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

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Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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