Sunday, 25 May 2014

Screaming in a vacuum

There’s a thought experiment philosophers have posed called the Free Speech Booth. The hypothesis is this: to quell international concerns that it’s suppressing the right to free expression, a fascist dictatorship establishes small, sound-proof cubicles where citizens can rant as much seditious material as they like – provided that nobody ever hears them. Screaming in a vacuum, if you like. 

I don’t know the consequences of this particular thought experiment, but I do know that ‘screaming in a vacuum’ sounds remarkably similar to my experience of setting up this “blog” a few years ago to promote myself as a writer. ‘You have to leave it for a while,’ a friend recommended. ‘You’ve got to sort of work at building up traffic.’

I did. I held my breath and counted to fifty. Then I sneaked back to see if anybody had looked at it.

You know that bit in The Blair Witch Project where the helpless kids finally stagger upon a hellish concrete bunker, hidden in a hillside a million miles from anywhere? Well, my blog page felt a bit like that: virtual door hanging off by its hinges; broken windows creaking in the wind; the occasional hyena calling out across the darkening plain.

Number of new visitors: zero.

And yet people still ask.

‘Have you got a blog?’

‘Sort of,’ I reply.

‘You need to have a blog, Dale,’ they’ll tell me, cheerfully, as if to suggest that Dostoyevsky might have made a half decent writer if only he’d had a blog.

It doesn’t take a genius to point out that the web is prone to oversaturation, that the problem with a medium where anyone can broadcast their thoughts to the entire planet is that you get, effectively, an entire planet attempting to broadcast their thoughts to the entire planet. It doesn’t take a genius to point out that this effectively is a form of censorship. Once upon a time dissident thought was buried beneath political repression. Now it’s buried away beneath three thousand other search results. It’s not the Gulag Archipelago, it’s the Google Archipelago. I know all about the Free Speech Booth. In fact these days I pretty much am the Free Speech Booth: a human sized quarantine zone. If political philosophers really want to establish a sound-proof bubble for people to scream out their thoughts while utterly ignored by everybody else, they don’t need to cast around for an underground Samizdat – they just need to start a blog on Wordpress. And then email a link to it to all their friends. There’s so much Free Speech around nobody’ll ever even notice they’re there.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Vietcong with flip-flops

You head down into the cellars beneath the flicker of prison-issue bulbs. On the wall of a bar/disco hangs a punishing activity schedule for new inmates: Happy Hour, Cops & Robbers, Salsa Night. A gang of young Italian prisoners pass you in Abercrombie uniforms, sipping Cokes, chatting into mobiles. Your footsteps echo behind you. It feels less like a backpacker hostel and more like the headquarters of a faded military dictatorship; the Vietcong with flip-flops.

You pass a room marked “Marketing Chamber”, then another calling itself “Social Area”. You open the door: thirty young people stare silently at their laptops. “Smile,” says a poster, “you’re on CCTV.” It feels like getting a dirty wink from Chairman Mao.
Euro-techno pulses through the complex, machine-guns your ears. It follows you into the cafeteria, where you sit for a while, crunching crisps from the machine. Two French guys near you chat over a formica table. You wonder at what exact point you became too old for this. Somehow, it reminds you of a moment in your early teens: realising with genuine sadness that you’d never play Pass the Parcel again. A security guard wanders around, gently and quietly checking that Everything’s Okay, like an aggressive dad patrolling a birthday party. Overhead strip lights glare into your eyes...

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