What's this paper thing? When 4G is not an option, it's back to the map. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If you want to go “off-grid”, simply leave your smartphone at home

We are so used to outsourcing our sense of direction to Google that it takes only a flat phone battery to lose ourselves completely.

As this is a special technology issue of the New Statesman, I thought I’d use the opportunity to write about the new generation of hi-tech wristbands that is coming on-stream. These stylish, lightweight devices enable you to keep track of a range of bodily functions – heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and so on – while continually monitoring your physical activity so as to present you with optimal targets, updates on these and pings of various kinds when you’re lagging. Linked up to smartphone technologies, these wristbands will allow you to listen to music and know when you have an incoming email or text message – or indeed any other web-initiated alert – even as you complete the Three Peaks Challenge, or man-haul to the South Pole for Frostbitten Nose Day.

OK, I think we all know that I made that last bit up, just as we all know that personally I’d sooner have my buttocks sawn off, varnished and retailed as salad bowls in a charity shop alongside Clare Balding’s autobiography than wear such a dumb bit of clunker. These wristbands are simply the latest in a steady evolution of technologies designed to make it possible for people to achieve two of the prized desiderata of our civilisation. The first of these is to feel as if they are inside when in reality they are out; and the second is to know their exact location while having absolutely no idea where they are.

Allow me to animadvert, or otherwise expand: in the early modern era, to walk abroad was considered unseemly for ladies and déclassé for gentlemen. The art gallery is a development of the long galleries attached to stately homes in which the quality could amble apart from the elements. A particularly fine – and long – example is extant at Montacute House in Somerset. It’s well worth dobbing up for the Nationalist Trust or English Defence Heritage if you fancy a shot at it. Alternatively you can go to the gym, which is really only the extension of walking inside by commercial means. Exercise machines of various kinds have been around since sweat-out-of-pore but it’s only in the past 20 years of unfettered neoliberal groupthink that they’ve sprung up all over and the generality have become seriously comfortable about handing their money to Richard Branson for the privilege of working their own bodies.

I suppose you might argue – and some numb-bums do – that this is a form of democratisation. Now almost everyone can go for a walk on a treadmill while watching Sky News, instead of just the fortunate few. But I think it’s not unrelated that during the same period, while people have also driven more and walked abroad less, our built environment has continued its relentless slide into a series of business parks, sink estates and glass luxury apartment bubbles, all joined together by choked arterial roads. My friend Nick, who in almost all other respects is perfectly sane, said this to me towards the end of the winter as we were chatting on the dumb phone: “What’s the weather been like? I only ask, ’cause since I got a new cross-trainer for Christmas, I haven’t been out of the house.”

As for knowing your location, the media treated the recent disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet as if everyone was glued to their bulletins because of an awful sense of anxiety about the passengers’ fate. I suspect quite a lot of folk – if they dared to admit it – were rather thrilled by the wild fantasy that the captain had got on the PA shortly after take-off and said something like: “We could fly to Beijing and get on with working, consuming and sleeping until we all die, the whole time being continually monitored by hi-tech wristbands that constantly update us as to how efficiently we’re performing as economic units; or alternatively I could disable all these satellite and navigation systems and bring the bus down carefully in the lagoon of an uninhabited Pacific island and we could live out our days there eating breadfruit, making love and devising strange rituals.” Whereupon the passengers cheered long and enthusiastic assent to the alternative course.

The fantasy of going “off-grid” is routinely derided as hippie bullshit. Indeed, I can remember a cartoon in Mad magazine in the Sixties that showed a group of environmental activists piling into their car to attend a demonstration. Ha, ha. The truth is that it’s alarmingly simple to disorient yourself – and that is a perfectly valid and highly effective form of going off-grid. My students, who have known what little adulthood they have experienced in a wholly wired world, are genuinely discomfited by leaving their houses without their phones. For them, that’s enough: so used are they to knowing their location (or rather, outsourcing their sense of direction to Google) that this simple omission thrusts them vis-à-vis with the world as it actually is.

For those of us who are older, it’s still a simple question of taking the unfamiliar left turn instead of the well-worn groove to the right. We don’t want to get lost because we’d prefer not to see the reality of where we are and so be either appalled by its conformity or thrilled by its alterity; so instead of venturing even a few streets or fields off-piste, we keep on plugging away in the treadmill of our simulacrum. Now there’s even a shiny hi-tech shackle for us to wear, so we’ll look good throughout our life imprisonment. 

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 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Photo: Prime Images
Show Hide image

The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder