I have been thinking a lot recently about technology, and our acquisition of it. Technology is, quite rightly, an expensive purchase; just to come close to constructing a calculator requires hundreds of transmuted meteorite shards that are scraped off the inside window of the Earth. They require factories of technology to produce, to pulverize and liquefy in order to store information or output light. Technology changes daily, and, for the most part, our choice to change with it remains a choice. If I am a rich man, I may choose to upgrade my technology every time something new is released, and discard or recycle that which I used before. If I am poor, or merely comfortable, I may wait several consumer generations before buying again. I may also be an archaist, or a luddite, or anything in between the polarities, and buy once and wish to use forever. I may be content to only give the capitalist contract a cursory glance, and decide that I need nothing more.
This contract simmers down to this particulate:
“If you pay us money for an object that is advertised as a purchasable product, or an easily defined experience, that experience or object belongs to you, within the confines of common sense and ability. You may use it as you see fit within the bounds of already-defined law, and it remains yours until you sell it, discard it, or die, in which case it passes on to your descendants, until it crumbles into dust or is otherwise obliterated.”
As far as I can tell, this is the basis of all modern commerce. Some services and experiences may be defined more nebulously, but this is the crux of it. One may also hire, or rent, or license, or borrow, or interact with objects in many other ways. But, for an intelligent person, your relationship with your object is defined prior to the choice. You know, or can divine, in advance, whether you are hiring or buying.
This, it seems, is not a given anymore.
I am not actually referring to digital products which provide no concrete, ad infinitum link from consumer to product, like Kindle purchases that can be wiped remotely or Steam libraries that can only groan silently with weight and expense, and may, in fact, be wiped at any point and for any reason, infractious or not. These issues have already been raised, by many, and I for the most part agree with them, but there is a different paradigm for immaterial purchases; the practicalities of storage and the easily-broken promises of “forever-access”.
I am referring to good old-fashioned hardware. Those things that can be grasped, picked up in a car, and sit in the corner of a living room until the curtains glow with far-off oil-fires and the whoop of marauders pound at the door. Computer hardware is caught in an amphibian conundrum; its physical shell fulfills all of the tenets of the above consumer agreement, and is purchased with the ineffable promise of continual, permanent ownership. However, its blood is software, the cloud-like, undefined anti-stuff of which I talked in the above paragraph. The shell without the blood is nothing at all. The old Apple 2s and Valve, owners of the Steam platform, to realistically honour a refund of every transaction made if their servers were wiped. And their EULA protects them against such an obligation. And so we enter in this argument that we now own nothing, but pay the same fees as we do to own to instead license, with added convenience. If the prices were different, this would make sense. But they do not. The capitalist contract is being used incorrectly.
I am not sure if something needs to change legislatively, or if this instead requires a change in outlook. People need to realise the relationship to what they are buying, and how this may change in the future. That shiny computer you buy today will degrade, and gather dust and jam-prints and will need cleaning and maintenance like anything else; but those theoretical spaces that exist within them, and alongside them, in an unknown dimension, sit thrumming silently, waiting for the light to switch off. That computer is only a rental, no matter how much you paid for it.
While you have a bowl to put yourself in, there is a uniqueness that nobody else recognizes. Your head is an iceberg’s hat, a deeper-than-thought dwelling for you to place parts of yourself that require an intimate knowledge of every sniffed nose you have ever had. There is a thrift of understanding that causes you pain, and you wish that others would try to spend it.
They are. Everyone you ever meet tries hard to understand your point of view and foibles. It is a constant effort, and much of our brainpower is spent in it. Everybody fails. Don’t feel bad about it. You’re special, remember.
The wasted effort spent in trying to understand each other, and in that effort the knowledge that others are as unique as ourselves, and subject to that uniqueness in the same manner as ourselves, is what stops cheeks sliding from faces and the formation of ideas such as:
– What is this house for, anyway?
– What should I terminate?
– Starting things should cease.
The road is a process. It remains entirely unsame throughout its life, after which it is shaved off and used to keep the dishes quiet. Even a single second after the bitumen lorries have left, it is different. The chemical-smoke that worms off of it contains neat shelves of atoms, and in being different, it is hard to focus on the material. When I drive along it I see only the trees surrounding it, the bridges crossing it, and the personalised machinery using it; never the road. The road is a process.
Machinery can become filthy without human aid. This is not the prevailing opinion, but it is true. The road is the proof. No humans walk there, apart from when wrapped in evolutionary warning dyes to make of themselves sufficiently important to avoid death. Sometimes the lost or stranded are forced to wait, fearful of the wind that changes, always changes. They are quickly shuttled off, trying to forget the cold, and the noise, and the choking air. There is no hint of man here. He left with the bitumen lorries, and took his skin cells and eyelashes with him. There is no coating of man. And yet black films collect.
It is a natural process, shaped by the switchbacked throat that breathes up and down from where all the air is. You may see it in the sea, in the woods and by the rivers, wherever you live. Some things are swept along by the air. Others are not. The things that are swept along do not remain homogenous, they catch their slightest utilities on the claws of others, are knotted, and come to halt, the air trying to reclaim them. And still the cars come, and scratch themselves, and a matte-black dust settles over everything.
I have seen this more and more since I became a driver. Strange objects all coated the same, washed against the central reservation, wind-shoved between the rails of a pedestrian bridge. Bottle caps mixed with flat meat, hubcaps becoming carbonised and petrified with snack packets, toddler toys, cigarettes, apple cores, faulty radios, dustings of chocolate yoghurt biscuit pots, forming fungus that can make no roots and so is mobile, swept along until exhaustion or underpasses give them a little bit of peace.
Sometimes roadkill will be fresh, and it seems that lack of blood lets light, artificial or stellar, illuminate the interior and give the feathers or fur or puckered skin a lantern quality. This will not last. The throat gulps eternally, and the black cells come, filming everything and wearing down the catch until it drifts off again, and plasters the rear ends of vans and provides someone somewhere to write and draw pictures. This will only happen when they are drunk; they often will not wash their hands before they next eat, and do not know what they are coated in.
I knew somebody who wanted to walk the entirety of the M25 on the hard shoulder. I now imagine him treading slowly on, each passing vehicle stealing a infinitesimal part of him, until by the end of his journey his edges are rounded, and he does not know how close he came to becoming part of the black film, the sample of pheasant and badger and polyurethene, that moves along those roads where humans no longer go without a tabard and a cone.
Sandor Katz and Doc Fermento managed to convince me that gently rotting my own vegetables would not end up with a face the colour of greening tin and cured sausage for legs, blood for effluent and a corkscrew wedged in the duodendum. This fermented cabbage sat in my cupboard, in a dark warmth, for two weeks, and then was refrigerated to put everything to sleep.
I tasted it yesterday, with corned beef, a little creme fraíche, and some mustard.
It smelt… not wrong, as I had been trained by my reading to trust an actual smell from my food as evidence of health. The thing I noticed was a lack of vinegar, and a strong smell of salt. Which, considering there’s around 500g of salt in the jar, is to be expected. The caraway seeds had mostly sunk into a thick gound at the bottom rim, but I could feel them pricking up through the soup, alerted to my breaking of the seal.
It tasted great. Really great. I have a cold, but it still tasted great. Crunchy, as salty as a crisp, but with a wet, earthy strata underneath. It tastes like it has sat in a cupboard for two weeks, in a good way. It sat well in my stomach, and I am ready for more.
I’m fairly certain that this will not become a D&D blog. It is not what I intend, and I think I’m just missing losing my voice and having my hair stand up on end in its own effluent. Such are the weekends.
As you may have gathered, I run my own D&D campaign with a group of like-minded troglydytes. It generates some of the most entertaining passages of time in my current existence. I also usually write our adventures as a serialised, cheesed fiction, in a style that allows me to be as pretentious as possible, and actually be praised for it by an exceedingly small fanbase. We have fun, in our little world.
There are always locks when we are young.
They may be machined locks, impenetrable to adults and almost boring to us. They may be combinations, seemingly a teaching aid, containing as they do the numbers one to nine, the first we learn, and the only ones we need. I think that we wonder where the others are hiding. Sometimes the locks are simpler, more alien, a lid that won’t turn, a interior muscle not yet plump enough to pop the seal. If we were to train hard, we could remove the child safeties before our time. But we never did.
These locks were forgotten about. The perseverance of children in books does not translate into real life. But they stay with us, in a way. Many of them led to rooms that were not configured to our clumsiness. Others led to the Unguent Cupboard.
The Unguent Cupboard held liquids most often, and sometimes solids, though there is something more mysterious about a potion than a sheer block of stuff. It catches the light better, unless it is a precious metal, and then there is a whole other curiosity which we are encouraged to sate. The curiosity of young princes.
We knew that those liquids would poison us if we drank them. We had been told enough times that they were for killing other beings of varying sizes, that Mum and Dad did not like to kill but had to, to keep us safe. Red and yellow and darkness were things to keep away from. White powder on the ground was not seasoning. It would not taste good.
These liquids fulfilled purposes that were so sacred that they were only brought out for ceremonies – when Dad would sit at the kitchen table outside of mealtimes, his shoes laid before him, or when the floor was slick with oil. Only life’s big accidents called for the unlocking of the Unguent Cupboard; the water would flow from the tap, but would not disappear again. This was unacceptable, and had to be fixed. Mum would unroll the leather, Dad would clap the bristles, and work would begin. We would have to stay back; “dangerous fumes, son, one gasp and you’re done.” But the smell would rise, a smell that wasn’t earth, snot, gravy or other people, the only smells we had really smelt until then. This smelt of miles underground, of factories, of a great distance from us. We had been allowed snorts of it at petrol stations, but it was forbidden, a smell that was laid over the brain like a glass, or a pie case. It was wonderful.
Part of one’s training to be an adult is to learn where all the Unguent Cupboards are, and what they are for. I think that we are disappointed to learn that most are for cleaning, for maintaining what we have. Very few of them change our possessions into something better, or ourselves into others that we would prefer to be. But it is hard not to prize your access. You now know that one to nine are not the only numbers, that combined they are more powerful and useful. That it was not muscle needed to open those caps, but a push and twist, an ability to turn your mind sideways. And that a clean pair of shoes, and a clear sink, are compounds greater than true love or a handsome face.
I have just finished watching a documentary on Moebius/Gir/Jean Giraud, a man who has inexplicably escaped my attentions, despite being right up my strässe. I have yet to buy one of his books, and I feel that I understand his death as a great loss, despite only viewing his work with an outsider’s eye. I hope to change that soon.
Isn’t this the loveliest cover for a novel you have ever seen in your existence? You are right, it is. It is even better in real life, with a tactile, burred surface that calls to mind the craft paper it emulates. A clean image. I am not usually that interested in arty dust covers, but this, as well as the jacket for the UK release of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, are fine examples.
The cover was created by Peter Mendelsund, a designer working at Knopf. I really love his other work, also; professional and material. I wonder if he does more figurative, individual work of his own? His Kafka pieces come close.
The book itself is not bad, either; in fact, sod that, it’s rather good. I don’t like reviewing books, and so I will point you at the promotional video to whet your appetite. I’m not sure if it is on general release in the UK yet, but if you find a copy, snap it up.