City remembers: New York mayor Bill de Blasio at the 9/11 memorial. Photo: Getty
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It’s New York, it’s almost Christmas and we’re ladies: but we’re not here to shop

Tracey Thorn’s Off the Record column. 

I’m sentimental about New York. I’ve spent enough time here over the years to feel some connection but never enough for the magic to fade, so it’s still Wonderland to me. In my ear sings Paddy McAloon – “Strolling Fifth Avenue,/Just to think, Sinatra’s been here, too . . .” – and I share his rose-tinted specs.

So I’m almost disappointed to discover that nowadays two women visiting for a long weekend, as my sister and I are, will be assumed by everyone from the check-in people to the cabin crew to be on a shopping trip. It’s New York, it’s the run-up to Christmas and, hey! You’re ladies, you must be shopping, am I right?

No, we’re not and despite our smiles we are slightly affronted at the suggestion, for we are here not to buy but to look. To walk and wander, eat and drink, marvel at it all. To “hang”, if you like. We have restaurants booked, theatre tickets lined up, excursions planned, a four-day, non-stop itinerary to keep to, so we are ready and raring to go. Much like the man next to me on the plane who, as we prepare to land at JFK, reaches into his bag for a can of deodorant and shoves it up his shirt to give each armpit a blast. It’s New York, after all. Being prepared is the least you can do.

I first came here on tour back in the 1980s; old photos show me eager and youthful, posing reverentially outside the Brill Building, my dyed blonde spiky hair blown back by the howling gale at the top of the Empire State. In the 1990s, Ben and I tried living here for a very short while, in an apartment over a now-derelict shoe shop on Chambers Street where, a few years later, some of the rescue operation would be based after 9/11.

Our stay was long ago and the city has changed so much, but the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed still hangs over it. At least, I assume that shadow is what accounts for so much of the continued security everywhere – the bag searches at the Empire State Building, the police presence all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, the coastguard patrol boat with a machine gun mounted on the prow escorting the Staten Island Ferry.

The romantic in me has always seen the city as a place of vibrancy and joy but these reminders of sadness are hard to ignore. They’re brought into focus at the 9/11 Memorial, a vast water feature sited on the footprint of the twin towers. There’s something Zen-like and calming about it, a huge version of the flowing water in Japanese temple gardens, but at the same time I can’t help seeing it as a kind of giant sink, conjuring up the unwelcome thought of lives being washed away down the plughole. The idea feels disrespectful but perhaps it’s not wrong to feel the awful sense of loss and of waste. People literally vanished into the ground beneath our feet here, down where the water flows.

After this sorrow, the rest of our trip is all joy. We walk for miles and stare at all the sights and drink in little bars to a soundtrack of Feist and New Order, Spandau Ballet and Dolly Parton. We go to an evening of Peggy Lee songs performed by a varied line-up of singers, all fantastic.

Finally, for our last night, we splash out on a midtown hotel with a view. Checking in, we hear that our travel agent is one of the hotel’s “preferred partners” and from that moment we are treated like royalty, both of us upgraded to a suite on the 49th floor and handed $100 to spend in the spa. Being a cool and world-weary traveller, I spend only two hours taking photos of the room, which is the size of a decent flat.

Even this high up and through the thick double glazing, you can hear the streets below, car horns and police sirens. On it goes, noise and lights, all day and all night, a gift of sound and vision.

When I return later, a fog has descended and my room is almost lost in it. The view now is pure Gotham City. Or Blade Runner, thrilling and spooky and I have never felt further from home.

If I ever get blasé about New York, please take me out and shoot me. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.