Damn Vices

The advancement of technology, like a powerful wave in the ocean, has been unstoppable. Exponentially accelerating year on year, week on week.

Steve Jobs’ role in this epic production sticks with me. Those black, turtle-necked onstage monologues of his, the famous “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad in 1997. Carefully choreographed to invite us all in – you don’t want to miss this, don’t want to be left behind.

Apple devices swooped into the marketplace like a swarm of locusts, and millions of consumers dutifully opened their windows and doors.

Over time, their loyal customers flocked to keep up with each new iPhone edition (while others, instead, chose to wake up each day to Android versions, their addictions claiming a higher moral foothold, on an already flawed landscape) as we were collectively being herded forward like lemmings at break neck speed.

I’ve already checked my phone three times since I began this pathetic bleating – sat, as I am, rather ironically next to a wall full of second-hand books, in a café that served me, almost, my first meal here in Saigon, over ten years ago.

If I’d captured that moment on my phone (I can’t recall, but in 2011 I was probably glued to my Blackberry, and the penchant for Instagram-ing photos of your meals wasn’t yet cresting) no doubt Google would have reminded me of the moment recently. As the corporation surely did, on cue, first thing this morning, as I turned off the phone alarm at 5am and automatically thumbed through a sequence of familiar apps, freshly pinned with their new red message counts.

This morning at dawn, it was the turn of ‘2015’ to beam at my half blinking eyes, as I acclimatised in the dark bedroom to my waking reality, with a brace of colourful photos from a mate’s wedding in Bangalore, followed by images from the couple of days work I did in Dhaka after that, six years ago “this week”.

High fives Google, you get me every time. Can you make me a cup of coffee and charge it into my veins whilst you’re at it?

Deflated at such over-reliance on this these types of rituals, I nonetheless flicked through the selected photos, curated just for me. The bright hue of those local market crowds in Dhaka, froze forever in time, somewhere in my iCloud, spellbound me for a split second, firing up the memory bank – the bustle of people, the cackle of tradesmen and women, and the stench of that particular drainage system, which I recall all too nauseously as being horrific.

St Patrick’s Day, last week, produced a throwback to my frenzied escape from Laos on the very same day last year, as I fanged it back over the Vietnamese border to avoid a fortnight in a government quarantine camp.

Who knows what gems from my archives will be brought to my attention tomorrow?

The lure of expectation (more so than the final execution of actually finding out) is, perhaps, the secret to understanding how our devices take control over us so easily. No doubt millions has been spent on algorithmic nuance, and we know all too well (because those responsible went on TV to admit it themselves) of the manipulating tendencies of the tech companies to feed our insecurities and addictive persuasions.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, we pander to it and carry on regardless.

Arguably, however, the plain reality is that these profit-making entities are simply all taking part in respective races to the top. They all need more consumers, buying more. The same goes in other sectors (which, you could say, play to our addictive personalities): media giants; pharmaceutical companies; the tobacco and alcohol industries, as well as others – without profit these industries would go under, and without strong profit margins, they’d not have the resources to invest in technology and innovation.

Should we applaud Jeff Bezos for donating a fraction of his company’s profits into environmental initiatives? No one truly cares, but, for the sake of making a point, I think Bezos is prime case study territory for this conversation.

On the one hand, choosing to invest his $2billion in June 2020 cannot be sniffed at, no matter how slim a percentage some might feel this represents. Knowing how much global publicity this would create for his company, many argued that it was a ‘PR stunt’ (which of course these things always are).

Warren Buffet famously donated all of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in 2006. Maybe Bezos should have done the same? That said, what if all of the world’s CEO’s donated the same percentage as Bezos did last year – surely this would drum up some decent money and set a precedent and benchmark for the future?

Bezos has catapulted to the top at such a fast pace that he’ll never be able to win over all hearts and minds. Depending on how your newsfeed is manipulated, you’ll either hate him for underpaying his workers, or revere him for his innovation.

It is, like so much now in so many people’s 2021 lifestyles, all about the brand.

Ask yourself why you choose a certain brand of toothpaste and, part of the answer might hark back to an earlier time in your life when toothpaste adverts were competing for the #1 spot for that particular commercially exploitative past-time.

There was a time when Colgate outsold Coca-Cola annually based on the number of items shifted. And, yet, Forbes’ latest list of most valuable brands pegs them at #72, with Apple, Google Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook taking the top 5 spots.

None of this so far is new intel, or indeed news-worthy at all: me, a middle-aged man stuck for a year in a foreign country, wholly reliant on technology and his phone to survive, bitching about technology and his phone (kind of) and highlighting the unstoppable forces of capitalism, fake news and digital products…the very same middle-aged man who sent his god-daughter a belated birthday Amazon voucher last week…which took about 3 minutes to do, on my phone, whilst I was in the queue at our local Viettel shop paying our monthly internet bill.

If it wasn’t so darn hot and humid in Saigon at the moment, I’d get my coat.

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So, what does make news these days anyway and who is in control of it?

As history books will record 2020 as the year of COVID-19 (as well as a rather fabulous wedding!) will they also reflect on just how life changing our technologies have proved themselves to be, during these protracted months of pandemic lockdown?

Without video conferencing, without online shopping, online schooling, online voting, and so on – without the myriad of possibilities that technologies have opened up for us, perhaps the current “war-time” footing we are experiencing would have been even more isolating and acutely uncomfortable for many millions of people.

COVID has cost and destroyed many lives but, for those not working in healthcare, the pandemic can also be credited with reframing for some the once predictable, normative aspects of how society and our economies function. Millions have used this reframe to re-boot their sense of who they are, and where they are going.

Some have become immersed in new pursuits, or more simply just abandoned their phones and social media completely (or at least beveled down the edges of their screen time and online binges) – rewarded and nourished, instead, from the very absence of technologies in their lives.

However we look back on the past 12 months, the resiliency of human nature, matched with the entrepreneurial DNA of the private sector has, pixel by pixel, started to “etch-a-sketch” out the intricacies and familiarities of life as we knew it before – socialising, schooling, travelling, learning, loving, playing – a long list, in a short time.

Going back to the topic of our phones, and like all vices, it seems our relationships with them are very much a personal thing. Steve Jobs may well have been pleased with the results so far: most of us are hooked to them 24/7.

As addicts, we don’t like to be judged on usage, we don’t take well to being told that our phones are distracting us from other things, and we fall into the trap of hastily judging others for their dependencies, whilst failing to recognise our own.

I’m noticing, too, how when out with others, someone (me included) might take their phone and look up the name of something or someone that is being discussed and, in so doing, mentally claim “helpful” rights within the group, for that half minute – at the same time, of course, momentarily enjoying the thrill of reviewing the five whatsapp messages which had teasingly pinged their arrival, whilst said person was pretending to listen to their mate’s story about the latest episode of Line of Duty.

Even how one uses their phone in these social scenarios is part of modern day etiquette. I went out without my phone recently and was rebuked for doing so, however my evening was instantly improved by not having it with me.

When we are out, are our phones in our pockets, or on the table, at the ready? Face up, or face down? Face down means we’re really concentrating on what another person is saying, right?

Insanity.

A group thing I heard about a few year’s back in the US, was to lock your phones in a box when out for dinner and then, should anyone feel so distraught that they had to check their phone during the meal, they also picked up the bill. Not a bad idea.

In any case, our phones have become higher currency to us than perhaps was ever envisioned, even by Jobs himself.

As the ego naturally leads so many of our decisions – and is largely responsible for our daydreaming about who we will be, what we will achieve and how we will carve out a legacy on this planet – technology has leveraged our egos tremendously well.

Although I’ve not been on Facebook now for almost a decade, is was their trail blazing of the ‘like’ button that instigated a flood of subsequent sneaky digital marketing tactics, with their suggestive ways of keeping us on the hook.

“Clickbait” and “kudos”, “reviews” and “comments” sections, “shares” and “hashtags”. And on, and on. These days, you can’t hum a tune in the shower without it being leaked to Amazon or iTunes and, through some glitch in the matrix (or simply through the microphones in our phones and our laptops) an advert for the same band’s new album lands in your lap the next morning.

And so, once more, and for the last time in this post, hats off to you Google, and well done Facebook wizards, you deserve the kudos (and the bonuses your bosses reward you) for product development, for your digital savvy and, yes, for your manipulative ways.

You have delivered so much, so quickly. And you have created so much dependency.

Just as I chastise you, I do respect your efforts, because I respect the contributions being made, fingers crossed, towards what will become a more conscientious technological movement in the future.

The Illusion of Choice

These 10 Corporations Control Almost Everything You Buy
These 10 Corporations Control Almost Everything You Buy

It’s worth clicking on the info-graphic above to see the finer detail it contains, although the over-arching sentiment makes its own headlines.

It would be perfectly reasonable to take a look at the graphic, shrug your shoulders, with a “yeah, so what?” and perhaps avoid taking any type of hypocritical stand point by bemoaning the enormous footprint, influence and Orwellian doom-mongering speculation that might come from accepting that the world’s corporate elite monopolise so much, given you yourself may well spend your hard earned cash buying, using and consuming the products that these companies market and sell.  On that charge, I am also guilty on many counts. Continue reading “The Illusion of Choice”

Fair and Lovely?

A Vaseline advert for men's skin-whitening cream
A Vaseline advert for men’s skin-whitening cream

At what point in the future will branding not be such a dominating force in society, or even cease to exist all together?

I asked myself this question yesterday, following a conversation had with colleagues here in Delhi about skin-whitening, and the way this practice has swept across the country.

Millions of Indian women and (more recently) men buy brands such as Fair and Lovely each day, in an attempt to look fairer and more attractive. The same company who produce Fair and Lovely (Hindustan Lever, a Unilever subsidiary) also just launched a hand-washing initiative in India, through their Lifebuoy soap brand, aimed at helping eradicate easily preventable diseases – such as dysentery – which claim the lives of many young children in India.  The ad is pasted at the end of this post.

In my simple mind, the conflation of these two Unilever brands in what they stand for, and what they are selling, is slightly bizarre. Continue reading “Fair and Lovely?”