Matthew Norman: All I want for Christmas is a bird flu shot

What happens when you create a highly social animal and terrorise it into an antisocial lifestyle?

Which of these two stocking-fillers will inspire the most feverish demand is anyone's guess, but since stocks of neither will last very long it's probably wise to start hunting down reliable suppliers of both on the internet without delay.

At first sight, there seems little to link these two products. But it's the columnist's business to make laughably tenuous connections between news stories, and the appearance of reports on the same page of yesterday's newspaper hinted at more in common than the imminent difficulty in getting hold of them.

The video iPod marks the latest advance in the endless technological campaign to shrink the world. "Small is beautiful" was one of Thatcherism's earlier heraldic mottos. Were she less befuddled on entering her ninth decade, how the old girl would rejoice, rejoice to note how small our lives are becoming.

No leader ever loved isolation or scorned fraternity more than she. Whether it was European integration versus jingoistic insularity, private car against public transport, the notion of society vs the instinct for self-quarantine, her shtick was always to glorify the comment traditionally made by neighbours when the police arrest the serial killer next door: she kept herself to herself.

With the video iPod, the once-communal activity of watching telly becomes less so. You can hardly gather the family around a two and a half inch screen for the latest episode of Lost or Desperate Housewives. Thanks to Apple, we can do more than ever to keep ourselves to ourselves.

Not that it's been difficult to do this for a while. In fact, one could now live almost one's entire existence without setting foot outside the home. Food, household stuff, clothes, books, decent restaurant cooking and just about everything else can be ordered online and delivered. Art lovers can take virtual tours of the Uffizi and Louvre. Almost all human knowledge is distilled into gigabytes. I'm told you can even play a near-perfect simulation of poker on a computer.

Illness is a problem, of course, but even there most ailments can be diagnosed on the net or by NHS Direct; and you can, as I say, order pharmaceutical products such as Tamiflu online without the risk of catching something horrid in the GP's waiting room.

Speaking of which brings us to that other report of yesterday, regarding the government's chief medical officer's guidance as to how to avoid the avian flu. Sir Liam Donaldson insists that the best defence is regular hand-washing with an alcohol rub. Beyond dispute Sir Liam means well, and it would be cheap to compare his advice with those old public information films which claimed that the best defence against the detonation of atomic warheads was to find a sturdy table and shelter beneath it.

Even so, he is transparently wrong. By a perhaps over-cute irony, the best and only defence against avian flu will be to find a sturdy table and shelter beneath it. Go home, to flesh it out a little, close all the windows, barricade yourself and your beloveds in with the video iPod, the candles and the stockpiled Evian and tins of baked beans, and pray that the supplies of entertainment and nourishment last out until the danger passes. For seclusion is the best and only real defence against all the threats that mortify us today, except perhaps the sort of dislocation from reality that leads slowly but eventually to mental illness.

Mad, deluded Asian boys on the Underground, with dreams of heavenly virgins in their heads and rucksacks on their backs; marauding gangs of hoodie-wearing, iPod-snatching pubescents who will knife our children at the first sign of resistance; ultra violet rays slipping through the ozone layer to pepper us with malignant melanomas; hideous viral infections fostered by greedy poultry farmers in Szechuan, now preparing to mutate and jump between species ... whatever the terror, the solitary guarantor of safety from it is to avoid exposure to other human beings.

It's hardly a surprise, then, in this the Age of Petrifaction,that confining everything to the smallest possible space is the ideal not only of the Apple designers, but also the class of the perpetually terrified to which ever more of us unwillingly belong. Like all vile American trends, for example, the "gated community" is catching on here 10 years after it took root in the land of the free, and if ever the seed of a Thatcherite wet dream came to fruition this is it: Row after row of Lexuses (Lexi for the pedant) criss-crossing the concrete while their owners cower away behind the iron grilles, reading the latest scare story about violent crime in the Daily Mail, and washing the newsprint off their fingers every third paragraph with an alcohol rub, while the private security firm patrols the perimeter fencing.

Writing on Yom Kippur, this lapsed and blasphemous Jew can't help wondering whether God, rather than the thunderous and vengeful beast of the Old Testament, might be a deranged social scientist, compressing human existence like a scrap metal yard's car-scruncher to determine what happens when you create a highly social animal and terrorise it into an antisocial lifestyle. If so, the only likely beneficiaries from the experiment are Amazon.com, Ocado, home security specialists and the manufacturers of serotonin-enhancers.

As our lives shrink, it couldn't be more natural or inevitable that the technology shrinks to fit them. Yet there's something ambiguous, to say the least, about the irreversible drive to develop gadgetry that feeds on fear of human contact as a parasite feeds on a host.

Not that Apple can be blamed for its own brilliance, of course, (in the highly unlikely event of my wife reading this, yes of course I want the video version for Christmas), or even accused of not recognising the ambiguity. A pod, after all, can be the thing from which nasties like killer viruses emerge in science fiction nightmares. And the word also evokes a womb-like cocoon, in which to hide and take refuge. Comforting on the one hand, a little sinister on the other ... they couldn't have chosen a better name.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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