I’ve started scripting my talks, writing them out longhand, typing them up and performing them directly from the script. This has become part of my talking format, and it seems to work for me. I spoke at Silicon Beach in Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, and as my talk wasn’t filmed I’ve decided to post the script here. I’ve edited out the end because, frankly, you needed to be there. So here it is:
Photo credit: The splendid Paul Clarke
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honour to be here; thank you so much, Matthew, for inviting me to speak here today. It’s an absolute pleasure to share the stage and this room with so many bright and beautiful people. The title of my talk is Zombie Apocalypse And Other Peak Pixel Fantasies, and over the next twenty or so minutes I’ll be taking you through the rabbit warren of my thinking and how I see our world evolving in the next couple of years. This talk covers themes such as going for very long walks, becoming fat, loneliness, connectedness and the freedom of living in a post-zombie apocalypse society. No biggie. I like to keep things upbeat and straightforward.
Before I begin, I should maybe say a little about myself. Hello. I’m Marcus. I’m a pessimist who’s disappointed when he’s right and delighted when he’s wrong. I’m very often right. I’m the son of a lorry driving Scotsman. My mum is Welsh. I was born just up the road in Britain’s ugliest city, Southampton. One of my many sisters studied nursing here in Bournemouth, and I have many fond memories of sitting in a 1974 Vauxhall Viva, the rain hammering down on us as we stared out at the ocean eating a bargain bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I studied something called Art & Social Context at Dartington College of Arts and then fled John Major’s post-Thatcher Britain in 1993 to live and work in Germany. I’ve lived there ever since.
I’m a German.
I’m a proud Gen Xer.
I’ve been the controller in a printing company, a creative director, founded a digital agency, worked at Nintendo of Europe, been a general manager for a business process outsourcing company and I have spent time in a mental hospital because being all of these things made me really rather poorly. Mental health issues are real and need to be openly discussed without shame or fear of rebuttal.
This is who I am.
The Internet saved me. I was lost and lonely, stuck somewhere between not being English anymore and not quite being German. I’d just gone through a divorce and was struggling with guilt. It was a dark place. The physical world, the dreadful relationship I’d managed to get myself into and the awfulness of measuring the speed of printing machines were beginning to take their toll. I’d walked away from a promising career in the arts, messed up an agency, messed up a marriage and messed up being a dad. And then one day, having turned my back on it in 2001, I stumbled over the Internet again and it saved me.
It had changed. It looked different. It had new characters and new things to speak about. It was the “Age Of Conversation” – remember that? It was around that time that some of us “met”, either physically or in that really odd digital fashion that was written about so much at the time. I started playing with what I called the fabric of the web; creating characters that would invite the audience to join in and play along with. If you were part of that period, 2006 – 2011, then you were part of saving my life and I thank you for it.
It was a healthy, exciting place: vibrant, silly, invigorating, gloriously amateurish and anything but important. The Internet felt like a place we could go into log on to a place where we could catch up, hang out, comment on Life In The Middle, rip adverts to shreds or have orgasms over Sony’s “Balls” commercial and then, when we were finished with our university educated bubble, we could log out of it again.
But over time things have shifted; they’ve become mobile, complex, woefully important, void of meaning, instantaneous, branded and entwined into the very fabric of our daily lives. The Internet doesn’t feel like a thing that one pops in and out of anymore. It now pops in and out of us. To me at least, this feels intrusive and suffocating. The Internet now feels like a dream, a prophecy or a typed A4 page of crazy suburban dystopia that J.G. Ballard threw in the bin but was miraculously discovered and serialised by the bastard child of Jeffrey Archer and Daniel Suarez.
As the great Marion Gräfin Dönhoff said: just because communism failed, it doesn’t mean that capitalism worked. We’re all wired up with nowhere to go, but this just doesn’t feel like the dystopia we were promised. Dystopia isn’t working. The delicate membrane of our middle aged, middle class, Gen Xer bubble has burst, real people have turned up, and we’re ruined.
Things are disappearing, being sucked into this new Internet: cash, jobs, privacy, sleep, time, distance, classiness and common sense. Civil wars are taking place in the comment sections of carefully thought out pieces of content marketing for a fast moving consumer goods. We’re creating ubiquitous gateways from the physical to the pixel; we’re putting our homes, our cars, our memories and our secrets into the network.
The bow of our fragile selves is battered relentlessly with words that mean nothing, and yet we’re being told mean everything: big-data, clouds, content, relevance, fame, influence – even the word “meaningful” has been cast out upon the scrap heap of Post-Neoliberal bullshit bingo. As global network politics shift further to the right and left of the spectrum, the vacuum created at the centre is being flooded by the flotsam and jetsam of Start-up Junk, Corporate Yoloism, Creative Consumers, Prosumers, Unicorns and post truth promises that tantalise and numb us in ways we had never thought possible and always with an ukulele sound track.
Chances of escape are becoming slimmer as more and more of our critical infrastructures, services, friends, families and clients slide quietly into this always “on” – ness. This really worried me. And so I decided that I needed to do something about it. So I did.
I went for a walk.
I’ve been on this track before but on the other side of the river. It turns out that the other side of the river is better: more interesting, prettier and a tiny bit softer under foot. Soft under foot, it so transpires, is better than tarmac, which is an Achilles heel killing bastard. I’m looking at the water, but it’s not the river, just a canal bit of the river which has been raised into what appears to be some kind of barge way. There’s a brutal bridge, concrete and ugly which takes a considerable amount of traffic over the water and towards Kloster Schäftlarn, a monastery which has a really nice beer garden, toilets, and chairs to sit on. I find the traffic loud and insulting after so many hours of walking on my own, away from the maddening crowd, thinking of how to escape the maddening network.
When I’m sensible, and on the other side of the river, Schäftlarn marks the end of my walk, a solid 25 kilometres from the Reichenbach bridge in Munich. Five hours of walking, talking and working with clients normally ends at the monastery with an ice cold wheat beer and mashed up cheese and pretzels.
They’ll be a bunch of Artefact cards, which I’ll post and John V Willshire will mercilessly re-tweet them from all of his Twitter accounts, bless him. But I’m on the other side of the river, heading towards Wolfratshauen which is another ten kilometres due south. I’ve been on this track for six hours, walking for five, with the rest being used for lunch, taking photographs and shouting at neon coloured men, with their bulging lycra pants and their infuriating mountain bikes. My feet hurt, I’m tired and need to decide if I’m going to carry on or cross the river, go and get a beer and then a train home. I’m going to carry on.
I started walking because I had become a fat Marcus. Fat Marcus happened because I had stopped smoking twenty cigarettes a day and started eating twenty delicious, apricot jam filled croissants a day instead. My wife suggested that I should maybe start quantifying myself and my croissant habit with a fitness tracker (which is Bernadette’s way of saying “Marcus, you’re fat”) and we started going for long walks, rowing and doing something called “going on a diet”.
That was the summer of 2014. Christmas came, and we were walking in the woods close to her home in Nieder-Roden, when I suddenly stopped, looked at my wife and declared that I, in no uncertain terms, liked walking. I liked the exercise, the talking and looking at trees and things. It felt adventurous and strangely gentleman like. It felt good for the duration and not just afterwards, and I could do it without looking like a fool.
I like the Victorianism of it: it’s pointless but challenging, and it’s something that I can do. I’m woefully un-sporty. My unwillingness to propel my middle aged body above 5 KMH has been well documented. Walking long distances, for long periods of time, however, appears to be something I’m rather good at. I can walk. 5 KHM is the perfect speed to take in your surroundings and yet still be on the go and if you’re fortunate enough to have a walking partner who is intelligent, interesting, interested and has the stamina to just keep on going, well then you can have a very fruitful discussion as you wander. You don’t even smell if you wear the appropriate clothing.
Walking; I love how it helps me concentrate on problems: a Creative Walk is a pedestrian adventure in 4 acts: fog and storm, through the roof, the idea hunt, and the cattle drive (or Almbabtrieb as we call it in German). I like the pain in my feet and the sense of adventure of it all. I like the subversion of walking, the lunacy of pedestrianism over getting on an e-bike or driving by car. I like the sense of vision you get when you stand on a mountain and the sense of adventure I feel when I’m hopelessly lost in a forest. I like the magic of a compass and the sheer relief of getting off a Monroe that has been trying to kill you. Walking is physical, tactile and dirty.
I suppose it’s easy to understand why I love walking when you see my photographs from the Bavarian Alps, the Scottish Highlands or the dreamy moors of Devon: the breath-taking views, the landscapes and the mountains. That’s because walking in these kinds of environments simply makes sense. It’s harder to make sense of my love for walking on this stretch of path because it’s not Instagrammable.
And as I’m walking along this miserable stretch of canal I start to ponder that, the act of walking has become my way of addressing the challenge of always being “on”. This isn’t some virtual reality walk, this is the real thing and, out here, in the middle of nowhere – somewhere between Munich and Wolfrathausen – I’m off the grid, and part of some weird, rich natural, pagan and even literary heritage that spans everything Chaucer to Robert MacFarlane. I sense the adventure; a channelling of the Golden Age of Alpinism, the taste of Kendall mint cake on my lips and the smell of Joseph Addison’s frostbite under my nose.
Iain Sinclair, the great walker writer, says that walking makes the world more real but our desire to publish Instagrammable moments, worthy of attention, praise and recognition, banishes the real back into the realm of the pixel fantasy. Every step, meter of ascent, calorie and distance quantified within an inch of its life and pushed to the cloud. Here, out in the forests and paths, with the Woodrose, Foxfire and Shaw, the connected world can only get in if I decide to let it in. It means I have to let it go.
And right here. Right at this spot at the Ickinger Weir, I realised that we’re never going to be able to let it go on our own because it won’t let us go. The network’s level of infiltration is at a near peak level. I’d like to ask a question right now. How many of you like to go out camping, walking, fishing, mountain climbing and building bonfires? Do you feel free when you do it? Do you get thrown backwards in your timeline to the time you were at Stubbington study centre learning about frogs, vermin and peregrine falcons? How many of you here yearn to have that feeling again: the simplicity of finding out what trees are called or learning how to build a campfire? I do, and I’m never closer to this feeling while out on a walk. But I always have to return: to the desk, the office, the conference room, the tax man and the network.
Some of you may have seen the wildly popular television series “The Walking Dead”. I’ve only managed to watch one and a half series (it gives me nightmares) but as it follows the standard zombie apocalypse trope of a mysterious virus, undead, collapse of critical infrastructures, nomadism, survival when everything just collapses.One notices that there’s not a pair of Snapchat sunglasses, Instagram influencers nor a brand inserting itself meaningfully into anyone’s life anywhere in sight. There’s a group or groups of a chivalric quest to find the cure; there are brain eating zombies and militia, mob-like groups out to kill everyone. It’s all about survival. No jobs. No tax man. There is also no Internet.
Now at first glance, it seemed to me, out there on the path to Wolfratshausen that the only logical step towards Deconnectivism would be a Zombie Apocalypse.
It was this quote from George Romero that got me thinking about what kind of Apocalypse we may, or may not face. We’ve always thought of the zombie as a virus that comes into our world, but only in terms of, you know, biting, and blood and eating brains and stuff.
But what if Orwell’s “Versificator” has come true; that machine that mollifies and pacifies that masses, infecting us with a constant flow of nonsense, control, celebrity concept, secrets, sex, Trumps, Farages and Brexits? What if this was our Armageddon? What if we are the infected?
At this point, something happened. I was interrupted by RACHEL and what happened next will remain a secret for all of the lovely people who sat in the audience.
If you were there, well, I hope you enjoyed watching it at much as I enjoyed writing and performing it for you.
RACHEL will return – but more on that at a later date.