If there is anything more sinister than Gadget Man, the new Channel 4 series in which Stephen Fry and friends exclaim over a stack of gizmos that might just divert the jaded consumer for a moment or so, then it is the advertisements that surround this and every other peak-time television programme currently on view. Cheap supermarket provender aside, most of the festive television blandishments are there to promote technology: tablets, iPads, a variety of child-care substitutes designed to hoodwink the fond parent into thinking his children are learning something, on-screen dance-offs, and much else besides.
It is not that any of this electronic eye-candy is particularly injurious in itself – although I still roar with laughter at the sight of a leotard-clad exerciser bouncing about to the TV screen when she could be running over a field – merely that in the average consumer-materialist's rush to avail him or herself of whatever the kind gentlemen at Apple or Microsoft have decided the public ought to buy this Christmas, hardly anyone ever stops to consider what the human consequences of our ongoing technological revolution might be.
Even at the basic level of written communications, for example, technology has had a profound effect on the way the mind works. One could make out a plausible argument for the whole course of Western literature over the past couple of hundred years having been conditioned by the nature of the writing implements available: the stately, multi-clause sentences encouraged by the 18th-century quill giving way to the less compartmentalised effusions of the Victorian fountain pen, and thence to the Hemingway-style terseness of the typewriter, which as somebody once remarked, made you write like a Gatling gun.
As Philip Hensher's recent book on the decline of handwriting shows, all this is far more than a revolt into technological style; it is also a kind of existential severance whose ultimate effect on the people doing the severing can only be guessed at.
"The advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences, that mankind... will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity," F R Leavis warned as long ago as 1962.
Is the Gadarene horde scampering down the superhighway in full intelligent possession of its full humanity? Answers on a postcard.
Ryanair, that well-known public benefactor and model of commercial probity, is running an ad extolling the beauties of south-west Ireland. "The Ring of Kerry is twinkling," it somewhat archly declares. "Horse-drawn carriages trot by Killarney's lakes and the Kerry Way is a walking wonderland. Late sun warms the Great Blasket Island, cliffs tower over the tide on Dingle's peninsula and a cosy pub corner has your name on it." And all this for £22!
Syntactical flaws aside – it is the horses, surely, that are doing the trotting, not the carriages, and the tourist who is doing the walking, not the wonderland? – this vignette offers a fascinating exercise in historical continuity.
For southern Ireland has been promoted to the English tourist in this folksy way for something like 170 years, ever since the first Victorian visitors began to write the place up in their guidebooks. Gaelic historians sometimes talk about the "exploitation" of what is now the Irish Republic by these early holidaymakers, but in fact the process was entirely reciprocal. The Victorians came looking for the picturesquely romantic, and the cash-hungry locals made sure they found it.
William Thackeray's Irish Sketchbook (1843) is full of stagy scenes in which the traveller is accosted by a cap-doffing ancient, his brogue as pronounced as the church steeple, who enquires: "Would your honour like to see a big pig?" It is nice to see Ryanair's marketing team passing on this cultural baton. Thackeray would have been proud of them.
Still with technology, an extended sit-down with the first three episodes of The Killing confirms how wide-ranging an effect electronic communications are having on the crime-buster. The Sherlock Holmes stories, though capable of fast-moving climaxes, move at what now seems an extraordinarily gentle pace, with frequent halts for quiet reflection and the pondering of clues. Poor Sarah Lund's life, a century and a bit later, is a nightmare of emails and text messages with the potential to set her haring off in a different direction at a second's notice.
Technology's ability to change how a particular literary art-form works was long ago noted by critics: several of Anthony Trollope's novels, in which a character's fate hangs in the balance merely because a vital witness is abroad, could be exploded by way of a two-minute phone call. With police procedurals, the effect is to take what is already a highly stylised genre and render it yet more stylised.
And so The Killing, with its two plot-twists a minute, is an exercise in pure form, where the rush of information is so unstoppable that the viewer's powers of reasoning hang suspended in the ether. By the end of the opening episode, I was ready to believe anything, and the sight of a rhinoceros in pink tights descending a rope-ladder from Copenhagen Cathedral to expound the philosophy of Kierkegaard would have had me happily nodding my head.
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