Addicted to tweaking. There are more serious, socially damaging things that you can be addicted to.
Tweaking is a about the desire to make the infrastructure right, before you pick up the pace with adding content. So on Saturday morning, following a thought as I went to sleep on Friday, I looked for a WordPress plugin that would allow people to comment on this blog directly from their Facebook accounts. Such a thing had to exist. It’s a blog that has always lacked comments, so I decided to see if I could make the process easier and more transparent. I think it works. Try it.
Tweaking can aid productivity but tweaking can stop productivity too. You spend such a lot of time changing the infrastructure to make it work more smoothly that the tasks defining you as a person and that the world is waiting for you to perform remain undone. Your desk is tidy and your collection of peanut butter jars is alphabetised but you have essentially accomplished nothing. The phrase “did you manage to” slices into your psyche with all the accusatory insistence of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in clown suits hunting you down to tell you that you’ve been driving around with no tax and no MOT for the last three weeks. For legal reasons I must emphasise that this is purely a metaphorical illustration. Whether it be the clearing of a desk or the indexing of labels or the construction of new metaphors to decorate a concept that conventional wisdom has been accustomed to call laziness, it is only about changing the environment in which you might one day do something.
Recently the public manifestation of the worldwide web turned twenty. Its creator is perhaps the ultimate humanitarian. Dyson vacuum cleaners are not a gift to the world: they are a commercial concept, and rightly so. But the web is explicitly there to help us be better people who can talk to each other more easily. The easy, almost facile humility with which Berners-Lee dismisses his own personal importance is a lesson in how different forms of productivity come naturally to different people according to their genetic make-up. Of course you can get better with effort, but I know that with decades of effort I would never make music that would please anyone, and I know that Berners-Lee has a genetic talent for developing computer based communication networks. Here, the infrastructure is the accomplishment. It can be done. Because of his new infrastructure, society will never be the same again. The people who turned out to clean up after the London riots could outnumber the rioters precisely because of his invention. We could watch the riots and the clean-up as they occurred because of the invention of television many decades earlier.
I’ve always found people who consciously decide not to own a television tiresome, touting a version of reality in which literary output is somehow the gold standard, boasting that they have children who prefer to read rather than watch TV, and dismissing all audio-visual content as addictive pap. The same criticism is levelled by some at social media, characterising them more as a force for harm than good. But the reality that these people fail to engage with is simply that: reality. We no longer live in that world, much as they would like it to return. I commented recently that the Tottenham rioters cleaned out a branch of Currys but left Waterstones untouched. Of course they did. I would warrant that the CCTV camera trained on the Doomsday Book in the British Library was probably redundant that night too. The way in which the looters organised themselves, though, was by reading words and in turn by creating written language. And it was by the creation of and the monitoring of written language that we were able to take such well informed and complex moral stances on the same sequence of events. Social media have led directly to many people being criminally charged. This is a level of awareness that police in nineteenth century London could only have dreamed about. To take a deficit position on social media is about as productive as lamenting the invention of street lighting.
This track uses words, and uses them well. From that perspective it is a literary artefact. But it would have been largely lost to twenty-first century popular culture without the social version of the web that has emerged in the last ten years, languishing in obscurity and sharing the same CCTV camera as the Doomsday Book, in a darkened glass case. I have been aware of it ever since I heard it on the radio in the early nineties, was struck immediately by its inventive use of language in relation to musical rhythm, and wished repeatedly that I could share it with people but found myself unable to do so based on two or three ephemeral radio plays. Only social media have allowed me even to hear it again, as I couldn’t remember the name of the artist and would probably have wasted many hours trying to describe it to dishevelled owners of second hand record shops. It has an interesting relationship with social media, in that it describes a level of despair at the perceived effects of TV saturation on society immediately before Tim’s invention started to focus and refine that saturation. Its naivety is of its age, as quaint and evocative as cobbled streets that look nice but would wreck car suspensions daily if they were everywhere.