The new-old London Routemaster buses are beautifully complemented by he-who-introduced-them. Image: Getty
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Soon our personalities will be purely ornamental

Everything around us nowadays seems to hearken to the past. Soon, all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes.

What a lot of skeuomorphs there are around nowadays – once you begin noticing them, they crop up everywhere. A skeuomorph, for those of you not design-savvy, is any derivative object that treats as ornamental elements that were functional in the original. One of my favourite examples is Anaglypta wallpaper, which I didn’t know – until I was told by the director of the National Gallery, no less – owes its raised ridging and epidermal feel to its origin in the tooled hides that adorned the walls of the wealthy in the 16th century. More modern skeuomorphs would include electric-light fitments designed to resemble candles (complete with artificial blobs of wax), and the half-timbered aspect of the Morris Traveller, that Anglo-Saxon hovel of mid- 20th-century automobiles.

It is with the advent of computerised technology that the contemporary obsession with the skeuomorph really gets going, though. I remember the first edition of Adobe Page- Maker, which I used in the late 1980s on my Mac Classic computer (remember them? So little and chunky, with the integrated CPU and VDU unit just like an early . . . television); when you booted it up you were treated to a graphic showing a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. Other stand-out computer skeuomorphs include the envelope pictogram employed in numerous email programs, the stylised buff cardboard folders used on desktops (and those “desktops” themselves) – and even aural skeuomorphs, such as the shutter click my iPhone’s camera makes as it captures yet another blindingly evanescent image, or the odd whooshing noise it emits when it sends an email.

The best way of understanding the skeuomorph is to locate its generation in the transfer from the handmade artefact to the massproduced product. The term was coined in the 1890s and it was at this discontinuous breakpoint that the new industrial designers attempted to confer on their wallpaper and their ceramics surfaces that were redolent of earlier, more craftsman-like eras. In Britain we had an entire aesthetic movement – Arts and Crafts – that carried the skeuomorph into areas as diverse as architecture, typography, urban planning and hairstyles. But the breakpoint between manufacturing and information technologies strikes me as still more profound: it has opened the skeuomorphic Pandora’s box.

With the transfer of most human manipulations to the realm of the virtual, the skeuomorph has acted in the first instance as an important visual cue for people who can only incoherently conceive of what is, perforce, inchoate. Steve Jobs was the master of this, and the Apple brand – which once seemed the acme of modernity – is now in danger of slip-sliding into mere recency, for, as the online generation grows up, the requirement for computer functionality to be anchored to what was once physically manipulated will surely disappear. As for the madness in all this, it’s an individual derangement that I, dear reader, bequeath to you. While we’re perfectly aware that we live in a society replete with forms of discontinuous technology, and that progress is in nowise written on the body politic, nonetheless we cannot forbear from surveying the contemporary scene as a gestalt of nowness: we look upon roads, cars, people, houses and they cannot – we assume quite unconsciously – be other than the sum of the processes that have evolved into them. However, once we begin to pick out skeuomorphs, the smooth fabric of the present rips and tears. This isn’t simply a matter of anachronism, or the old and the new coexisting, but of time turning back on itself in ways that are altogether non-Euclidean.

The new-old London Routemaster buses that have reintroduced the half-spiralling rear stairway and the back platform, only to seal them behind Perspex because of 21st century safety anxieties, are beautifully complemented by he-who-reintroduced-them: the Mayor of London, with his Dundeefruitcake chuckles and his Edwardian clubland japes and his rumpy-pumpy antics, is a sort of human skeuomorph, a fact that explains, at least in part, his success. I believe his may well be the avant-garde of personalities and that in the future – courtesy of the web and social media – all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes. Pip-pip!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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