In our Big Question—what's the worst that could happen?—Irving Wardle foresees a "pincer movement of theft and coercion"...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
In a story by Patrick Süskind, an old man writes a last letter to warn the human race that they are being taken over by shells. He’s writing against time because he’s turning into a shell himself, and when he dies he has to be buried in an L-shaped grave so as not to snap in two. When I first read this, I thought it a chilling but harmless fantasy. Now it has become more like a prophecy.
My experience of life in Britain over the past 20 years has been one of imperceptible but continuous erosion. Before, the passing scene offered a lively spectacle with many growth areas in the arts and imaginative investment in public works; also, however tested, we Brits hung on to our reputation for tolerance—which may have contributed to our undoing. For wherever you go beyond surface impressions, whether in the food industry, the housing market, the universities, newspapers, publishing or sport, there is a gut sensation that, while we were looking the other way, something essential has been extracted from the cultural heart and is either being sold back to us in a debased form or has vanished altogether. You cannot say who or what is personally responsible for this act of theft. But something is bringing us to dust, and, like Süskind’s implacable ur-shell, it is our enemy.
The best clue to its identity is in technology. Theft is invisible and easy to overlook. Technology is there for all to see; the speed-camera, the taser, the Exocet missile—all perhaps defensible as means of protection. But what about drones? What about surveillance cameras that can read the contents of your wallet at 50 metres? And what about some future satellite that will rifle the contents of your head like a dawn police raid?
Technology, Max Frisch said, is the means of controlling the world without experiencing it. We know who owns the technology; and who else can have committed the theft? When those in power achieve full detachment from mankind, I foresee a pincer movement of theft and coercion in which we shall be petrified in attitudes of compulsory happiness—like those gladiatorial victims who had to hide their faces behind grinning masks as they were cut to pieces. Happily there is another side to technology. Those who use it as a club are like Auden’s omnipotent Ogre, never mastering speech. There are others who use it for the free exchange of information; and who may outwit him.
What do you think is the worst that could happen? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Robert Guest on famine, Edward Carr on war, Clive Stafford Smith on fear, Kah Walla on Africa unfulfilled and Ann Wroe on our imagination.
Irving Wardle was the theatre critic of the Times (1963-89) and of the Independent on Sunday (1990-95)
Picture: detail from Dürer's woodcut "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse", 1498 (Scala)