Sunday 22 September 2019

Plate me up something vernacular

I've recently returned from a most excellent holiday piloting a narrowboat at sub-walking speeds up and down a small sliver of Yorkshire, before continuing North by road as far as Newcastle.  About as far from sci-fi as it's possible to get.

One small disappointment was that this did not constitute the first step in my proposed 'offal tour of the North'.  It's long been my plan to sample traditional bovine or porcine innards served up by plain women with ham hock arms and flat vowels in their proper place - partly as a gastronomic mission, but mainly as a way of scaring the kids.

I'm sure just a few years ago you could sample the tripe at market stalls (maybe I was hallucinating myself into an LS Lowry painting?) but, a stottie cake in Newcastle apart, I discovered the cuisine was almost exactly the same as down south.  I did try hard at a baker's stall in Halifax, asking what she had that I wouldn't find outside Yorkshire, but she just looked at me as though I'd asked her to check the structural calcs on the first elements of the International Space Station replacement before it gets blasted up there.  I immediately changed my order to a Danish, the irony striking home a moment later, like the pain after you've hit your thumb with a hammer.

I find it sad.  We're losing a granularity that made for a rich variety, a tapestry of different accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles, proverbs, ways of doing business.  Wind the clock back five hundred years and every English town, every Welsh valley, every Scottish glen would have had something that set it apart, even if it was just a preference for pie crust or a way of calling your neighbour an idiot.

But now, the heterogeneous has become homogeneous, and I'm not even sure how well differentiated the UK is from the USA or many other English-speaking (imposed homogeneity again!) parts of the planet.  Competition gives winners scale and scale gives winners dominance and then we all find ourselves wearing Nike on our feet and eating Big Macs because there's no other choice.

But back up a bit there!  There's a flaw in this argument.  

Five hundred years ago you wouldn't have found yourself casually travelling from one corner of the country to the other.  You probably wouldn't have made it very far out of your English town or Welsh valley or Scottish glen.  Unless you went to war, you would have spent your life around the same accents, foodstuffs, architectures, dress styles and proverbs.  You probably wouldn't have realised that there was any other way of doing business.  You would have replaced your clogs with identical clogs from the one clog maker within walking distance, and bought your offal and bread from the never-changing village monopolies.

What we have is a problem of scale.  I'm not seeing any less vernacular than I would have seen centuries ago; I'm just seeing less differentiation spread over a vastly larger area.

We'll, that's okay, isn't it?

Unfortunately not, methinks, because life's rich tapestry is woven on a frame that's limited by the size of the planet.  There's only so much room (about 500 million square kilometres, since you ask) to display all the colours of the rainbow of human culture.  And we're turning a life-affirming mosaic into grubby dentist's waiting room wall of pastel ordinariness - pink or pale green, with a few smutty bon mots biro-ed on to break up the monotony.

Until we find ourselves in a sci-fi future where we flit from planet to planet, from alien culture to alien culture (I'll lay my cards on the table: ain't never gonna happen), which will provide a bigger loom onto which to weave our myriad differences, we're going to have to accept that we're turning Earth greige.  We've explored every corner of the world; there's nothing new to see.  And pretty soon we'll have put a McDonald's and a Starbucks there too.


Tuesday 3 September 2019

A funny thing happened on the way to the Kremlin

God bless America, and all the things that it's given us.  Like the computer, and the world wide web.  Although, turns out, that has a lot more to do with Tommy Flowers, Alan Turing and Sir Tim Berners Lee.  Whoops.

Putting that aside, one of the ways that all this joined up communication has changed our lives is through blogs just like this one.  Not that I couldn't just sound off previously; that was what that stool in the corner of the pub that the regulars would avoid was for.  Or, I suppose, I could pin my opinions to a wall, and come back a few days later to to see how abusive the graffiti was.

But what the tree wouldn't be able to give me was chapter and verse on who was reading my missive, where and when.  Which is what a site like blogger, and many more, does.

A few weeks ago I was heartened to see a spike in my readership (yes, gentle reader, you are not alone.  I wouldn't book a big venue for a get together, but you are not alone).  But there was something odd about it.

Being a blog in the English language, you wouldn't be surprised to find out that the majority of my readers are in the US of A, with about half as many again on my side of the pond in Great Britain.  After that it's a mish-mash of nations, although Ukraine seems disproportionately high up the rankings (greetings Kyiv!).  But all of my new readers - or, possibly, a single reader making a lot of hits - appeared to come from Russia.

Now, why should that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up?  Russia has a great history of science fiction, even if I found Tarkovsky unmitigated arse.  Why shouldn't this be some Soviet sci-fi maven having stumbled across a recent story or my novel 2084 and wanting to know more?

Because Russia, in the eyes of the West, is associated with hacking, cybercrime and data theft.  That's why.

Now, that may all be a product of media-led groupthink, but it did lead me to wonder just how exposed I am.  I am, quite deliberately, a light user of social media.  I don't tweet or facebook (is that a verb? with or without a capital?) or pin, regardless of interest.  It's been pointed out to me, despite denials, that I have a YouTube channel, not that much gets channelled.  But I do have this blog.

And from this blog you can locate my email address, and it wouldn't take a lot of work to find my company, which would give you my home address and date of birth.  The bio from my earliest stories gives my place of birth, although I'd lied to create more interest and said I was from Zanzibar or Sierra Leone or somesuch, so feel free to use that at your leisure to hack into my life.  I like to think that's where the trail goes cold: there's nothing on this blog to suggest any passwords, not pet's names or favourite animals or teams supported or roads grown up on, but can I be sure I haven't left a nugget on my digital trail at some point?

A simple record of who's been looking at me gave me cause to worry, and I have a far smaller digital footprint than many, including my teenage children.  Dwell on that a moment.  And as we move to a cashless society am I the only one who can see some time in the future when we all wake up one morning to find our accounts wiped?  Am I the only one who wonders whether the criminals already have the means out there to empty our digital wallets and they're just waiting until some scale is reached?

Just think of what that would mean (although I think Mr Robot already has).  If you were robbed, that's one thing, but what if everybody were robbed?  What if money were simply removed from the equation?  Nobody had anything.  And that includes the banks and businesses.  We'd have to find another way.  Bartering or battering?  Social equality imposed deus ex machina, or anarchy?  I don't know.

But what I do know is that you don't see the edge of the cliff until it's too late.