“99% of people are sheep.” – Oliver Stone
“99% of people have to be told what to think.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
“99% of people are boring idiots.” – Slavoj Žižek
I was sitting in a Tiki bar somewhere in Beixinqiao, with a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Walter Benjamin essays in one hand and a macadamia Chi Chi in the other, wondering if I had finally achieved my teenage dream of becoming a cut-price Hunter S. Thompson.
The man behind this particular bar was a miserable brit in a Jacques Cousteau hat, two surprising things that we had in common that day. The only thing wrong with the picture was that I was surrounded by other people, dealing with small talk instead of perusing the book I wanted to read.
There’s a misconception about me that I don’t like other people. I can see, in my wildest dreams at least, why someone might get that impression. The truth is more complicated: on the whole, I find the human race incredibly fascinating; I just don’t always enjoy being counted as one of them.
It’s true that the more people that are around the less I am likely to be enjoying myself. It’s also true that I find it deeply annoying when people yawn or swipe their phones during a conversation and then wonder why I rarely initiate conversations with them. It’s also also true that I was in no way surprised to learn that humans share 40% of their DNA with a banana. Sure, that extra 60% accounts for things like literature, mathematics and tie-dye t-shirts, but that doesn’t really sound like a fuck of a lot of Deoxyribonucleic Acid to stop you from being a delicious herb or someone who really, really likes Match of the Day.
There’s a photograph currently circulating the internet of Mark Zuckerberg strolling past row upon row of people plugged into virtual reality headsets. Apparently the last blogger to post it (in what Facebook perceived to be a slightly negative light) got both cheeks nailed to the wall and then handed to him. Why anyone would post a picture of their CEO looking a little like Himmler inspecting the troops, or Saruman beaming at his obedient Uruk-hai, and then get tetchy about people who say it looks a little creepy is (as always) none of my business.
The photo reminded me of a Life magazine shot, later used as the cover of a book called The Society of the Spectacle (coincidentally written by Guy Debord, mentioned in the previous entry): A bunch of sheep/idiots/Uruk-hai/whatever staring vacantly through old school 3D glasses, a look of sheer ennui on their gormless faces. (The same look I see on the Beijing Metro during rush hour).
I have absolutely nothing against VR. I think it’s a brilliant new step in the evolution of storytelling.* I like immersive gaming and filmmaking, and I even like fantasy, fairy tales and science fiction. But do I like the people who want us to spend 24 hours of our day there?
Can I get a “hell no”?
Once, in a Canadian city that shall remain nameless, I passed a man who was sky high on something a little stronger than life, shouting at a rubbish bin and telling it to stop changing shape. I stumbled off feeling sorry for him and thinking “Jesus man, I know reality can be tough but it’s not that bad!”
Putting my cards on the table, though, I like people. I like the thoughts they have, the art that they create and, sometimes, the environments that they build. But close contact with other humans usually gives me the spiritual equivalent of herpes.
One thing I actually like about Beijingers is that, on the whole, they mind their own business. The barman and waitress and busboy aren’t hustling for tips because, firstly they don’t get any and secondly, they’re almost always the same person and are therefore too busy to give a shit about you.** Ditto the people crammed onto the subway, who are so busy playing games or watching soap operas that it’s a wonder their eyes don’t bleed.
George Orwell once cheerfully predicted, “if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In my humble opinion, the boot is already wedged up the other end, and not enough people are pulling it out, taking the glasses off and getting out of the fucking theatre.
* (in a way that 3D is not. 3D just lets you watch the same crap films in a slightly different way.)
** I still cringe at the very memory of someone (more than one someone in fact) wiping the table and giving me some variation of the phrase “Oh, reading a book, eh?”