Some weeks ago, just before the omicron wave made us the gift of this pitiful déjà vu sensation as we approached the festive season, leaving us futilely trying to pluck assurance from uncertainty, I was blithely strolling around Soho.
The city was festive and colourful, with Christmas decorations glowing everywhere, the streets full of people, as if we’d gone back (notwithstanding the facemasks and ever-present sanitising gel) to an earlier and kinder time, to how things were before the pandemic came to shake us with a stroke of irrevocable reality.
I was walking aimlessly, which is one of the most pleasant ways of walking, when I suddenly found myself in Poland Street. I was glad, as always: William Blake and his wife Catherine lived there during the first years of their marriage, and it was there that the spirit of his beloved, deceased brother Robert revealed to him the printing method that he would use from then on in his illuminated books. That building doesn’t exist anymore; there is in its place a huge block of offices for rent, like a cardboard box. Across the street there’s a pub, The Kings Arms, where in 1781 the Ancient Order of the Druids was revived, and where it seems they still gather, for better or worse.
As I reached a corner I noticed an English Heritage blue plaque, according to which Percy Bysshe Shelley had lived there. Redoubled joy!
I don’t remember having seen that plaque before, but when I got back home I hurried to look it up and, indeed, in 1811 Shelley and his friend Thomas Hogg took rooms in 15 Poland Street, after being expelled from Oxford for having published The Necessity of Atheism. Though Shelley, taken by the wallpaper in their rooms, seems to have cried, “We must stay here; stay forever!”, his stay there was rather brief.
Recently I gave an online talk for the National Autonomous University of Mexico about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its origins in the famous (and thoroughly intense) gathering at Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. That afternoon walking around Soho, I was still immersed in the tormented, incendiary and fertile world of the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori, and I was therefore most pleased to come across that trace from the poet as a greeting from a world much more distant than my own pre-pandemic one, and to know that Shelley had shared a street with Blake. What did it matter that it was in different times? Such encounters (the promise of which made me come to live in London, and stay, nearly 23 years ago, which may be a sign of madness) are not constrained by time. Blake and Shelley: an encounter. I was joining them now, and no one could show any evidence that it wasn’t so.
But how true is this romantic vision of time? That very morning I had been thinking, troubled and for the umpteenth time, about the ever more automated way in which we lead our lives. The lost time, forever irretrievable, in our computers and mobile phones; life sucked by the Internet’s black hole; the self-service checkout talking machines in so many supermarkets and their wearing cacophony; the incontinent proliferation of passwords and verification codes, and the infinite ways to store data, control our identity, accelerate progress and its spawn, and “interact” with machines, of which I know little or nothing at all, because if I knew more, I don’t know if I’d go on finding life in this world tolerable.
That afternoon, however, it was still with joy that I sat at a snug café I had just discovered. My plan was to settle there for around an hour and write. Writing in cafés has been one of the topmost pleasures in my life for nearly forty years, and one that, after Covid’s assaults, I have started to recover only recently, so the afternoon promised to be fruitful. It was ill luck that, just when I was starting to take off, I heard I had received a message in my mobile (and I must state that my phone isn’t even smart, for I am convinced that a mobile’s intelligence is directly proportional to that subtracted from its owner, whether they like it or not). I ignored the message. Less than a minute later I got another, and then a third one, and so I looked: they were from my bank. They said that they had detected a suspicious £2.40 transaction in such and such café, and that I should respond immediately to say if the offender had been me, or else they would block my card.
That’s another of the pandemic’s sequels: the fear of touching money, and the growing number of businesses which, in fact, only accept card payments. I didn’t know if I should respond. What if it was a scam, and if I answered “yes”, the real crooks gained access to my account in an incomprehensible manner, and emptied it? I then received a call; another automated message, insisting: had I purchased that bloody coffee, or not? By now furious, I called my bank. They told me that indeed, the messages were theirs. I asked them how on earth buying a coffee, spending two wretched pounds with forty pence in the city where I live can be considered a suspicious transaction. The answer was that transactions obeying that description are selected randomly, by machines, of course, to guarantee “our client’s security,” and that we ought to respond right away.
The ordeal took me half an hour. For the next thirty minutes I tried to work, though, needles to say, without much success, and my coffee had got cold. Everything had been altered; my joy had been hopelessly fragmented in that horrible way that can only be inflicted by a technology that we neither understand nor control. As if aboard a sad ship setting sail noiselessly, Blake and Shelley were moving away, with their fire and their verse.
“It’s going to fall,” I thought. One day all this will fall, no matter how much diabolical ingenuity there is, how many satellites and rubbish we’ve left floating in space, and no matter how much we depend on the unintelligible tangle. It’s going to end, simply because that is the destiny of all things, and that is a form of hope, even if I know too well that I won’t see it, nor will I ever get back the (now I can see it) happy and innocent life I remember so well prior to Internet’s takeover, with its throng of sinister siblings. Every time somebody tells me that no, technology’s empire will never end, I respond that that’s what they said about the Roman empire, and look where it is now. The hecatomb will probably start with one of those loops that are already part of our everyday life, when the super sophisticated gadgets we use start doing things that not even technicians understand anymore, making us sink in states both puerile and dreadful of impotence, anxiety, and fury. One of those loops, but gigantic. When the silent tyranny starts to fall, our poor civilisation will fall into indescribable chaos. And we will have deserved it.
Or not, for how many of us did decide that we wanted to live this way? It has been imposed on the vast majority of us. How? By whom? By that amorphous mass, “society”; by the acceptance from no identifiable leader that that’s how things are, now. By an incomprehensible collective error of judgement according to which all these novelties are necessary for our functioning and existence. By businessmen and women and unbalanced IT geniuses who divorced reality long before the rest of us.
One of the reflections aroused when I was preparing my talk on Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) was that nowadays to cause an impact like that of Mary Shelley’s novel is utterly impossible. What humanity has seen since has literally freed us from fright. Just like nobody is astonished anymore by living subjugated by Blake’s current and no doubt dark Satanic Mills, we don’t bat an eyelid at the arrogance of legions of Victor Frankensteins tempting the limits of human diligence. No one is shocked anymore by the invention of one or hundreds of monstruous creatures. The opposite is rather the norm: our civilisation’s dazzling developments are celebrated by the press and in the Web’s labyrinthine echo chamber, and welcome by everyone with unquenchable enthusiasm; the mutilations, grafts, copulations and aberrations carried out day after day under the impersonal light of infinite laboratories all over the world are indiscriminately welcome, praising their service to humanity, with the same discernment that leads us now and then to make long queues to purchase Apple’s latest invention: such are our surrogate rituals.
We’re all part of it, and though the ethical questioning around these supposed or real improvements deserves each a space of serious debate, the latter is inevitably lost in the (dis)informative excess. All that is left is our meek acceptance. Plugged into a gadget on which we hang more and more “apps” until our whole life depends on it, we all are now the creature imagined by Mary Shelley, monstruous and, simultaneously, helpless victim. And to a certain extent, every time that we add another “app”, click here or there without wondering why, every time that we integrate such tricks into our individual and social life, we all are also Victor Frankenstein.
If we stop for a moment and try to think with the thoroughness which is ever harder for our fragmented attention, we can see clearly that the way we 21st Century inhabitants live is not normal; that there is no good sense at all in bartering reality for a virtual reality, and in passively accepting that every action in our life should depend on those gadgets, apps and screens that generate enormous amounts of waste, that we don’t understand, definitely do not control, that have taken our privacy away from us and are also snatching away our life. Or, at least, a human life that deserves that name.
So far are we from Mary Shelley’s lucidity that we rarely shudder when witnessing how our fellow humans visit the most beautiful places on earth, or museums and galleries exhibiting sublime works of art, without ever getting to see directly landscape, architecture, monument or art; brandishing their mobile phones, they get there heedlessly, take the picture or video and leave, without devoting an instant even of contemplation or direct contact to their experience. Zombies, automatons, we feed social media with images and videos; we plague with them whoever sits with us at a café, so that interaction with others is also tampered with, turning us away from the pleasures and risks of true conversation, while our head is filled with noise. Computer chaff. The algorithm’s concrete squalor. Stripped of contemplative and fecund solitude by our own hand, we’re left stranded in the loneliness that kills, that of sheer desolation. Are we to be surprised by the high rates of depression among us?
That the monster doesn’t frighten us collectively anymore no doubt frightens me. It makes me, indeed, depressed. It reminds me the extent to which I am a foreigner in my time. I know I’m not the only one who, lethargic and all, not knowing how to escape, is fully aware of the intrinsic perversity in our twisted love affair with technology. Fortunately, it is still possible, for instance, to walk with our own feet down Poland Street, and to encounter in a burst of imagination William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, to abolish time for an instant and then sit at a café with the urge to write, all these undoubtedly human actions in which past generations can recognise themselves. I am grateful. I wonder, though, what resources I will have to lay my hands on to preserve enough firmness of spirit, so that a robot’s text messages in my mobile won’t sever that cardinal link with the humanity that precedes us, and the humanity to come.
On the boundary between the year gone and the one that is about to start, I am thinking of the future. The future we are creating right now, immune to horror, and the future that, with unforgivable flippancy, we’re leaving as our heritage to our youth, to children and to those who are yet to come. I am wondering why it is so hard for us to find the guts to say, “No. I do not consent to being stripped of my humanity”.
*Image by Luc Mercelis