Sunday, 27 June 2010

Save your soul

I didn't have the privilege of walking past an O2 shop yesterday morning to see dozens of people queuing around the block, rubbing their clammy hands together in anticipation of the iPhone 4. I have been told, however, that it was not a pleasant sight.

Why was I happily surrounded by my Toshiba netbook and ancient Motorola flip-phone as opposed to standing in Oxford Street drooling over Apple's latest gift to humanity, Stephen Fry might ask.

First of all, I don't have a spare £299 lying around to spend on a handset. Neither am I about to take out a mortgage for the sake of owning a better phone, unlike all those extremely unlucky people who recently signed a 24 month contract for an iPhone 3G and are now waving useless Apps in front of fashionably bored iPhone 4 owners.

But to all those of you in the tech-savvy world, with a burning desperation to immediately purchase the latest smartphones, I would put to you that Apple is not the way forward. The knowledge and interest that I lack in the world of technology I make up for in the world of chocolate and I must say that no matter how good a Kit-Kat may taste, I have not bought one in years.

Apple are the Nestle of technology. They're everywhere and they taste good but what about the not-so-shiny shenanigans that go on behind the scenes to create your beloved machines?

Apple outsources the majority of the hardware production to Foxconn, whose factory in China has caused so many suicides that the company sent out a contract to all employees to end its liability should anyone die on site. The media outcry forced Foxconn to withdraw this idea, but the working environment is still a breeding ground for isolation and depression.

Employees told the BBC that the factory that is in charge of creating iPhones and iPads is run like an army training centre. Uniformed employees work at least two hours of overtime each day, and 100 hours of overtime a month are the norm. The pay is the equivalent to around £200 a month and the intensity and pressure put on meeting targets is so extreme that in the run-up to the iPad launch the factory lost 50,000 workers every month because they could not keep up with the expectations.

And if on balance you still feel that the need to buy into Apple's cult-like world, what will you get for your loyalty? Although the smug arrogance of Apple's attempts to ostracise its users from any other company may not seem like a problem at the moment, it will do soon.

Microsoft, Adobe, Google... where will it end? Well, it seems like it's only just begun. Steve Jobs has launched a war against all the big names in the industry. But why will people continue to buy in to a brand that is soon going to be ganged up on by all the other major players who have been shunned and disparaged? The answer is that they won't.

If there were no other alternative out there, I would understand consumers putting to one side their moral dilemmas and pragmatism of the future. But there are so many other smartphones that are just as functional, yet don't require sacrificing your soul.

I mean really, Google's latest operating system is called Android Cupcake. What could be better than that?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Is the end of true debate in sight?

I remember all the arguments against televised debates during the election. I also remember thinking that people who opposed them probably didn't have an understanding of what 'democracy' actually means.

The idea of giving everyone as much information as possible and allowing them to make up their own mind is what I believe makes a society truly democratic. Even if you don't agree with their decisions or their criteria they've used to take them.

Yesterday evening the Free Society hosted the penultimate in a series of four of debates on the theme of libertarianism and hyper-regulation.

Always a fan of a political event, I attended enthusiastically - as much for the hope of some engaging conversation as for the promise of free wine. I was not disappointed on either count. The speakers, who included Isabella Sankey, from Liberty, Philip Johnston, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph and Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance, were articulate and impassioned. They even managed to momentarily sway me towards a more libertarian stance.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the evening as a political campaign meeting, I hesitate to call it a debate. There was no premise upon which the panel was set to build a case, no contrasting views and no opposing comments from the audience.

It seems somewhat ironic that a group which claims to promote civil rights would not attempt to make all possible arguments available, allowing the audience to arrive at its own conclusion. Instead, the organisers were guilty of the exact attitude they were recriminating the government for: a paternalistic "we know best" outlook on the rest of the population.

Hopefully it does not become the norm to put on debates for the sake of propaganda as opposed to democracy and people continue to be outraged at the thought that they are being told what to think.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

We live in public

I really would love to begin this post with a Brave New World quote or some borrowed Orwellian imagery. But the concept of comparing technologically-ruled 21st century life to the police state described in dystopian literature has by now been cliched into oblivion.

However, last night's Channel 4 broadcast of We Live In Public, Ondi Timoner's Sundance-winning documentary about the internet pioneer Josh Harris, left me tweeting slightly more reticently than before.

The image painted of Harris is that of a man emerged in the world of technology. He talks about spending so long in front of the television as a child that he was brought up more by Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island, than by his own parents.

As an adult, Harris developed an alter-ego to mask his social difficulties. This resulted in him attending business meetings and public appearances dressed and acting as a child-like clown named Luvvy.

In 1999, after various online ventures had made him a fortune in the boom, he embarked on a new project, this time tainted by his sadistic tendencies. More than 100 volunteers were locked into a bunker wearing matching uniforms, while they were filmed eating, sleeping, showering, having sex and using the toilet, as well as being subjected to emotionally tortuous interrogations.

These were deeply disturbing scenes to watch. The volunteers had been stripped of all dignity and individuality, monitored and experimented with like lab rats by a millionaire visionary with a God complex.

When this project came to an end (in January 2001 the NYPD raided the terrarium), Harris decided it was time to put himself under the same scrutiny and he and his girlfriend moved into an apartment rigged with motion-sensitive cameras and all-hearing microphones. Their life would be broadcast online and viewers would be able to chat to each other, as well as to the couple.

Watching their relationship deteriorate further and further before reaching intolerable levels of dysfunction is a harrowing experience. You feel the urge to shout at them to get out of the game and live real life, where they might have a chance at fixing what seemed like a loving relationship at the beginning. But they don't, as ultimately the experiment was more important and Tania walks out.

I am aware that many celebrity couples have since decided to document their lives for the benefit or E4 and MTV viewers. But I always assumed that this was for the purpose of furthering their careers, or at the very least for the cash. Then again, what about those millions of people whose Facebook relationship status goes from 'in a relationship' to 'single' to 'it's complicated' every few weeks? What are they getting out of making their relationship a public affair?

What about tweeting that you've just had a fight with your girlfriend or blogging about your husband's affair? I wonder how many relationships around the world are being put under unnecessary pressure by our obsession with making our lives a free-for-all.

These matters have, of course, been pondered upon by much more authoritative voices than my own, and I doubt I would have anything new to add to the debate. I would encourage a bit of self-reflection, though. Watching the documentary made me realise how disturbing I find situations which I purposely put myself in on a daily basis.

I'm not suggesting that anyone quits their social networks, blogs, photo albums, youtube videos, podcasts or chatrooms. But perhaps we would al benefit from distancing our online actions to those of real life. Otherwise we may make the step from living in public to barely living at all.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The reason behind my blogging hiatus

I find it difficult to describe myself in tech-terms. I am neither a geek, nor a denier, nor an enthusiast, nor a target consumer. I am not ignorant yet I am not particularly knowledgeable either.

In fact, tech-wise, I am probably the equivalent of those kids in school that would hang out with the cool girls one day, have lunch with the nerds the next, then sway indifferently to the goth section only to turn up the next day in preppy chic.

The upshot of such an insipid – sorry, I mean versatile – attitude is that you have a lot of people to invite to a birthday party but no one's shoulder to cry on.

This is what I have been made startlingly aware of in the last few months, as my happily functional little world of tech-indecisiveness began to unravel.

I was emerged in journalism research essay-writing when the first in a string of disasters took place. My main laptop became spyware-infested and therefore, pretty much useless. It is now sulking in the corner of my bedroom waiting to be reformatted by someone who knows what reformatting means.

But not to worry, there's always Kafka, my pretentiously-named, somewhat incompetent but nonetheless trustworthy little netbook.

Oh wait. Now the wireless connection in my house has stopped working .

Phew, I really need a brake from all these technology failures, I think I'll go for a walk. Halfway down the street it turns out my iPod has run out of battery, and stubbornly refuses to charge back up.

And, to ice that lovely batch of cyanide-infused cupcakes that are overtaking my tech-world, my blog was hacked, making me reticent to hand over business cards recently. All I could picture was Alan Rusbridger deciding to give me a chance to impress him and being met with a blog full of links to “Buy Viagra! Buy Rolex! CHEAP!”.

So, dedicated reader, I do appreciate your patience and beg for your understanding. My four-week disappearance was not due to neglect, but to matters out of my control. Today Though My Eyes is now back to its traditional weekly post and Kafka seems to be holding on to the internet for dear life. Still no word on reformatting the naughty one, but seriously, how many computers do I really need?

I'm thinking maybe a Gok Wan-type attitude towards technology might increase my chances of having one trustworthy piece of hardware that will do it all. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I became Steve Jobs's dream come true.