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.


Whatever would Noel Coward have said?

Dominic Campbell of Futuregov lives what he calls a ‘declarative lifestyle’.

With multiple web presences on sites such as Flickr (photo sharing), Twitter (microblogging), LinkedIn (professional networking), Facebook (social networking), YouTube (video sharing), (musical taste) and Upcoming (events diary), he’s the first to admit he holds little mystery.

This doesn’t bother him. Why should it? He doesn’t see the need for any distinction between his public and private, personal and professional identities.

On this steamy summer’s evening at the Royal Society of Arts, Dominic has been invited to defend his ‘lifestyle’ in front of a ‘Moral Maze’ style panel and public audience under the topic Private Lives – A Thing of The Past?

The panellists, Claire Fox, Matthew Taylor, Iain Dale and Stephen Whittle are all at least a decade older than Dominic and waste no time in setting about (very nearly) dismantling his argument.

The conversation goes something like this:

Stephen: In a previous life you might have been described as an exhibitionist….why don’t you care?

Dominic: There are major benefits through revealing yourself online like this. I’m the kind of person who tries to live a really honest lifestyle. I’m trying to break down the barriers. Everyone goes to work and ‘acts’, but I don’t feel I have to be a different person at work to the one I am at home.

Matthew: You’re young, idealistic and pure – can you not see any moment in your life when you won’t want to be like this?

Dominic: I can see that once you’ve started on this path, you’re effectively trapped and there’s no way out later. I guess it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever get to be a politician.

Claire: One of the great advantage of our modern cities is that we’ve moved away from the ‘curtain-twitching’ of the village. You seem to be doing your best to replicate village life – with yourself as the village idiot. Do you really have to grow up in front of the rest of us?

Dominic: No-one has to look at this stuff if they don’t want to. I’m talking to my friends. No-one else needs to care. Tweets [microblogging on Twitter] are inane and pointless.

Ian: If they’re pointless, what’s the point?

Claire: Don’t you see that this is demeaning to yourself?!

Dominic: I probably don’t have an answer to that. In many ways it’s about being a micro-celebrity – and that’s the celebrity of the modern world.

With comments from the floor falling into line with what we’ve heard so far (young bloke: “I guess I represent Generation Y – I’m searching for an identity, for love and affirmation”; older gentleman: “We’ve crossed the boundary between public and private in such a way that we’re heading for calamity,” etc), the generation gap is palpable.

An important point from the floor raised by John Lloyd, was that all this online activity pre-supposes a benign state. Dominic is assuming that no harm will come to him. We don’t have a Robespierre or a Stalin in charge at the moment – but that’s possible.

Dangerous fanatics aside, I’m all for a bit of online soul-bearing. So what if Dominic wants to detail his private life on Twitter or show his friend’s stag party photos on Flickr? Personally, I’m up for it. But then, like Dominic, I earn my living as a consultant. And most consultants would favour the old adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

Let’s hope history doesn’t prove us wrong!