the jump scares of being trapped in an underwater cage in Sony’s heart shark attack simulator The Deep?

There are applications beyond games. These interactive experiences could further blur the lines between games and art. We could explore the surface of Mars, or experience the wonder of safari without leaving crisp packets in jungles. It could even help us grow as people. We could decrease anxiety with biofeedback apps and carefully expose ourselves to stressful situations to build up our tolerance. We could befriend people from foreign lands (like we were going to with the Internet). We could all unite as a big human brain in a global neural network.

But mainly, we’ll use it to secretly masturbate. With wearying inevitability, Oculus Rift has a virtual sex game on the way, called Wicked Paradise. Meanwhile, Gender Swap, an experiment for two participants, will pave the way for you to literally go fuck yourself.

“After games,” frothed Zuckerberg on his press release via status update, “we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face.” So much more gravitas with these carefully picked examples than if he had said “imagine Farmville with real backache”. Cynics like me can be framed as luddites against education and health. He believes “this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people” (as did Facebook). He “can’t wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world”. Scared yet? He believes Oculus could become “the most social platform ever”, implying Facebook would use Oculus as part of its advertising push.

I can’t help but be disappointed that the future isn’t what it used to be. I’d rather our forays into transhumanism have a scuzzy cyberpunk ethos than be plated in shiny blue as Facebook merrily ‘extend[s] to new verticals’. I’d prefer the aesthetics of Tron and The Lawnmower Man to the trivial sheep-shuffling of what Stewart Lee called out as ‘the Angry Birds generation’.

We have a problem. Technology surges forward yet it is developed and marketed to us by capitalists whose chief aim is to make money. In contrast to our rapid technological advances, our evolutionary adaptation is slow to respond. We are overwhelmed by supernormal stimuli that hook straight into our survival systems, a position of weakness systematically mined by the money-makers who, taking Big Food as an example, use lurid colours to attract us to engineered and naturally impossible high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods that melt the moment we put them on our tongue. This moreish food creates damaging insulin spirals, excess fat storage and metabolic derangement, coupled alongside self-reproof as we chasten ourselves and wish we looked more like the oiled Photoshop bodies looking down on us from every quarter.

Technology has blossomed in this environment. It has always changed us and today we contend with internet addiction, a reduced ability to focus and the Facebook blues. Smartphones can make us tired and unproductive and most of us aware enough to care realise how powerful they are in creating compulsive behaviour. Internet porn messes up our reward circuitry and creates increasingly extreme erotic tastes. Check your Facebook settings before you indulge on your Oculus Rift, lest your koala bukkake orgy be visible on your timeline. (Did I mention privacy and how it is almost dead? How Mark Zuckerberg once offered his ‘dumb fuck’ Facebook users’ private data to a friend to show off? I’ve worried about that site on these pages before.)

Meanwhile, the blue light emanating from these devices affects our melatonin production and reduces our sleep quality and quantity; something that can affect emotion, cognitive ability and ability to be realistic about one’s own cognitive impairment. Being tired changes our personality, and most people we know are tired. It makes me wonder – what are we really like?

It seems to me that already, before VR goes mainstream, we’re doing a poor job of tempering the benefits and amusements of consumer technology with moderation and mindfulness about its distracting effects. That word, ‘mindfulness’, may hold the answer. With Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) before it, the secularised ‘technology’ of Buddhist psychology is experiencing a growth in popularity, and at a time when we most need it. There’s an irony in the fact that both the mindfulness and VR worlds use the word ‘presence’. One of these quotes is by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the other by Zuckerberg – can you tell who said what?

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.”

“By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.”

I favour the notion of feeling present in the real world to a feeling of presence in an artificial world, mainly because the graphics are better. But perhaps they are both illusions anyway.

Like brains in jars, or people farmed in pods, we live too much in our heads as it is, let alone before we wrap screens around our faces. Schoolchildren bring their minds to class and leave their high spirits, physicality and spontaneous emotional expressions in the playground. After all, Michael Gove needs them to concentrate on a battery of tests. Emotionally constipated adults freeze uncertainly when strangers experience despair or colleagues are bereaved. Therapists make a living from helping people discover feelings they hadn’t been aware of. People experimenting with mindfulness quickly discover how numb their bodily-felt feeling has become (what’s going on for your left calf right now)? We listen to birds singing less often than we lob them at animated pigs, and look for the feeling of ‘presence’ in new worlds when we’ve barely lived in this one.

But perhaps I’m drowning my point in pixels. Virtual Reality is not the end of the analogue world. It’s not even a real break in paradigm from previous technologies and gaming developments – not substantially different from Google Glass, Google Maps, Google Search, ICQ, Usenet, bulletin boards, Zork, Space Invaders, the television, the wireless, the cinema, the book or the theatre of Dionysus. But every turn we take on this journey gets us closer to our destination, and it’s the rich now driving the car. Or it would be if Google’s new driverless cars didn’t date this analogy.

What our bedazzled primate brains may not see is that the reason Virtual Reality has such appeal is because it exploits (and diverts) the desire to live actual reality more meaningfully; to connect empathically with others and partake in their joys and adventures, to experience everything in the world and dissolve the walls between us. It’s why we have so many books. Like the novel did in its early days, VR will raise concerns about rotting the mind, yet will provide some with enriching artistic experiences of empathic immersion. It’s our need for story that makes these machines appealing, but that need could be used against us and lead us further away from a deep experience of the world as it is. And what would you call a project that gets you hooked on dreams? I know what I’d call it.

Dystopia: Prima Facie

Photo by Jason A. Howie (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Jason A. Howie (copied from Flickr)

Tom checked his tie, taking care to stay in shot. It only took a minute of being away from the webcam’s eye to be deemed in contempt of court.

Abigail looked beautiful as she testified, her eyes wide and demeanour humble. Sometimes the allegations made Tom second-guess himself. Was noting her prettiness the same thing as admiring her sexually? No, he’d conclude. So there was no trace of sexual desire at all? Perhaps, he might concede, but an iota, the merest flicker. Ageing a little or becoming a father doesn’t blind one to these things. Biology told him she was attractive and decidedly a woman now, even if the law didn’t yet agree. But, no, although not immune to such forbidden thoughts, he paid them little heed. His affection for her was innocent.

He shifted in his seat then berated himself for the awkward body language.

“At first my friends said it was weird,” Abigail said. “They’d come up to me in breaks and ask why Donna’s dad was always appearing on my timeline. Then they got nasty, singing songs about us, putting insults on Facebook. They stuck photos of him in my bag.”

Tom had never meant for any of this. He traced his finger over the audience list, letting it rest on his daughter’s name, knowing Donna would be watching the trial from her room.

He remembered his actions were being analysed and withdrew.

Could a man really help his dreams? They weren’t even sexual. Donna would bring Abigail over most nights after school and he and Marie would rustle up some dinner. It soon became clear she wasn’t having a good time at home, pressured to achieve greatness through all the gymnastics training, piano lessons and so on. She’d come over whenever she could get away and it seemed like the only place she could relax. His heart went out to her, both of theirs did.

Tom looked back at the screen. The prosecution was showing his dream of the school gymnastics, in which he watched Abi run across the beam, struck by the contrast between her fluidity and the arduous discipline that lay behind it. “What if you were free, truly free?” his dream-self whispered, and then she was – tumbling gracefully along a fallen tree, the two of them weaving through the autumn woods. He walked on and she followed, somersaulting across the dry leaves, a soft crunch recording every footfall. He wanted to take her hand but she was moving too fast, and if he broke the rhythm of her freedom dance she would be back to how she felt before, when she was with her parents…

The video finished and Tom could still feel that pang of yearning – but it probably wasn’t even about her. The subconscious picks ciphers from anywhere to tell its stories. And anyway, you saw someone that often, of course they came up in your dreams. It’s just your brain processing the events of the day.

He tried to explain but the judge hushed him with what was becoming a well-worn phrase – “If you speak you may mislead.” Tom remembered reading about this; social networks and taxicab recordings show what someone thinks so letting the accused speak was said to add no value.

Even outside the court, no one would listen. Marie moved out shortly after it all began, and Donna wouldn’t speak to him unless she needed food or money. None of his friends seemed pleased to see him. He stopped bothering them.

PC Young gave his account next, his manner matter-of-fact, his execution of the law unbending and impersonal.

“I was already observing the situation when the third dream appeared on Miss Morris’s profile,” he said. “It was obvious that the young lady was in distress, but more pressingly, it’s been proven that three dreams within two weeks make sexual crime twice as likely. We had to intervene before that happened, so I began the interception that led to this trial.”

They broke for sentencing. Tom thought how quickly he and his friends had slipped into this; their dreams recorded, tagged and uploaded, the joking that would result. He didn’t even request Abi’s friendship – the site did that automatically as she often checked in to the house.

The judge’s face appeared on-screen. “Mr. Thomas Lanyard,” he began.

Tom swallowed. Time slowed.

“You have been found guilty of thoughts consonant with the future possibility of statutory rape. You will receive a preventative sentence of offline confinement, for ten years to life, during which you must not make contact with Abigail Morris.”

A ghost in the physical realm, for at least a decade. Tom’s tweetstream spat outrage, but, in that moment, he cared only about Abi’s gymnastic clips on YouTube; her leaps and flips across the balance beam, her strong thighs facilitating her daring, the elation he sensed and shared in. Abi’s poise made him feel prayerful. All of this was now locked from his view.

“Your sentence begins now,” said the judge. The transmission was cut.


girl_doyoubleedlikeme_longWe walked across the street to the park. Some of our number dropped back, heading to the pub. They claimed they were too manly to go any longer without beer, but there was a wariness in their actions, a fear that what lay ahead was too strong for their blood.

The whole day had been like that. In clusters they dropped, like falling fruit, making their excuses and leaving. In this way I became a friend among strangers, laughing loudly, demonstrative in my behaviour, vocal, open, engaged in this for the long haul, staying the course. To what end, I didn’t know; something like seeing this thing through, following the path of least resistance, or heading towards a goal that I told myself was nameless.

Her name, in fact, was Lily. She was a wouldn’t-it-be-nice rather than an earnest aim. I didn’t want to set myself up for a fall. She wasn’t beautiful, but quite pretty, a little plump, neon bracelets and a denim satchel. The other girl was better-looking, a carefree black girl called Karen, blue jeans and shapely, her curves accentuated by her clothes. Maybe Lily drew my eye because she seemed more attainable, but I think it’s because she was the ringleader, the spirit of fire, the one who took us from place to place, from task to task, from drink to drink and drug to drug. Whatever it was, this psychological space she led us all to share, it was an interesting place to be.

We had walked quite far into the park now, away from the sound of traffic, and I noticed the strangers, new recruits, drummed up from somewhere to make up the numbers. Of the originals, only five remained; myself, Lily, Karen and two men, an Asian medical student and one whose name and face I can’t remember.

We stopped, because Lily had stopped. People were pairing off, and the student and I looked at each other with unspoken questions. What is this? Should we go with each other? Which girl do you want? Would you mind if I went with Lily?

I settled these questions by walking directly towards her. She smiled at me as she bent down, placing her clockwork radio on a patch of grass free from the melting snow. The radio belted out an old swing tune and I took her in my arms. My left hand cradled the side of her waist and the other led the dance as she pressed close to me.

“Have you any idea how fucking hard it is to dance wearing wellies?” I said. Her easy laughter brought relief as we relaxed into each other. I kissed her neck, falling into it the way one falls into sleep. It tasted of cooling sweat and cheap perfume, and my pulse rose and I breathed the bitterness in, and I pulled her closer to me.

“We can do anything you want,” she breathed in my ear. “As long as we do it safe.”

Partly because I wanted it too, and partly because I felt like I should, I gave my assent. All was well except the distance between my thoughts and actions. I wished I was more in the moment, no reflexivity, no doubt. I had got what I wanted though. I imagined us all from above, pretty young things in ballroom couples, holding each other in the song and the slush.

Soon afterwards I lay on her bed, watching her undress, thinking to myself this could only happen in London, she could only happen in London. We negotiated boundaries between polite and sexy, between love and lust, between the sensual and the carnal, between our red-glowing drives and our hesitant minds, between who we were and who we should be, between fear of it ending and the rules of casual sex, between passion and nonchalance,  between each other and inside ourselves. Fucking, clumsily, like dancing in wellies.