Why I want a pair of crocodile shoes

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The Independent Culture
It's not just sex that can drag you out at odd hours, into the cold in search of transient gratification. Technophilia can do it too. I am a hypocrite. I nobble people and rail against their gadgets. "You fool," I say to them; "You are being conned." I point at their Psion Organiser, their Macintosh PowerPC computer, their vibrating pager, their laser pointer, their combination mobile phone and Internet device, their GPS. "You've wasted your money. This stuff does not help."

But I am a hypocrite. Like a politician railing against vice, no sooner have I shut my beak than I am off to the nearest brothel; or, in this case, Berry's of Holborn, an electronics gadget shop. In Berry's, there are wonders, and I yearn for them. For pounds 250 you can buy a fax machine which will also answer the phone for you. For a little over twice that, you can buy something called Olycom, a fax machine which will also answer the phone for you but it won't print out your faxes. To print them out, you need a computer and a printer. The computer will probably have a faxmodem in it already, and be able to send, receive and print out faxes on its own, so your pounds 600-odd Olycom is no more than a blower; a sleek black digital blower with glowing red numerals, but a blower none the less.

Guess whether or not I am yearning for an Olycom. Of course I am. It's technological neo-Lamarckism again. Lamarck was a biologist who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics: a blacksmith, through his labours, would develop a strong right arm which Lamarck thought he would pass on to his son.

We have learned that Lamarck was wrong. A man who has had his leg off does not then beget one-legged children. But we only believe Lamarck was wrong when applied to meat. When applied to plastic, steel, fibreglass or silicon, we believe Lamarck was right. We think that if we buy a coolly logical gadget, we will acquire its characteristics and become coolly logical. We think that our smooth powerful cars will make us potent and steely. I want an Olycom because I would like to be sleek, black, digital, modern.

My friend, the novelist Paul Micou, rang up the other day. He said he was feeling lonely and fed up, and could he come over. I understand this. It is the curse of novelists. Mostly they enjoy being on their own, writing novels. It just gets them down sometimes. Whatever you do, there's something that gets you down sometimes. Doctors ring their friends and say: "I'm fed up with all these sick people." Priests ring their friends and say: "Religion, religion, religion. I have to get away."

So I told Paul he could come over.

He wanted to tell me about his computer. "It has an infra-red dataport," he said. "A friend came over the other day, and he had one too. We just sat on either side of the room and watched his computer suck up the contents of mine."

We talked about this for a while, and agreed that we were fools; that all you needed to do our sort of work was an old-fashioned manual typewriter, or, better still, a pen. Then Paul felt happier and went home to his infra- red Toshiba laptop. And I went out in the cold, down to Berry's of Holborn to stare at the Olycom.

I took the short cut through Lincoln's Inn, where the baby barristers were creeping out of their classroom into the fog. They were just as you'd expect: earnest African ones in huge spectacles, and natty Indian ones in three-piece suits; there were short dumpy female ones, and rangy elegant ones in expensive skirts who would marry their boyfriend Graeme and go utterly to pieces in years to come. There were tense suburban boys on the up, and pudgy public-school boys with loose mouths and big matted pullovers.

I wondered how they would end up. Horrible, probably. That's what happens to lawyers, mostly. There are exceptions - I can think of just four - but most are horrible, and don't know why. They get richer and grumpier and sadder and crosser and it's all a mystery to them why, having been good and ambitious and done everything right, their lives still ... just won't do.

It was an upsetting sight, like being a pathologist, peeping through the one-way glass to see all the people who have just tested positive for something woeful but don't know it yet, and I wondered how it all came about. I could see how they might start being lawyers - a desire to please Daddy, an urge to be safe and in the right - but not why they would go on being them, long after it was clear that it wasn't going to work. How could this be? And, by the same token, how could I go on yearning for boats and watches and crocodile shoes and an Olycom, when I know that none of it makes any difference at all?

Then I got the answer.

It was evolution. Lamarckism - the inheritance of acquired characteristics - doesn't work, but evolution doesn't work either. In particular, we haven't evolved the most useful thing of all, which would be a yearn-o-meter. We laugh at dogs because if you put a dog in a room with enough food to kill it if eaten all at once, it will eat all the food at once and die. But we are the same. We have no little gauge which will say: "Enough."

Think what the world would be like if we had evolved one. "Enough power," it would say. "Enough telling lies for political expediency. Enough trying to please Daddy. Enough houses. Enough corporate subsidies. Enough money. Enough control. Enough novels. Enough prizes. Enough sex. Enough gadgets."

Who knows: if we had been really lucky, we might even have evolved one that said "Enough yearning."

But we didn't. We have to learn it for ourselves; and that's another reason Lamarckism won't work. By the time we've acquired really useful characteristics like how to stop yearning, we're too old to move, let alone breed children. Tough world, but what can you do? So I carried on to Berry's to drool over the Olycom, but I know that one day I won't want one any more. It's as good a reason as any to keep on going. !