Archive for August, 2011

Self harm is a capitalist product

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

After experiencing a fascinating Bettakultcha presentation by my friend Harrison Richards about barefoot running, he lent me the book that inspired him to take up the activity. Whilst reading it, I came across the perfect metaphor for Western capitalism: the trainer.

Capitalism works, by taking away from society that which is free and then selling it back to society at a profit and as a benefit. In the trainer we have this premise reduced to its absurd level.

For millions of years we evolved barefoot. Even in cold climates our feet would only be protected with animal hide. Then along came technology and provided solutions for extreme situations; footwear for fire fighting, for coping with thorns or sharp flints etc. These shoes were indeed an improvement as protection for our feet. Walking itself though, required no artificial assistance.

Capitalism does not sleep however, and an opportunity presented itself to entrepreneurs when running became a global sport. Nike tried to ‘improve’ the stride of the runner. Millions of years of evolution clearly wasn’t up to the job. The improvement that Nike imposed was a heel strike from the foot rather than a rolling, padding movement which occurs when running barefoot. Running barefoot costs nothing, ‘improved’ running costs the price of the trainers. Anyone who buys trainers (I don’t but I have seen the cathedrals dedicated to them) is aware of the technology that has gone into their design; the marketing makes sure of that. So the mantra of capitalism is complete: take away from society that which is free and then sell it back to society at a profit and as a benefit.

But it gets worse. The benefit is actually a liability. Wearing trainers alters your natural stride into an unnatural one resulting in chronic injuries. Capitalism has convinced us to abandon that which is free and wholesome to purchase that which is expensive and harmful to us (where have I seen that before?). I’m not sure whether to applaud capitalism for its ability to pervert human nature or to decry society for its gullibility.

Destroy your trainers and find your feet.

The diminishing authority of experts

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

As the world becomes more complex, merely observing it objectively becomes a huge challenge, never mind trying to actually understand it.

You can, of course, reduce complex systems to a few generalised basic principles, but how useful are these, really?

For example, a film critic from 1900 could have been a true expert because they could have seen every film that had ever been made and compared and contrasted the various merits of each if they so wished. Today, there aren’t enough hours in a human lifetime to see even a fraction of the films that have ever been made. Your knowledge, as a film critic, has to be forever inadequate and that inadequacy can only increase with time.

Of course, basic principles of film craft can be used to assess any film that is viewed but it must be annoying for a film critic to be constantly told, “Ah yes, but have you seen so-and-so? That does overcome the <insert the critics objection here>.” The film critics area of expertise is limited only to the films he or she has seen.

Now extrapolate that to the field of experts as a whole. In the financial arena, for example, an expert is only an expert in the processes and products he or she is familiar with and as the world becomes more complex, that means their field of vision becomes more and more narrow.

The causes of individual riots are many and complex. A basic principle however, is that inequality is usually a good starting point. But that doesn’t really explain anything, it just points out the obvious. The concept of someone being in charge or being able to make pronouncements of what is really happening in the world is just an illusion.

Today, David Cameron is attempting to perpetuate that illusion by making ‘knowledgeable’ speeches about a subject that he has absolutely no experience of or is ever likely to have experience of.

Nobody knows anything.

Legoland, Windsor

Thursday, August 4th, 2011
'Guest services'

'Guest services'

It is better to be on the move than to arrive. Never has truer words been spoken than when applied to a theme park.

You invariably wait in a queue of people for one and a half hours, only to ‘arrive’ at a ride that will last approximately two minutes and will produce at best a sensation of disorientation, and at worst, nausea. Theme parks must be one of the most curious and perverse creations that has resulted from the human mind’s unnatural pursuit of profit. The fact that they make a profit at all is testament to the elasticity of the human consciousness in its ability to reconcile harmful ideas as good.

On entry, you are greeted by signs that refer to you as a ‘guest’ but guests are generally welcome visitors that are not expected to pay for any hospitality given. So in Legoland, where you are not ‘welcome’ if you do not have any money, you are not a guest, but a cash-cow that it intends to milk mercilessly until your teats are dry of any liquidity or succour. The complete one-sidedness of this arrangement is beautifully demonstrated by the penny franking machines all tourist attractions seem to have. These are machines that ask you for good money—a penny, which they will then destroy for you by franking their own advertising logo onto it. Not only do these machines destroy your good money, but in order to allow you to advertise their profit making enterprise to others on your ruined penny, they ask you to pay one pound. And some people agree to pay this! I felt like a sane man inhabiting an asylum.

Let me destroy your good money

Let me destroy your good money

It also has a class system in place. If you are rich, you can avoid queuing by buying a special pass. It was strange seeing the endless lines of humanity waiting for a ride, like so many desperate refugees waiting for transport away from their hell, and then see a privileged member of the elite walk straight to the front of the queue and usurp the seat that someone had been waiting hours for. There was something feudal in the act.

People waiting to be processed

People waiting to be processed

As the day progressed, I became aware that  all the parents I encountered seemed to be of a similar disposition as me, that is, bored, fed up and spent up. That means that fifty percent of Legoland’s visitors must be unsatisfied with the product. What other service or product could survive such an atrocious customer satisfaction survey?

My only explanation for theme parks existing is that parents have been inculcated with the idea that they have to sacrifice their lives for their children—if the children are happy, nothing else matters. But why can’t parents share their lives with their children? Why aren’t there theme parks that engage the adults as much as the children? And even if the their children’s happiness is paramount, any father knows that a lake of mud with a shower attached is all they need to be entertained.

Capturing a child's imagination.

Capturing a child's imagination.

As we strolled around mini-world, a land of miniature buildings and scenery all built out of lego, my son, in an unguarded moment, let slip that he considered this part of Legoland to be the best bit out of all the attractions. Maybe it has something to do with engaging a child’s imagination…

At the end of the day, my wife saw my distress and granted me leave of absence from doing any more theme park duty for the rest of my life. At least something good came out of it then.