My new Dell Inspiron laptop arrived yesterday. Having spent the last three months complaining to BlackBerry support about the malfunctioning touchscreen on my new ‘Playbook’ tablet – bought on sale as a Christmas present to self, and cause of nothing but warfare ever since – I was in fact dreading the arrival of this new piece of kit. Apart from a hiccup of admiration for its sleek black case, I took possession of my new workmate joylessly, and spent the day bleakly summoning the courage to plug the thing in. Even so, I was not prepared to be crying before I even turned it on.
But then, I didn’t expect that Dell’s designers – surely intelligent individuals who occasionally use their own products – would have microwaved their brains and decided to place all the sockets not at the back but along the sides of the notebook. Meaning that my mouse, broadband and printer cables all snaked messily over my desk, creating totally unnecessary visual clutter and impeding movement of said mouse. In addition, the new laptop doesn’t have a Scart socket, so I can’t screw in my trusty scanner. Hence the quiet sobs. Then the fury.
For now I understood why the Dell saleswoman had badgered me to buy a new printer and a new wireless mouse with my laptop. It used to be that things were deliberately designed for early redundancy. Now they are also designed to force you to buy more products you don’t want. I don’t want a wireless mouse because they use batteries, which run out and cost money to replace. At least batteries can be recycled now, but I’d far rather reduce my use of them. And I don’t want to buy a wireless printer because my old one works fine and the cartridges are cheap to refill. But presumably I’ll have to buy a new all-in-one now to get a scanner back. As for the Ethernet cable, I do in fact have wireless, but the service is so unreliable that when I’m at my desk I always plug the router into the computer. If I type on the sofa or in bed, I have to reconnect every two hours or so. And yes I have reset my IP address.
But back to the so-called upgrade. I composed myself and carried on. Perhaps my glossy new Pentium processor and 1TB hard drive would redeem Dell’s manipulative design. Well, I can’t complain about the speed. But I will about the screen. The colours look faded. So when I noticed an ‘Ease of Use’ setting box, with its option to check ‘High contrast’, I did so. Suddenly my wallpaper switched from a swirly purple to uniform black, and when I went on the internet all the sites appeared in rudimentary blocks, missing photos and lacking basic formatting. Naturally I returned to the Disease of Use settings and unclicked that troublesome little box. I also shut down and restarted the computer several times. But though I got my wallpaper back, the world wide web remained a construction site. When I phoned Dell Tech Support I got a message telling me I had called out of office hours, which were M-F 8-8 and Saturdays 9-6. It was Saturday afternoon.
Why put myself through this, you ask? Why buy something I didn’t want, and actively expected to fail me? Well, my current laptop is nine years old, and has the storage capacity of a lipstick case and the speed of a drugged panda. Plus it’s always talking to itself. Only I’m allowed to do that around here! Seriously, even if I could put up with my aging laptop’s eccentricities, I was afraid that one day soon the hard drive would conk out. And as replacing the hard drive wouldn’t help with speed issues (because my ancient processor was at fault there) I decided it was time to finally move into the kindergarten-colours world of Windows 7.
Didn’t I do research, you ask? Well, I did learn about processors and the difference between a MB and a GB…and I did get a quote on an Acer with similar specs, which cost £60 more. It’s true that you could fault me for inspecting photos of the Inspiron online yet not noticing the fundamental flaw in its design. But some problems aren’t obvious until a product is in situ. In any case, after my experience with the BlackBerry tablet, I knew that it didn’t really matter which computer I bought. I hadn’t purchased a laptop in nine years. I had long ago been marooned on an island of obsolete resistance to planned obsolescene. Whatever choice I made I would suffer. Even if I can now play Mahjong Titans.
As I contemplated ‘upgrade’ trauma on a woodland walk today, it occurred to me that the condition is not restricted to the purchase of new electronic consumer goods. Perhaps, I thought, something similar is happening for me professionally and creatively right now, in my move from poetry to prose. I don’t operate genre hierarchies, but I can’t deny that novels tend to attract more readers than poetry: simply in terms of readership and financial reward a quantitative increase comes with the territory; at the very least a change is occurring in my relationship to both these aspects of my writing career. I haven’t experienced the new readership yet, but the money is making an impact already. Though not a sum to retire on, the first instalment of my advance has enabled me to buy some writing time this summer, my new laptop, a research trip to Mesopotamia and Palestine in May, and a holiday in Iceland after that.
Please feel free to scoff. Mock-barf even. For where’s the trauma in all that? Well, my second novel is about climate change and colonialism. Yet here I am booking five flights in two months, and zipping off to Kurdistan for ten days in order to set a novel there. I do have a conscience, and it is sorely troubled. Like a new business class traveller, an ‘upgrade’ of my professional status has immediately resulted in a downgrade of my environmental sensitivities. And as for research – why do I have to set my second novel in a place I’ve never been to? Couldn’t I think global, but set the book local?
I don’t have airtight answers to these questions. Just a few off-setting thoughts. First, I believe that freedom of movement is, beyond a basic human right, an integral aspect of our humanity. Bruce Chatwin, in his (not uncontroversial) study of Aboriginal culture, The Songlines, noted that all human societies grew from our shared nomadic past, and that still today when a baby cries, it can often be lulled by the rhythms of walking. I travelled for several years in my twenties and early thirties, and was blessed to experience the hospitality and friendship of people all over the world. Fundamentally, I believe that the planet is ours to share. But at the same time I cannot ignore geo-political realities and the privileges they bestow upon me, and I also learned from travelling to see my own culture and behaviour in a more critical light. I am setting the novel in post-apocalyptic state between the Tigris and the Euphrates for reasons it would be a spoiler to reveal, but I am very aware that by whizzing through the region for research purposes, I am in a sense duplicating the acquisitiveness of my settler characters. At the same time I also know that the Kurds are proud of the peace and relative autonomy they have achieved, and have read that they actively welcome guests. At the very least I will be bringing money to the region; but I also aim to educate myself and others about its history, landscape and people, and hope to make more friends. As for Palestine, I have an invite to visit The Freedom Theatre, and a strong desire to meet the people I have been working with and for over the last three years. I don’t have a car, but even if I don’t use more than my annual share of carbon credits on my flights this summer, I will gladly offset them by financial contributions to green projects in all of my air travel destinations.
Are these pilgrim’s answers enough? Last night I heard Kodwo Eshun of The Otolith Group speak at Fabrica in Brighton, and something he said about the genre of the essay film hit a nerve with me: the genre attracts him, he says, because it doesn’t assume anything about what an ‘image’ is, and neither does it ask you to solve that problem before you begin. In fact, it asks you to interrogate the question in the very act of filmmaking. While this kind of exploratory aesthetics might take my novel in a too metafictional direction, nevertheless, it is the underlying attitude that I will be taking to its construction. I fully expect in the course of my journeys to struggle with the questions I have raised above, and hopefully my writing – both travel blog and eventual novel – will at least expose these conflicts, if not reach some kind of radical behavior-changing conclusion about them.
And if you’re wondering why I write science fiction when I am so clearly an IT luddite, well, you might as well ask why I write love poems …