In the wake of the Enlightenment and the banishment of God from the European mind, the logical positivists of the 19th century created a religion of humanity to extol the virtues of ‘science’ and ‘progress’. Adherents set up temples to the worship of mankind and adopted practices such as pressing their fingers to their heads in order to stimulate the areas of their brains connected with progress, benevolence and order according to the new science of phrenology. Chief among their interests were the canals and waterways being dug out by colonising empires around the world. ‘Now that we have canals, human beings will no longer fight one another’, they would say; ‘now that we have canals bigotry will wither away’; ‘Now that we have canals there will be no more tyranny. In the next century those same canals would carry men, machinery and armaments around the world in the two greatest conflagrations in human history. The technology changes but the crooked timber of humanity remains the same.
What was said of canals is now said of the internet, which it is hoped will become a vehicle for the enlightenment of mankind. Instead it serves as just another landscape over which human folly and ineptitude can work its predictable course. It also presents a variety of dangers for those of us who lack the blessing of concentration. A misplaced click on your Facebook homepage and you might accidentally announce the breakdown of your marriage to your friends and family, a clumsy mouse point on the wrong link in your google mail and you may mistakenly convert yourself to scientology. Some weeks ago I noticed an intriguing item on my news ticker informing me that two bulls had taken it upon themselves to copulate in and destroy a shop in Volgograd, presumably in defiance of both humankind and Mother Nature. My curiosity stirred, I clicked on the link only to watch on in horror as my ageing laptop was dealt a mortal death blow by a Russian computer virus. Worst of all, the story about the mating bulls proved to be nothing more than a cunning deception designed to hoodwink gullible westerners. Often, when you think something is too good to be true, it usually is.
Deprived of the pleasures of aimless internet browsing I have taken to watching the box. Sadly two things have contrived to spoil my enjoyment. The first is one of those public information adverts our Stalinist government seem to enjoy rolling out these days in order to keep the masses in a state of state sponsored terror. The broadcast is a sort of modern-day medieval morality play in which a man who hasn’t paid his road tax decides to take a drive. As he motors around in the evening dusk, he begins to hear a strange beeping and, looking round, he beholds a large rectangular object which appears to be stalking him. Spooked, he drives home, parks his car and heads over to his front door, only to hear the same beeping behind him again. Turning around in a state of wide eyed alarm he beholds the black box standing in his driveway. The tag line then appears, ‘You can’t escape the computer!’. All very David Lynch. It transpires that the large rectangular object is the ‘Driver Vehicle Licensing Authority’s’ road tax computer used for checking up on violators, although here it has been re-imagined as some malevolent stalker reminiscent of M. R. James’s ‘A warning to the curious’.
The second fly in the ointment is a rather visceral advertisement, again government sponsored, which forms part of the new ‘wear your seatbelt campaign’. When I was a young lad, these sorts of accident prevention things were demonstrated with a couple of smiley cartoon figures and perhaps a happy jingle or two to hammer the message home. Having decided that the message needs to be suitably hard hitting, these now seem to take their inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. The advert begins with a man driving down the street when a disembodied voice interrupts the proceedings to say ‘It wasn’t hitting the windscreen that killed Nigel that day’. I can’t stress this enough. If you happen to be driving along and an announcement cuts in with news of your imminent demise, it might be a good idea to stop and take the bus instead. In all likelihood, the voice in question is heralding the fact the government has offered you as a human sacrifice on the altar of road safety; not a fate I would wish upon anyone. In the course of events the poor chap manages to ram into the car in front, his head rebounds off the windscreen and in graphic detail his heart is shown being punctured by his ribcage. As his blood washes over the screen the words appear with searing clarity; ‘wear a seatbelt!’.
I can’t help wondering what happens if you neglect to pay your road tax and fail to wear a seatbelt. Perhaps the disembodied voice cuts in, your internal organs are mutilated in the resulting crash, and then the dark malevolent road tax computer wades in to trample on what is left of your remains in a final act of retribution. Such is the fate of the trangressors.