Very rarely these days is it possible to go away on holiday and come back to a land you don’t recognise. You’d need to go to the North Pole or Christmas Island, or to have lost all your means of communication, to return to these shores not knowing what’s gone on in the interim.
I am old enough to remember the days when, on coming back from holiday, I’d have a pile of newspapers waiting for me so I could catch up on important matters, like the football results or what’s been happening on Coronation Street. Now, of course, we are so plugged in – literally – when we’re away that we don’t miss a thing.
This time it’s different. I flew away a couple of weeks ago and an ice bucket was a means of chilling a bottle of rosé, and came back to find it a symbol of philanthropy as ubiquitous as the red ribbon or the red nose. I, in common with most of the world’s population, had never heard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a few weeks ago, but now, thanks to a cleverly orchestrated social-media campaign, we are aware of this progressive neurodegenerative disease, even if we’re not exactly certain of its causes and its effects, and we are not entirely sure how we are helping the cause by tipping a bucket of ice over our heads.
I went on holiday and newsreaders just read the news. Now they’re posting little videos of themselves showing what sports they are, and how caring they are, by this act of self-inundation. In the post-ice-bucket-challenge world I’ve come back to, it’s almost impossible to go to an event – the GQ awards this week being the latest example – that’s not punctuated by the random tipping of a pail of cold water. Just to show, you understand, how we don’t take ourselves seriously, while at the same time being serious about, you know, a really serious disease.
In some ways, the ice-bucket challenge is the perfect expression of the modern world. It is a vivid example of society’s democratisation inspired by the digital age. There, side by side, are Joe Schmoe and Justin Timberlake both being subjected to the same ordeal, both being transmitted by the same medium, both – in theory – able to reach the same number of people, both doing their bit to make the world a better place. It is a fabulous illustration of how, thanks to the power of a medium that is completely unmediated, everyone is a film star, everyone is a celebrity, and, of course, everyone is a philanthropist (with a little splash of self-deprecation thrown in).
In pictures: The famous do the ice bucket challenge
In pictures: The famous do the ice bucket challenge
1/16 Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga managed to keep an admirably straight face as she poured what looked like a solid silver bowl of cold water over herself
2/16 Homer Simpson
Fans were overjoyed when their favourite yellow cartoon character got involved in the campaign to raise money to help those suffering from ALS. As per usual with Homer Simpson, things escalated quickly
3/16 Reece Witherspoon
One of those who have arrived slightly late on the scene, actress Reece Witherspoon looks nervous but resolute as she has a bucket of ice-cold water chucked over her head
4/16 Lily Allen
Lily wore a bikini as she self-administered her bucket of icy water. She thanked Jess Glynne for the nomination, and passed the challenge onto Mark Ronson, Millie Mackintosh and rapper Giggs
5/16 Daisy Lowe
Celebrity ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos seem to be coming in faster than we can watch them - model Daisy Lowe is one of the most recent to get involved. She was nominated by Sun journalist Dan Wooton, and passed it on to radio presenter Nick Grimshaw and Abbey Clancy
6/16 Bill Gates
One of the first to go viral on YouTube, Bill Gates had freezing water tipped over him in a bid to raise millions of dollars to fight the illness ALS
7/16 George W. Bush
It felt like quite an important moment when the former President of the United States accepted nominations from his daughter Jenna Bush Hager, golfing champion Rory McIlroy, Woody Johnson, and Jim Harbaugh. He nominated 'my friend Bill Clinton'
8/16 Jimmy Fallon
In an official letter this week, the ALS Association said: 'Never before have been in a better position to fuel our fight against this disease.'
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
9/16 Tom Hiddleston
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis affects the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons degenerate and die which makes it increasingly difficult to move muscles
10/16 Rita Ora
There is no known cause of ALS, though there is a proven hereditary factor in some cases
11/16 Taylor Swift
There is also no known cure, though the millions being raised by the ALS association will go towards researching these great unknowns
12/16 Oprah Winfrey
The illness is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the all-time great baseball player from the early 20th Century whose time at the top ended when he was stricken with the illness in 1939
13/16 Mark Zuckerberg
The Facebook founder is unarguably the master of the challenge, who – following his drenching – saunters off
14/16 Justin Bieber
Bieber's first attempt was pretty naff: he didn’t quite get it and decided not to use ice or a bucket to complete the challenge. Obviously, the internet moaned at him and he was brilliantly peer pressured into having another go
15/16 Justin Timberlake
Celebrities have been nominating one another to do the challenge
16/16 Christiano Ronaldo and Marcelo
The challenge is now making its way over to this side of the Atlantic, former Manchester United players Paul Scholes and Gary Neville both doused themselves in cold water for a terminally ill fan
It’s the cult of the individual writ large. Anyone with a mobile phone and an opinion regards themselves as a journalist these days, and anyone with a bucket of ice and a camera phone is a film star. So what to make of it? I returned to Britain as a person who’s naturally inclined to be sceptical and scornful of this phenomenon. And you know what? I think it’s bloody brilliant, harmless, occasionally amusing, but with a proper purpose. Who cares if self-promotion is one of the side-effects? Pour cold water on it if you dare.Reuse content