Devices and Desires

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Devices and Desires

Last week Farwell promised he’d take a closer look at devices — the smartphones and tablets that have become essential props in our day-to-day lives, on and off the water. Are they really the “fetters on free spirits” that he suggested? Or has he got it wrong? Read his latest column and see what you think. But be warned: This is much longer than your typical tweet.

by Farwell Forrest | February 9, 2018
Though originally scheduled for publication on July 25, 2017, this ended up on the spike. Now it’s gone feral.

Not too long ago, in another place, I had occasion to mention a book with an unlikely title: The Man Who Loved Bicycles. It was written by Daniel Behrman, and yes, I did more than “mention” it. I praised it to the skies — like the author was my dead brother, to borrow a line from Stewart Pearson. I also tried to explain why a book about one man’s love of bicycles might interest canoeists. I may or may not have succeeded in this endeavor, but I didn’t see any harm in trying. In any case, I hadn’t been paid to promote the book, which was remaindered almost before it was published, and that was back in 1973. It is true that I’d like to see The Man in the stores again, however, and in my earlier column, I went so far as to suggest that if I could somehow find a way, I’d bring out a new edition myself. But to be honest, this was so much wind. Publishing is probably the best way ever invented to lose heaps of money. Until the corporate giants took it over and turned it into a sort of celebrity sweepstakes, the book trade was almost exclusively a rich man’s hobby, an agreeable way to turn a large fortune into a small one. And that lets me out. I am not rich. Far from it.

The bottom line? When I praised The Man, I didn’t have any skin in the game. Nor did I think that any readers would actually take me up on my suggestion that they search out copies on the secondhand book market. After all, I’m not competing with The Times Literary Supplement or The New York Review of Books. Not by a long chalk. Yet to my astonishment, a reader actually went out and bought a copy of The Man on my say-so. I was delighted, to say the least — until he wrote to me later to tell me how disappointed he was. Or as he put it, with commendable clarity and admirable directness: “Got the book and at page 25 was starting to believe it was going to be nothing but rantings.” Still, he added that it “started to improve” on page 29. Fair enough. Not a rave review by any means. But not blanket condemnation, either. Let’s call it modified rapture, shall we?

I’m happy with that, and make no mistake, my reader’s criticism of the book’s “rantings” is well founded. The Man is pretty end of the pier, as the Brits used to say. But at least Behrman makes no bones about it. His first sentence gives his game away: “If, from time to time, this book is outrageous, extravagant, and inconsistent, I will only be acknowledging the influence of the auto-huckster, whose claims pollute the newspapers and magazines I read daily.”

There. Anyone who gets past this warning has been put on notice that The Man Who Loved Bicycles is not Top Gear. Anyway, the reader who bought the book on my recommendation is a generous soul, as well as a trenchant critic. He’s now finished the book, and he’s given it to me. And what will I do with a second copy? I’ll send it to any publisher who’s prepared to bring it back into print. Any takers?

That takes care of old business. Now for something new: devices. And desires, of course, with a nod of gratitude to the Book of Common Prayer. A few words of explanation are in order at this point, I suppose. I occasionally make the mistake of reading the local papers. The freesheets, at any rate. My reasons vary. Sometimes I’m bored. Or I’m waiting for the tea to steep. Or I’m curious to see what the chambers of commerce have come up with in order to lure the big spenders this weekend. Will it be an afternoon of lawnmower racing? A demolition derby? A display of “barn quilts”? Or maybe a workshop on raising free-range ostriches for the table? Whatever it is, it’s bound to be good, and I figure it’s my duty as a citizen to keep up with such things. Which is why I also take a peek at the nationals (i.e., the ostrich-like “mainstream media”) from time to time, though without much hope that I’ll find anything of interest, so timid have these echo chambers of credulity become in recent years.

Imagine my surprise then, when, in one my rare dalliances in the arms of The Gray Lady, I happened on an article titled “At Cannes, the Great Gusher of Content Comes With Warning Signs.” Admittedly, as teaser headlines go, it’s not in the same league as “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” but I read the first couple of paragraphs anyway, and then I read on, because the writer, Jim Rutenberg, wanted to talk about the ways that devices are taking over our lives, while making a lot of very wealthy men and women even wealthier in the process. This is a big deal. Devices — smartphones and tablets and their ilk — now occupy the whole attention of pretty near everybody who isn’t actually sleeping, including most of the drivers I encounter on local roads. And devices are the cloacae that deliver, “the great geyser of our times, … the hand-held connectivity that Steve Jobs tapped with his iPhone, and that Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat now so powerfully refine and distribute on their social media platforms.”

Exactly. The message of Rutenberg’s piece is a simple one: Each of us can now retreat into a personally tailored virtual world, one in which he gets a constant drip feed of “the exact sorts of videos, music, news and entertainment [he] want[s].” Only that and nothing more. This totally immersive bespoke vade mecum is — to use a bit of business jargon that’s now making its way into everyday speech — a silo, isolated, closed-in, and impregnable. Nothing uninvited can intrude.

Needless to say, a bourse of billionaires are competing to fill our silos for us. And the price of their services? Only our lives. We tell them what we want, or at least what we think we want. Or they deduce it from our e-mails, texts, tweets, travels, and purchases. (Our lives, our dreams, and our desires are an open book to them, since our tethered devices are indefatigable, unsleeping snatchers-up of all such unconsidered trifles.) The result? At any hour of the day or night, our billionaire benefactors can give us exactly what they know we want to know, or at any rate, exactly what they want us to want to know, and they can give it to us good and hard, with plenty of six-second commercials thrown in to pay the cost of gassing up their personal jets and offset the upkeep on a few of their private islands.

Wait a minute! Did I just write “six-second commercials”? I did. It seems that, notwithstanding our own Dear Leader’s ardent embrace of the medium, the tweet is … well … like, you know, so yesterday. It’s now too lengthy to hold our attention. Six seconds is the new limit. I peg this at around 125 characters for most readers, though if you must listen to the message, rather than reading it, the bar is lower still: 75 characters, say. Little more than half a tweet. And even that will likely be thought excessive before long. Rutenberg points out that since “the most important advertising slogan of the past year [he was writing in 2017], ‘Make America Great Again,’ runs just three seconds, tops,” the six-second limit will soon fall by the wayside. It’s like they say: “tl;dr.” That beats “We hold these truths to be self-evident” all hollow, don’t you think? But don’t get complacent, because there are smaller things to come. Three seconds is not the ultimate. There’s no compelling reason for the language of persuasion to remain so garrulous. Before you know it, everything of importance will probably be communicated with single punctuation marks.

Me? I can’t wait. And since I like to think I’m in the loop, I’ll give this a try right now:


Feel free to tweet my vital insight to all your friends. And on that note, I’m going to wrap this column up — even though I’ve yet to get to my central arguments. Sorry about that. Good thing I’ll get another chance in a week’s time. Trust me: It’ll be Great! You can’t believe how Beautiful it’ll be!

Moreover, just as soon as I’ve put devices to bed, so to speak, I’m going to tackle desire:


What did I tell you? And don’t worry. I promise I’ll stick to the point next time. Not one word about bicycles. No long-winded explanations. No digressions. Just devices and desires — and how they’re changing the canoeists’ and hillwalkers’ world forever. Like I said before, it’s gonna be Great! Again.

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