Sunday, 21 December 2014

Should I get Starbucks to adopt my child?

It’s when I look up from my regular filter refill that I see it. It’s on the kiddie shelf, the family-oriented corner of the café with all the picture books to attract young mums and dads doing their parenting over a skinny latte. Amongst the crayons, the Thomas the Tank Engine hardbacks, there it is: a splodge of colour and outline, a precarious schematic suggesting a shape. It is, in other words, a child’s drawing.

Not so very unusual in a crèche area, you might say. In fact there are several such fumbling sketches. But the issue isn’t the draughtsmanship. The issue here is what it depicts. This child’s drawing, as I learn on closer inspection, is a “Mango and Passionfruit Juice Blend”. I know that because it says so, at the bottom. In the same wonky hand. They’ve even included a smiley on the end.

Cute eh? Other such infant talent on display includes the “Chocolate Chip Frapucino (sic)”; the “Iced Cafe Mocha”; the “Classic Hot Chocolate” and, perhaps most perturbing, a piece of Outsider Art entitled “Did You Know? Starbucks Coffee Is The Best!” They’ve even included a charmingly wonky corporate mermaid.

Am I to understand that Starbucks has been employing children to do part of its marketing?  

I use the word “employ” only loosely of course; perhaps it was part of some community thing, a kids’ activities day or suchlike. This particular branch of Starbucks also hosts nights for a local non-denominational church (go figure). Or perhaps – and this seems a bit of a stretch – the staff drew them, tongue between teeth, using their left hand, thinking themselves back into a five-year old.

Somehow, this is even more sinister.

At any rate it suggests a breathtaking level of intimacy between the global corporation and the growing child – many of whom will presumably spend their formative years gazing up at inspirational Chocolate Chip Frappucino drawings in the way I used to gaze up at a toy WWI biplane. The general term for all this is “Relationship Marketing” – that is, any attempt to foster a link between company and consumer – but given that these customers are still learning to make vowel sounds, I’d say it was less “marketing” and more a kind of friendly corporate “brainwashing” with overtones of the Soviet Komsomol program. How are kids supposed to develop distinct personalities when they’re taught to associate creativity with drawing a cappuccino?

It’s not just Starbucks of course. Just across the road the Sainsbury’s apes the historic shop window with its “community” notice board, bracketed by a big smiling picture of a copper just to remind the local “community” Not To Try Anything Clever; global retailers don’t just want to replace the high street, they want to be the high street.

I know this because I actually lived in a Starbucks for a while – one inside the Borders store in Islington during the late 2000s. Technically I was domiciled in a flat up the road but since I spent most of my waking life in the cafe (being part of the book store it served as a locum library, breakout room and occasional sleeping area) it was effectively my address – until Borders went out of business.

Brands becoming complete solutions for living is less sci-fi than it sounds. Just look at iLives, the Cult of Apple; look at apartments opening up inside malls, or branded “butchers” and “bakers” inside supermarkets; look at people who struggle to interact outside Facebook, or Google Glass. An MRI study showed that Apple imagery now excites similar neurological responses as religious iconography used to. They say our earliest attachments last from cradle to grave – so Starbucks is working hard to get them in the cradle. 

What's the harm, eh? Ahhh: just look at how they love colouring in those cappuccinos.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

I’m going to die around 2070. If everything goes to plan I’ll end up dribbling porridge in a care home

Stoke-on-Trent, the 22nd century

The future. It used to be so bright and shiny. Think back to old fashioned sci-fi. Metropolis. Barbarella. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Balletic spacecraft, stewardesses serving cappuccinos in zero gravity. Back then the future was something to look forward to. It came with free energy and zero-gravity sex. People assumed that by 1999 they’d be boiling an egg with nuclear power and popping down the chemist’s in a hovership. 

Then come the dirty seventies and cyberpunk and steampunk, and the future got grunged up. Ridley Scott’s Alien brought us a space-age that looked less like a utopia and more like an industrial dispute in space; the L.A. of Blade Runner combined noodle stalls with eternal night and the microclimate of Manchester. 

But the truth about the future is that it’s is neither an unblemished paradise nor an apocalyptic hell. It’s just boring. 

How do I know? Well, I don't - but I have thought about it quite a bit. In fact I’ve done some rough calculations and worked out that if everything goes to plan, I’m due to die sometime around 2070. Think about it: 2070. Close your eyes and what do you see? Boutique cloning perhaps. Wi-Fi brains. Ears rewired by Talk Talk. Mark Zuckerberg projected onto the back of your eyeballs. The future sounds all shiny and exciting until you remember that you’ll be in it; that you'll watching all these things from the fat-arsed impotence of advancing age, with time carving crevices into your skin and each new generation of embryo-faced squealing twenty-somethings smugly redefining the world that you’re struggling so hard to feel relevant in. This is the terrible truth - the future won’t feel like glitzy sci-fi; it’ll feel like an incredibly boring, 24 hour video feed from a geriatric reality show. Albeit with better phones. 

The future just ain’t what it used to be

Part of the problem, of course, is that we take our inspiration about the future from famous books and films, which tend to centre around shooting robot prostitutes or coming back to 1984 to save John Connor. Do not be fooled. The future won't look like that. It'll be far, far more boring. Yes, sure, the Times Square of the late twenty first century will probably feature dancing hologram advertisements and other orgasms of cyber-puff if we haven't all been swallowed by rising oceans. But most of us won't be there.We'll be in Wigan. Or Ramsgate. Or in Basingstoke, in an old persons' home. Even in 2070 Basingstoke will still look like Basingstoke; Basingstoke is one of those places that will always look like Basingstoke. The motorway services off a slip-road on the A24 will still be boring in the future - as will rain, or Scrabble, or taking a pee, or Tuesday morning. Even Mark Zuckerberg on the back of your eyeballs won't change that.

This, you see, is the strangest thing about the future: everything you're going through now is just a very slow dress rehearsal for it. The people who will be changing your bedpan in your care home in 2070 aren’t even born yet. The woman who'll replan your town centre is at this very moment watching Peppa Pig over a cup of squirty chocolate milk. If you want to contemplate the real future, your future, remember that a toddler currently spooling mucus into its pram will one day be handing you a melanoma test result with a sympathetic smile and asking if you’re covered for life insurance. 

Life, you see, is just a terminal disease in slow-motion - and one of the symptoms is gradually losing your ability to be suprised by it. I'm already a fair chunk of the way through, and I can report with some confidence that taking a pee is considerably less thrilling the 59,000th time than it was the first. As are Tuesday mornings - or Scrabble. Or Basingstoke. If I'm really lucky, if everything goes to plan and I survive the deaths of most of my loved ones, I’ll end up dribbling porridge in a care home while a nurse who hasn't been born yet empties my bed pan. Maybe those rising oceans aren't such a bad idea after all.