Shotgun Billy: William Burroughs posing in front of his paintings in 1987. (Photo: Getty)
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Wild boys: the high lives of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Sixty years on, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic.

William S Burroughs: a Life
Barry Miles
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 718pp, £30

The Haunted Life
Jack Kerouac
Penguin Classics, 208pp, £20

The standard operating take on the American 1950s is that it was a time of entrench­ed conservatism and the reinforcement of white-bread family values. Without question, the decade was, on one level, a postwar period of peace and plenty. After the trauma of a lengthy depression, the knock-on effect of the US wartime economy was an unprecedented growth spurt.

A huge system of transcontinental highways began to redefine the notion of automotive movement and the American love affair with the road. The middle-class flight from the cities commenced, as new suburban enclaves started to spring up on the commutable outskirts of major metropolitan areas. The most notorious of these ’burbs – Levittown, New York – set a new benchmark for aesthetic sterility in a nation that, for all its talk of rugged individuals, has always championed conformity.

With a generation of returning soldiers starting families and buying stuff, the consumer-driven economy boomed. National hyper-consumerism was introduced (courtesy of that newfangled medium, television); two cars in every garage was the desired ideal.

Overseeing this era of social compliance and economic boom was a soldier-turned-politician, General Dwight D Eisenhower, very much a Republican of the old fiscal conservative school (without the Tea Party/born-again Christian extremism that has turned the present-day Grand Old Party into an Ayn Rand-meets-Jesus-is-Lord freak show). Though Eisenhower was a far more nuanced president than history often records – the early civil rights battles were fought by him and he outlined the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” that continues to define the destiny of the republic – the communist witch-hunts of Senator McCarthy (whom Eisenhower loathed, even though he showed little fortitude against the alcoholic senator’s reign of terror) took place during his time in office. The Rosenbergs were executed for treason under his watch. And the cold war simply got colder, as the nuclear arms race gained pace.

Besides being an era when pregnancy meant housewifedom – and when an unmarried, childless “career woman” was looked upon as an urban Typhoid Mary – the 1950s were also a time when any sort of nonconformist behaviour was regarded with immense suspicion. Long before there were flower power kids with shoulder-length hair, there were the so-called beatniks who were testing the frontiers of all things libertine in a very button-down era.

Periods of social and political conservatism can often spark a cultural revolt against the banalities and platitudes of the status quo. Certainly, the 1950s were a decade in which many American artists were hounded into expatriatism or living a broken life because of past political allegiances or sexual proclivities. But it was also, intriguingly, a time of new-found creative confidence, in which the long shadow of European cultural dominance began to be replaced by fresh, innovative American vernaculars. The plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (and later Edward Albee) spoke directly to an American experience. De Kooning, Pollock and Rothko extended the painterly barriers of colouration and visual form. Charlie Parker invented bop. Miles Davis created a new jazz language best described as the “birth of the cool”. And then there were the beats.

Sixty years after their incarnation, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic. With recent films based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Big Sur; with a cinematic reconstruction of the writing of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the subsequent trial against its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for allegedly distributing pornography; with Daniel Radcliffe leaving Harry Potter behind to play a young Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University (in the film Kill Your Darlings, which charts the birth of the beats); and with a very major, very ace new biography of William S Burroughs by Barry Miles just published, it can easily be  argued that we are in the middle of a significant beat revival.

What makes the beats so compelling is that they were louche, drugged up and sexually adventurous at a time when the three-Martini lunch and the fast fling with the secretary was the corporate man norm. We continue to take an interest in Kerouac because of his great romance of the road. We still embrace Ginsberg as someone who created a seminal American poetic oeuvre, was proudly out as a homosexual at a juncture when gay men and women were often forced into psychotherapy to cure them of their alleged deviance, and was a flamboyantly Jewish/Buddhist mystic Walt Whitman for our times.

Then there was William S Burroughs: the great literary outlaw, the Midwestern dude in the funeral director’s suit who lived a life that was always testing every possible barrier. Indeed the psychic outlook of Burroughs could best be nailed by evoking an epigram from one of his literary stepchildren, Hunter S Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Consider this early childhood trauma in 1918 when the young Burroughs – born into grand bourgeois circumstances (the Burroughs adding machine, invented by William’s grandfather, had helped build the family fortune) – was taken by his nanny to meet one of her girlfriends who, in turn, brought him along to meet her veterinarian boyfriend (now there’s a tangled web of contacts). In the course of the afternoon, Burroughs might have been forced to fellate the vet, biting down on his penis and being rewarded with a hard smack to the head. Or he might have seen his nanny having sex with her girlfriend, “giving rise to an infantile idea that women had penises”.

Whatever happened on that postwar afternoon in late summer, it was one of many wildly off-kilter incidents (including those moments when he suffered severe fevers and, like his supernatural-obsessed mother, saw visions of animals on his bedroom walls) that helped shape the outré Burroughs sensibility. Of course, coming from money, he went to the right schools and throughout his years at Harvard, in the über-uptight Cambridge, Massachusetts, he kept a loaded .32 Smith & Wesson revolver with him and frequently made trips down to New York for speakeasy debauchery and gay pickups, staying at a dive hotel on Central Park South for four bucks a night.

Burroughs’s taste for life on the margins was (irony of ironies) augmented during his stay at that ultra-Wasp Ivy League university. There was a stint in the army. There were his Greenwich Village years, during which he came to be entwined with a group of Columbia undergraduates – including Ginsberg, Kerouac and Lucien Carr – who became, with the likes of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder on the west coast, the chief exponents of the beat movement.

Burroughs had been introduced to this group by an English instructor friend from St Louis named David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with the waifish, Proustian Carr since his schoolboy years. (Carr subsequently murdered Kammerer while at Columbia in 1944. He did just two years in prison for the murder, on the grounds that Kammerer had come on to him sexually – back when a homosexual advance was deemed just cause for murder.)

There was also a woman named Joan Vollmer, a recent graduate of Barnard College (Columbia’s sister school, as women’s universities were known), who with her Benzedrine psychosis problems, alcohol addiction and intellectual brilliance, was an equal match for Burroughs – especially given his new interest in “junk” (opium derivatives), of which heroin and morphine ranked at the top of the charts.

In the Burroughs biographical narrative, life was always lived on the wrong side of the street. One of the great pleasures of Barry Miles’s capacious, compelling biography is that it surveys the many landscapes and psychotic episodes in Burroughs’s life with novelistic brio, brilliantly rendering the interior of a scuzzy New York bar circa 1945, or the Malcolm Lowry-esque years down Mexico way, where Burroughs had his William Tell moment: telling his wife to put a glass on her head so that he could show their guests what a great shot he was. Alas, his aim turned out to be faulty and she died of the gun­-shot wound (he managed to beat the homicide rap).

Then there was his stint in Tangier (“Bill . . . paid 60 cents to watch two Arab boys screw each other”) – the expatriate scene and the intoxicating grit of that city is cunningly animated in Miles’s elegant prose. And loitering with intent in Paris. And the furore surrounding the publication of Naked Lunch. And the creation of an oeuvre, not to mention what was perhaps the most well-cultivated public literary persona since Hemingway’s lone man machismo veneer – only in Burroughs’s case, the outlaw persona that he showed the world was never a veneer. He truly was someone who lived a life of breathtaking risk and originality; of faultless outlandishness.

Whether detailing Burroughs’s attempts to deal with the corrupt behaviour of his French publishers, Olympia Press, over the rights to Naked Lunch, his dabbling in a new-found cult called Scientology, his appearance in a U2 video or his strange return to the Midwest, living out the final years of his life amid the flat vistas of Kansas, Miles’s wonderful biography is rich in anecdote and has an extraordinary cast of supporting characters, from his beat cohorts to the New York demi-monde that adopted him as its favourite morally suspect uncle. But Miles always keeps our attention focused on the singularity of Burroughs’s life and his need to go against the American grain, while simultaneously grappling with (and finally re-embracing) the question of American identity – not to mention his lifelong love affair with weed, pharmaceuticals and semi-automatic weapons.

Miraculously – given how much abuse his internal combustion system withstood – Burroughs managed to live 83 years. Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, died as a washed-up alcoholic in his 47th year, leaving this life in 1969. If Ginsberg and Burroughs were the visionary talents of the beat generation, Kerouac remains its mythic poster boy, especially as the title of his first published novel, On the Road, has entered the lingua franca.    

Before becoming America’s great literary drifter, Kerouac – as an undergraduate at Columbia University – wrote an early roman-à-clef that begins with its protagonist’s father complaining: “America isn’t the same country anymore; it isn’t even America anymore.”

More of a sketchbook than a finished novella, The Haunted Life has all the usual attributes of that classic “summer when everything changed” American yarn – in which a young man faces all sorts of primordial questions as he surveys his homeland, veering between the harsh realities of a still-depressed economy and a looming war. To classify it as juvenilia would be a tad harsh, especially as it is full of lovely examples of Kerouac’s burgeoning American pastoral prose (he writes beautifully about the aesthetics of New England life). At heart, Kerouac was a romantic who, like his beat counterparts, was always in search of a sense of self in a country where the individual is both mythically revered and ignored.

You have to be a true Kerouac groupie to find much of interest in this slender novella but knowing how the demons of fame and doubt eventually consumed him (just as they somehow sustained Burroughs) makes this first attempt at essaying a literary vision strangely moving.

And it also serves as a reminder that, in an America now so divided by its on­going cultural wars, the beats remain a crucially sceptical, sexually robust antidote to the deep-rooted puritanism and need for national self-congratulation (we are God’s preferred terrain, after all) that still define much of the mainstream opinion in American life.

Douglas Kennedy’s 11th novel, “Five Days”, will be published in paperback by Arrow (£6.99) on 10 April

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.