Zen in our midst

Professor Brian Winston (above) could be the walking, talking embodiment of Taoist enlightenment. Smiley and affable, he likes to apply his mantra, “So what?”, to just about any modern day concern.

His take is that we all worry too much, especially about all this new technology marlarky.

A former documentary producer and script-writer, Professor Winston now spends his days in what one can only imagine to be a more relaxed manner, theorising and lecturing in the hallowed halls of the University of Lincoln.

So far, so Zen.

It’s the opening keynote of Media Futures 2008 and Professor Winston is entreating us (an invited audience mostly made up of technological determinists) not to over-estimate the impact of technology.

Some soundbites:

“The sense of ever-increasing speed of change is almost entirely illusionary.”

“The Queen still sits in her palace, the Pope in his. And Jihadis want to bring us all back to the 13th century.”

“We don’t understand the social context affecting us. This social context is the greatest forgotten known of all.”

“We adopt things that fit our pre-existing patterns of behaviour. Unless there is some sort of intervening social necessity (eg, to be entertained), the technology will wither.”

“Be hard nosed. Greet every possibility with the withering interjection, “so what?”. So what-ism’s time has come!”

In many ways, Professor Winston is right. We ARE victims of hyberbole. However much things seem to change during our short lifetimes, in the long term, nothing alters dramatically; all change is incremental.

It’s good for us to be reminded of this (there’s a great programme on BBC Radio 4, The Long View, which does just that, taking today’s issues and holding them up against a similar time, often hundreds of years ago).

The Professor’s long-termist stance is refreshing: for example, when asked if he would deny the impact of digital downloads on the music industry, he responds that this is simply causing a revival in the value of live performance (ie: if you take the long-term view, the industry built around the recording, copying and re-distrubution of music was in itself something of a blip).

A later session at today’s conference will address what the media is for. Well, one key function of the media is as a business – and whipping up public hysteria at every given opportunity is a necessary side-effect of this business (I’m not saying this is right or wrong – it’s just a fact – until someone develops a better way of selling papers/ winning in the overnights/ securing eyeballs).

And therein lies the rub. As Professor Winston would no doubt agree, we are brutish beings – barely evolved from the prehistoric Neanderthals who ‘blogged’ about hunting on the walls of their caves (thanks to Nick Durrant of Plot for that analogy). And we still depend on every day excitement to brighten our otherwise humdrum existences.

Professor Winston is preaching a detached, enlightened view of the world that can possibly only be achieved after a full life, an illustrious journalistic career and one or two Emmy Awards. How do you reconcile this with basic human nature and the nasty, brutish shortness of our lives?

The hard fact is that the majority of us still yearn for instant gratification.