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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.