Howard Jacobson: Put down that iPhone and act like a human


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The Independent Online

OK. This is the week in which we get a few things straight. Regarding Diane Abbott. She who lives by the tweet shall die by the tweet. As for saying sorry, the word is now discredited. And as for the imputed racism... well, speaking for ourselves, we have been called far worse names than Diane Abbott called us.

What bedevils the subject is competing sensitivities, one being allowed to trump the other according to ideology, so that we cannot, for example, address the racism that is honour killing because we do not want to be seen racially maligning the honour killer. Diane Abbott – forgetting that if you can't say "all blacks" you can't say "all whites", no matter that whites are presumed to enjoy ascendancy – did no more than trip over this tangle. Preferential racist sensitivity won't disappear until ideology does. So expect a long wait.

Regarding Antony Worrall Thompson, who also said sorry last week. Our commiserations. Any man prepared to brave the self-service machines at Tesco has nothing to apologise for. His actions are said to be a cry for help. We understand. This column, too, is a cry for help of sorts.

Regarding David Cameron. We know you to be a deeply uncultured man, but it is possible to be uncultivated in yourself and respect the cultivation of others. So don't tell film-makers to concentrate on making commercially successful films, when commercial success is notoriously unpredictable and the barefaced seeking of it sinks as many movies as it floats. Encourage them instead to go on making good ones. And if you want to know what good ones look like, ignore Spielberg's horsey tear-jerker and watch Tyrannosaur and Archipelago, two fine low-budget British films that are unafraid of their own subjects and make most blockbusters look inept.

If our society is indeed to be big, Mr Cameron, we need to be big of heart and imagination. And to take pride in the big things we do. We shouldn't have to argue that a good film is a bigger thing than a merely popular one.

Regarding Mr Vaizey. No fun being a culture secretary in an uncultured government. But that's no excuse. You have said that knowing how a computer works is "on a par with the arts and humanities". No, it isn't. Knowing how a computer works is on a par with knowing how a computer works. Leave arts and humanities out of it since you appear to have forgotten what they are. "We are all going to live a digital life," you go on. Culture secretaries are renowned for saying stupid things but this could be the stupidest. We no more live a digital life because we employ digital equipment to retrieve information than we live a washing machine life because we do our own laundry.

Man becomes ridiculous, the French philosopher Henri Bergson argued, when he takes on the attributes of a machine. He also ceases to be a man. Only two days ago, this newspaper published the findings of research into internet addiction, MRI scans showing evidence of impairment to "white matter fibres in the brain connecting regions involved in emotional processing, attention, decision-making and cognitive control". It needs science to tell us that! Just look at people crossing busy roads lost in their iPhones, or sitting in the windows of Starbucks oblivious to the great world because of the moving images on their laptops and iPads, or unable to go on talking to another human being because something has started vibrating in their jacket pocket, deranged – no other word – deranged by its solicitations. O brave new world, that has such "digital beings" in it.

Regarding Mr Gove. We have a great deal of time for Mr Gove but we no more want to hear him on the subject of IT – gushing over the prospect of 11-year-olds "able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch" – than we want to hear Mr Cameron on cinema or Mr Vaizey on art. Was he, on the way to a cabinet meeting, surreptitiously digitalised by Mr Vaizey? If he wants to know why pupils are "bored out of their minds" by information technology it is because the very phrase information technology bores anyone with a mind out of it. We accept we must have information technologists – we have recourse to them ourselves when our MIT tools go kaput – but, as in politics or television production, they will self-select. You cannot make a sow's ear out of a silk purse, or words to that effect.

Regarding HS2. The envisaged high-speed rail network, getting us from London to Birmingham before we can say London to Birmingham. It raises a question. Why do we want to get from London to Birmingham – we don't say "at all" – but quite so fast? Is it a digital thing? Is Vaizey behind this, too, wanting us to travel at the speed of broadband?

The fact that the Government's calling it HS2 tells you everything. With the exception of WD40, nothing good ever came of acronymising a product or a project. HS2, MIT, MI5, OFSHMOCK, PIP. But it'll be the late 2020s before HS2 materialises, anyway, and that's far too late for us, however desperate we are to get to Birmingham. We'll be in care homes run by Tesco then. Digital has-beens in a wasteland of blockbusters, IT speak and unmeant apologies. Help!