Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Oh Well, Orwell

“Unlike Vegas, what happens in Facebook doesn’t stay in Facebook.” That’s how Lori Andrews gets the ball rolling in her latest book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did. The subtitle makes clear the book’s slant: “Social Networks and the Death of Privacy”. Drawing examples from various sources (one-fourth of the book is dedicated to citations), Andrews tells the reader that there’s more to the social networking sites than meets the eye.

Even banal status updates like “I had the best burrito of my life today” or “OMG! this red light is long!” mean potential cash-earning opportunities for an advertiser. Each Google search by you can come back to haunt you. Every update that you “like” on Facebook is being added to your online profile even without your knowledge. But then, didn’t we sign up to Facebook knowing well that a moment of madness (an inappropriate picture or a one-line rant) could prove catastrophic? Andrews says you never know when a digital trapdoor can open beneath your feet at once.

Of course you can disable cookies to not reveal your online information, but try getting past the login page of Gmail and Facebook without allowing a few cookies and you will get a medal. This ham-fisted manner of extracting information about us – political views, sexual preferences, relationships, tastes, workplaces, attitudes – should raise our hackles, according to Andrews. Take a look at a few of the part-gnomic part-idealistic chapter titles and you are made to believe that a digital nightmare is round the corner: “Facebook Nation”, “George Orwell... Meet Mark Zuckerberg”, “Technology and Fundamental Rights”, “FYI or TMI?: Social Networks and the Right to a Relationship with Your Children”. “It’s like a post-apocalyptic scenario where the roads are there, there just isn’t any traffic,” is one of the quotes that Andrews cites.

Andrews’ chatty style and meaty distillation of social networking faux pas across America make for nice reading, at least for a while. The author is vocal about the fact that advertisements are visible next to our emails. It’s as if someone else is reading our mails apart from us. Regarding social networking behaviour Andrews raises an important question: “We don’t let students drive until they are 16 or drink until they are 21 because of the dangers of such behaviour. But we encourage children to acquire computer skills when they are as young as age four.” If a father mentions Silence of the Lambs as one of his favourite movies he can be denied custody of his kid if he opts for a divorce.

I Know Who You Are is a fierce testament to the paranoia that grips Americans. The reader is told about an 18-year-old’s expulsion from school for writing obituaries of his living friends on a blog. A high-school teacher was excoriated repeatedly for an innocuous status update: “Had a good day today, didn’t want to kill even one student”.

Andrews tackles these issues quite formidably in three standout chapters: “Freedom of Speech”, “Lethal Advocacy” and “Privacy of Place”. In “Lethal Advocacy” she talks about the antiquated laws that protect cyber trolls from any prosecution. One terrific example is of a man who eased someone into a suicide pact though he had no intention of killing himself. He derived perverse pleasure from knowing that his correspondent was killing herself, and never thought to call the nearest police station. He was saved from prosecution because he never incited the person physically.

But these are only flashes of brilliance in a book that highlights the "less" in "hopeless”. Andrews harps on the same things with different examples that has been done with much more precision and insight by Eli Pariser and Evgeny Morozov (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You and Net Delusion, respectively).

It’s a sad commentary when anything remotely clandestine is branded “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque”. Andrews wants the reader to believe that Zuckerberg’s jackboots are on the face of every Facebook user. Yes, they did goof up big time once when all private accounts were made public. But then, did British Petroleum shut shop after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Andrews’ book is based on the premise that social networking sites are in the business for the love of it.

Zuckerberg needs to monetise Facebook to afford the ginormous servers that can accommodate our dozens of pictures of our pets and foreign trips. The veins at the back of my neck really constricted when, at the end, Andrews came up with a grandiose manifesto titled “The Social Network Constitution”. Alcoholics Anonymous it is not. The 10 principles are reductive and hardly thought-provoking. This book evokes an old Groucho Marx joke that goes something like this: “Will you believe your eyes or mine?” The reader (also a Facebook user) will choose the former.

Lori Andrews
Simon and Schuster
253 pages; Rs 699

Super disappointment

Six superheroes under one roof was enough for me to make an exception for a Hollywood Studio movie. How bad can The Avengers be I thought. I can see Robert Downey Jr read a phonebook. Captain America was one of the best superhero movies of recent times. Scarlet Johansson can pout her way through toughest of acting doors. Due to whatever reasons I missed out on the movie during the weekend and by then entire social media was done with oohing and aahing about the movie.

Anyway, I watched The Avengers on its sixth day of release along with copious demographics of 11-17. Then comes the opening scene where Tom Hiddlestone does a mild Joker act and I knew exactly what sort of a snoozefest this is going to be. First half trudges along but I knew that Disney (still smarting from its John Carter debacle) must have something up its sleeve in the second half. The climactic half-an-hour looks like a straight lift from— now all you The Avengers fans don’t issue a fatwa against me— Rajinikanth’s Robot.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to write a review here. As a sporadic reader of Marvel comics I have no right to write a thoughtful review. My problem with the movie is that we are told throughout that the world is coming to an end. Call it the 9/11 paranoia or the white man’s lament or Marvel scam but the truth is that someone is cashing in on man’s primal fears. If that isn’t manipulative, then neither is Aamir Khan’s television show and Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade.

In his persuasive new book The Better Angels of our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker argues that we are living in the most peaceful times right from the days of ancient history. “People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century,” Pinker says. But the popular culture would have none of it. The moviegoer is forever besaddled with doomsday movies like 2012 and the ilk.

What’s more, the slick packaging ensures that even kids are made to watch this SFX carnage and made to believe that you need a cape to fight the external forces, which don’t exist in the ‘normal’ world. I might sound like a geriatric with both his legs in the grave, who is anyway not the target audience. You, the diehard Avengers fan, might argue that it’s just a movie and no one really expects a superhero in real life. But then, we might not deem anyone who deals with his inner demons as a superhero, which he most definitely is. Why is it that we have an ever-burgeoning mass of kids playing video games (most of them deal with vanquishing unknown unknowns) holed up in their rooms? We dismiss them as nerds and that perpetuates within them to render them incapable of handling human situations.

It’s not so easy to dismiss this Avengers sort of pap as escapist entertainment. Psychologists tell us that the human brain lights up when these scenes of violence are portrayed on screen.

If anything, what this world needs is movies like Shame rather than drivel like Avengers. That raises a question that why did I even go to watch it if I knew exactly what I’ll be dished out. Answer: to write this blog.

PS: Here are two tweets making rounds on Twittersphere and should give you a decent idea on what sort of a scam Avengers is:

“Congrats to The Avengers for shattering box office records. Condolences to everyone trying to make movies about human beings.” @Ti_West

The Avengers took in over $200 million so they shouldn’t have a problem with giving me my $10 bucks back right?” @JBFlint

Too proud to fail

In his indefatigably charming fifteenth novel, Other People’s Money, Justin Cartwright’s ecstatic loon of a playwright, Artair MacCleod, evokes Irish author Flann O’Brien’s manifesto for future writers: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required.” Banking literature may, however, be precluded from this agenda. Barring Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December, Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, writers never took great relish in demonising bankers. Of course, Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers had a prescient scene featuring a bank run, seen eerily turning into a reality three decades later at Northern Rock.

Cartwright, a British novelist, tries to make an unequivocal case for the bankers who are supposed to be the reason why the economy is in the toilet at this moment. After the economic meltdown of 2008 Tubal and Co, the small, privately-owned bank in London, is battling bankruptcy; while its longtime leader, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is inching steadily towards a vegetative state of mind of which his daylong stare at a painting by Matisse is a grave indication. His younger son, Julian, who is at the helm of affairs, sees no option but to sell the bank which fell for the fake allure of junk bonds and toxic assets.

The sell-off is a hush-hush affair but quite a few external forces are hell bent on scuppering the deal. MacCleod complains bitterly at being denied his monthly allowance, for forgoing Fleur, Sir Harry’s alluring second wife, who used to be a middling stage actress. Estelle, Sir Harry’s woman Friday who moonlights as his caretaker while suppressing her romantic feelings for him, is fiercely opposed to the sell-off. Melissa, an eager, wet-behind-the-ears hack at a rag in Cornwall, stumbles across the Tubal can of worms by sheer coincidence. A nebulous source from Tubal supplies her information about the impending sell-off. Her cantankerous editor suddenly decides to bite off more than he can chew by trying to expose Julian’s attempt at face saving. If that’s not all, Fleur has an extra-marital affair with Morne, her gym instructor, which can prove to be detrimental to the bank’s shrinking fortunes.

With an assortment of entertainingly oddball characters, Cartwright turns up with a stunning piece of fiction that never lacks in verve, insight and imagination. It’s high time someone told those Occupy Wall Street people that the bankers are not exactly evil. Julian, who was almost armtwisted into the job, is an unlikely banker. He never revels in the perks of the job. In fact, he dreams of the pony that he raised during his childhood. He wasn’t being disingenuous when he frets about his chauffeur’s health. This passage articulates Julian’s Janus-faced existence, “The meetings, the legal documents, the stale air on flights, the churning anxiety, the oppressive sense of importance, the dead coffee in insulated flasks, the dull conversational conventions, the wilting sandwiches and above all— way above— the insistent belief that this money production is a superior form of activity and that those who deal in it are superior people.”

A novel on the aftermath of recession might sound like a low-hanging fruit but Cartwright manages just the right mix of acuity and humour, a rarity these days. He lays down a couple of dictums that might again herald the gilded age of banking: “The thing about banks is that they should stick to what they know”, “if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck but these guys are so greedy they tell themselves it’s not a duck, it’s a nightingale”. To call Other People’s Money a recession novel is doing grave injustice to the author’s brilliance. Never does he get into a “Dear Reader” mode where his characters spout inanities about what CDO is and where things went wrong. Explanations break the flow of fiction and Cartwright knows that.

Cartwright explores human frailties through a range of relationships, some strong, some flaccid. A lump in the throat is guaranteed when Julian says at the end to his aide that “I could have been a real banker”. Equally, heartbreakingly good is the tender bond between Estelle and Sir Harry. Regrettably, Cartwright doesn’t explore the angle in greater depth.

He provides snatches of the persona of Sir Harry (the usual cliches: art patron, opera connoisseur, old school banker) but never does he give a better insight into the man responsible for the novel. But then, one-tenths of tardiness can certainly be forgiven for nine-tenths of absolutely dazzling work.
Other People’s Money does to banking what Kingsley Amis did to the campus novel through Lucky Jim, Evelyn Waugh to journalism through Scoop and David Lodge to academia through Small World: turn the most definitive study on the milieu. If ever that Flann O’Brien manifesto is to come true, people writing on finance can heave a sigh of relief thanks to Cartwright.

Author: Justin Cartwright
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 263
Price: $15

Another paradise lost

Wrecked paradises and displaced lives have leavened all the four novels of Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera. Starting with his Booker-nominated first novel Reef, Gunesekera regularly mined ore from Sri Lanka’s fractious past with a headlamp focused on individuals forced to relocate. His fifth novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, is quite different from this corpus. Set in Mauritius of 1825, it is a classical love story in which the characters don’t introspect as much as they are prone to in The Match or The Sandglass.
Squint harder, however, and typical Gunesekera’s tropes will emerge: immigrant prejudices, racial tension, familial strife, an ugly inherited past, an impending catastrophe that will alter the lives of everyone involved. Recently orphaned 19-year-old Lucy Gladwell, a Jane Eyre-ish sort of character – strikingly beautiful, smart, empathising and affable – arrives in Mauritius from England to live with the Huytons, her aunt Betty and uncle George. George is a superintendent of the spit of English-ruled coral beauty. The childless couple is more than happy to embrace Lucy and, against her wishes, ask her to boss the native “slaves”. “Instruct,” her aunt had said. “How, in this land where even the flowers run riot?” Lucy muses.

Her tranquility against the serene backdrop of Mauritius is disturbed by Don Lambodar, a suave Ceylonese translator for a French royal in exile. Three-fifths of the novel doesn’t really bring their hearts together and, like in any other novel of this time period, propriety reigns supreme. Nevertheless, their constant ribbing is a source of minor joy for the reader. Even as a romantic relationship is blooming, a revolution is brewing elsewhere in the local sugar factory, where disenchanted local workers are on the brink of saying enough is enough.

Much against his wishes, Don is drawn into the epicentre of these happenings and that becomes a source of discord between him and the Huytons. In no time, the workers are up in arms against the authorities. This leads to a shocking twist in the tale that is sure to send a frisson through any classic novel aficionado.
The Prisoner of Paradise is a good throwback to a period that’s hardly evoked in modern times and a theme that’s resonating currently thanks to the success of the movie The Help. Gunesekera’s languid prose, with just the right kind of rhythm and pull, makes it immensely readable.

The problem is that Gunesekera may have effectively evoked the serenity of Mauritius by giving it Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide treatment, but his material is quite flimsy. For one, the characters are way too predictable: Lucy and Don are the good people and George and his lackeys are the rotten ones. Only Betty rises above these delineated caricatures as a mercurial character whose kindness and meanness come out at the most unexpected of times. “The English language is a very fine thing, and perhaps you will find a wordsmith who will enthrall you, but I hope he will not be a poet of penury, as I understand is so often the case. One needs more for one’s comfort in this world than a rich vocabulary,” says the street-smart martinet to her niece.

Of course, The Prisoner of Paradise can be interpreted as a grass-roots parable for Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. It is not, however, very instructive on the revolution front. A fledgling love story that takes too long to fructify impedes the pace of the novel even more. I’m surprised how many times I scribbled “meh!” and “blah!” in the marginalia. Gunesekera was probably handicapped by the fact that he had to depend on history rather than the personal experiences that suffuse his earlier works.

The idea of The Prisoner of Paradise germinated from the exile in June 1825 of Ehelopola, an ex-prime minister of the Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, to Mauritius by the British. Along with 25 other prisoners from Ceylon he spent the last four years of his life in Mauritius, aka “little bastard rock”, as one of the characters describes it. What might be an interesting historical tidbit falls flat as a novel.

The biggest problem with the novel is that several themes emerge– a faux love triangle, infidelity, a beautiful love story – but none of them sees a logical light at the end of the tunnel. One thing that saves the novel from utter insignificance is Gunesekera’s feel for language and the deftness with which he highlights local dialects and variants of the English language. In a beautiful side story, a British historian specialising in Egyptian antiquities is hosted by the Huytons and over the course of a dinner provides fascinating insights into Greek and Sanskrit. The local patois is captured really well too, including the inflections.

It is too much to expect that these appealing little touches can elevate a desultory novel. Clearly, Gunesekera is better off being a self-absorbed writer than trying to be a poor man’s version of Richard Attenborough meets V S Naipaul meets Amitav Ghosh.

Romesh Gunesekera
389 pages; £11.99

The Artist? Really?

I pursed my lips quite tightly when Micheal Douglas presented the Best Director Oscar 2012 to Michael Hazanavicius, the man who made The Artist, a supposed paean to the era of silent cinema. Now, trust me, I have no problems over who wins Oscars. And I’m not being a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. I watched it much earlier at a film festival and ever since I’ve been whistling in the wind about its non-existent brilliance. What really gets my goat is the way The Artist is being celebrated as a work of auteur.

Look at two of the other nominations for best director, Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese, and if celebration of cinema was really on top of the Academy’s agenda they should have gone for either of these two. Malick’s Tree Of Life combines Darwinism and coming-of-the-age American movie ethic to produce something that’s absolutely splendid. Scorsese, who directed Hugo, paid a bigger tribute to cinema through his cinematic homage to Georges Méliès, a forgotten filmmaker of the silent era.

I can see why The Artist won such wide recognition. At a time when death of irony is a foregone conclusion and cynicism reigns supreme, The Artist is the most uncynical movie of the recent times. It poses questions that are not uncomfortable. Yes, technology killed the romance of cinema and we are all guilty. But, hey, no one’s neck is on the guillotine. After all, as that cliche goes, change is the only constant in life. Pardon the digression and let’s look at the paint-by-numbers premise of the film. A successful silent-film hyphenate (Jean Dujardin) finds himself at sea once the industry transitions into the talkies and he is stuck in a rut. An ingenue (Berenice Bejo) who solicits his affection is suddenly sought after but not unlike a hooker in the movies, she too has a golden heart and still pines for Dujardin, who lost everything except a poodle and a chauffeur.

It still beats me how such a prosciutto-thin plot wasn’t strangled at the time of conception itself. Keeping in line with this slush is the pouting and one-dimensional acting of Dujardin, who apart from tilting his head, does nothing. Buster Keaton, the George Clooney of silent cinema with more talent, will roll in his grave looking at the way Hazanavicius distilled silent cinema into juiceless technicolor condescending garbage. Here’s what The Economist had to say about Dujardin’s pouting, “He mugs on screen, he mugs at the breakfast table. He operates in only one highly stylised mode of performance, making it impossible to tell the artist from his art.”

It still beats me how the Academy never gave two hoots about India’s Harischandrachi Factory, a far more nuanced look at silent cinema through the prism of that genius called Dadasaheb Phalke. This year, the Academy safely ignored the best movies, which I know is a relative term, like Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter etc., In this entire fracas, here’s what takes the cake: Cesar Awards are the French equivalent of Oscars and they gave the best actor award to Omar Sy for his relentlessly charming role in Intouchables.

The iGenius

Within hours of his death, the Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs was mourned even more emphatically than Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Martin Luther King. Flowers, candles and deckloads of messages were to be seen at every Apple store across the world turning each one into a shrine. The social media websites were unable to handle such a huge torrent of grief. What was it that turned the most unconventional geek in the technology world into a deity? A few clues can be found in a couple of books fresh from the galleys on Jobs, one a compilation of his famous quotes and another an unauthorised biography.

Steve Jobs: The man who thought different is a biography by financial journalist Karen Blumenthal on Jobs and is quite an exquisite yarn of technology, human foibles and Zen philosophy. In a simple narrative Blumenthal builds her story organically, from a childhood spent with his adopted parents, followed by his hippie streak that ends up dictating the rest of his life and how he came to found Apple along with Steve Wozniak. Blumenthal collates a lot of material from sources beyond even a Google search. The most important source being Walter Isaacson’s authorised (read sanitised) biography of Steve Jobs.

Let’s agree that, ultimately, the world is broadly divided into two kinds of people: the serious and non-serious. Isaacson’s book caters to the former and Blumenthal’s to the latter. In 300 pages she produces a perfect airport bestseller. If anthropological interest is all you have towards Jobs, you could do far worse than picking up Blumenthal’s book. The writer delineates Jobs’ curtailed life into three parts: his early years, his creative years and his constant struggle with death. Blumenthal goes about her job with journalistic precision and a decent flair for writing that might otherwise have reduced the material to Wikipedia-worthy only.

The best part about the book is that she provides some dope on the not-so-likable side of Jobs. He allegedly never shared the spoils of creating a game software with Wozniak, the original brain behind it. He never acknowledged his love child until late into her adolescence. He inhabited a world of “reality distortion field”— he thought rules did not apply to him, and the truth was his to create.

All said, Blumenthal’s book is still an elaborate trailer for Isaacson’s rigorous and poignant book. What Blumenthal shrugs away in a couple of sentences, Isaacson contextualises and gives a coherent narrative. Isaacson had uninhibited access to Jobs and that is Blumenthal’s undoing. Isaacson talks at length about Jobs’ penchant to cry whenever he doesn’t get his way. Where Blumenthal scores brownie points is that she has the freedom to call a spade a spade. It’s a part of tech lore that the Mac’s GUI interface was heavily inspired from Xerox’s PARC. Blumenthal doesn’t try to add any glitter while Isaacson mentions it and immediately segues into an encomium on how visionary Jobs is. If someone’s explanation for copying a blueprint from another company is “good artists copy, great artists steal”, he/she deserves a good rap on the knuckles.

What Blumenthal captures really well is the early days of Jobs and how he led a bohemian life and managed to repel everyone around with his body odour (one of his many hippie fetishes).

The section in the book about Jobs re-entry into Apple after super successful gigs as owner of Pixar makes for the greatest fairy tale in the no-longer-nascent industry of computer technology. However, there’s an air of hurriedness to the book. The iconic products of Apple, iPod, iPhone and iPad have been given wishy-washy treatment, as if they were afterthoughts. Moreover, not unlike Isaacson, she also falters on Jobs’ legacy. Marrying calligraphy with borrowed technology doesn’t make Job an “artistic genius”. As Sue Halpern wrote in The New York Review of Books, “There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.”

In a cursory one-liner Blumenthal talks about Jobs’ disdain for charity, his explanation being that creating jobs is the ultimate form of charity. This rings of hypocrisy as New York Times recently reported that Apple employs at least 700,000 people overseas. This when America is bleeding with an almost 9 per cent unemployment rate. Nor is the oppressive work regimen at the iProducts factory in China discussed. At the height of demand, workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen were made to slog for 12 hours straight. So mind-numbing and taxing was the work that at least a dozen killed themselves.

An addendum to this biography is I, Steve: Steve Jobs in his own words, a collection of quotes gathered from sources as varied as his famous 2005 Stanford speech and an interview with Playboy magazine in 1985. By combining a melange of exotic philosophies and decent understanding of where technology is headed, Jobs is nothing less than a Pope for tech aficionados and nerds. “I get asked a lot why Apple’s customers are so loyal. It’s not because they belong to the Church of Mac! That’s ridiculous. It’s because when you buy our products, and three months you get stuck on something, you quickly figure out [how to get past it], and you think, ‘Wow, someone over there at Apple actually thought of this’!”... there’s almost no product in the world that you have that experience with, but you have it with a Mac. And you have it with an iPod,” Jobs told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2004.

This quote exemplifies what Jobs actually is, an astute salesman who can effortlessly sell truckloads of beverages during a rainstorm. Even before you could make up your mind if you really need the product Jobs’ giant machine of PR and marketing ensures you have the product in your hand. Hardly any irony was expressed when the Occupy Wall Street protesters were using iPhone’s Instagram app and other features to chronicle their “rage against the machine”. US corporations are evil except the company created by the man seen forever in black turtleneck and blue jeans. It would be a cruel joke on Africans if Steve Jobs were to tell them to “stay hungry, stay foolish” but not for people who are iProducts obsessed.

I, Steve can hardly be recommended because it doesn’t have anything that Blumenthal’s book doesn’t mention. However, the book, which is designed aesthetically, keeping in mind the minimalist design of the iProducts, is worth a dekko.

Author: Karen Blumenthal
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 311
Price: Rs 399
Edited by: George Beahm
Publisher: Collins Business
Pages: 169
Price: Rs 199