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At 30,000 feet, there is no privacy. The seat-back screen is a window into the soul of the person in front

 “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!”

I never watch movies or TV or play video games on planes. Why? Because those fag-packet-sized screens that they implant in the back of the seats are actually displaying the thoughts of the person sitting in front of you. It isn’t seemly to intrude on another’s thoughts – we’ve all read our Freud and we know that beneath the thin, smooth veneer of socially sanctioned self-awareness (I am an upright, decent, sincere, moral person . . .), there seethes a fetid-fiery pit of the libidinal imagination into which barrels of death instinct are regularly poured. How else can we explain what is plainly in view – a heaving morass of tortured and ecstatic and self-regarding flesh which is hardly ethically minimised by appearing in miniature?

I realise that some of you may find the notion far-fetched: surely even if the technology existed, it would be impossible to implant the necessary sensors in our brains while we were blissfully unaware. But the evidence is compelling. In the past, I often used to while away 155 minutes observing, say, Gladiator, and when I asked the people in front of me whether they’d been thinking about sweaty men hacking each other to death they replied they most certainly had.

But it was only some years after the fag-packet-sized screens began to be installed on planes that I tumbled to exactly what was going on. Heading for the lavatory on a transatlantic flight, I turned back to see that the serried ranks of passengers were absolutely fixated on their fellows’ mental content. Moreover, that mental content was almost invariably the same: in this case, footage of a desert full of burning oil refineries. I stood there, stunned not by the evidence of groupthink (for this was readily explained by the cascade effect of each person’s thoughts being transmitted to the one behind) but by the insouciance they all displayed, munching away on their poached salmon with green beans and dauphinoise potatoes without any shame.

It was then that I cracked a little and began going from seat to seat, challenging their inhabitants: “How does it feel to know you’re being psychically violated even as you rifle another’s brainbox?” And I would have continued, had the woman in the seat behind me not sprung up, crying, “Get back here – I was halfway through an episode of Friends you once saw and were thinking about!” This made me feel, in turn, ambivalent: on the one hand I was pleased not to have been cogitating about the burning oil refineries in common with the herd, but on the other I was depressed to realise that my subconscious seethed with little else but perma-tanned American comedy actors fired up by a high-octane laughter track. I couldn’t deny that I had seen this particular episode of Friends; after all, quite a few others on the plane had, too, and the evidence was directly before us.

So now I never look at anything displayed on those screens – I have no need to know that the inoffensive woman sitting in front of me is sexually fixated on Zeinab Badawi. When I fly accompanied by my wife or one of my children, they labour to convince me that the control unit you can detach from its housing beside the screen enables you to “change channels” and this disproves my belief. Even if I were to accept something so unlikely, it wouldn’t make me feel any better, because if I am in control of what’s appearing on the screen, it could well be that I’m also controlling my hapless travel companions’ thoughts, rapidly spooling them through a frightening series of visions – sweaty men hacking each other to death, burning oil refineries, perma-tanned hilarity addicts – until they collapse into catatonic psychosis.

Since I discovered this alarming instance of technologically mediated mass privacy invasion, I’ve happened on more and more. Apparently millions upon millions of ordinary people spend considerable amounts of time every day exposing intimate aspects of themselves to whoever’s interested – spiritual beliefs, sexual preferences, bank balance. Nothing seems sacred any more. Why, the other day, I ordered a triple-shot skinny macchiato in Costa and the barista, without so much as a by-your-leave, asked me what my name was! Slobbering with indignation, I told this fellow it was a free country and I wouldn’t even be under any legal obligation to supply him with such information if he were an officer of the law. He replied that that was all very well, but it’d make it a hell of a lot easier to ensure he made me the right coffee if I could at least give him a capital letter to felt-tip on the cup.

I gave him an “M” – a teasing come-on to GCHQ and the NSA, should they be watching – but when he handed me my beverage, the barista laughed dryly and remarked, “I don’t know why you make such a big deal about your privacy. Everyone knows your innermost thoughts consist of little else but endless reruns of Friends.” I shouted at him: “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!” But he didn’t pay me any heed. He was bantering with the next customer about their thoughts; or, still more sinisterly, telling them what to think.

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 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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The 8 bits of good news about integration buried in the Casey Review

It's not all Trojan Horses.

The government-commissioned Casey Review on integration tackles serious subjects, from honour crimes to discrimination and hate crime.

It outlines how deprivation, discrimination, segregated schools and unenlightened traditions can drag certain British-Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities into isolation. 

It shines a light on nepotistic local politics, which only entrench religious and gender segregation. It also charts the hurdles faced by ethnic minorities from school, to university and the workplace. There is no doubt it makes uncomfortable reading. 

But at a time when the negative consequences of immigration are dominating headlines, it’s easy to miss some of the more optimistic trends the Casey Report uncovered:

1. You can always have more friends

For all the talk of segregation, 82 per cent of us socialise at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background, according to the Citizenship Survey 2010-11.

More than half of first generation migrants had friends of a different ethnicity. As for their children, nearly three quarters were friends with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Younger people with higher levels of education and better wages are most likely to have close inter-ethnic friendships. 

Brits from Black African and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are the most sociable it seems, as they are most likely to have friends from outside their neighbourhood. White British and Irish ethnic groups, on the other hand, are least likely to have ethnically-mixed social networks. 

Moving away from home seemed to be a key factor in diversifying your friendship group –18 to 34s were the most ethnically integrated age group. 

2. Integrated schools help

The Casey Review tells the story of how schools can distort a community’s view of the world, such as the mostly Asian high school where pupils thought 90 per cent of Brits were Asian (the actual figure is 7 per cent), and the Trojan Horse affair, where hardline Muslims were accused of dominating the curriculum of a state school (the exact facts have never come to light). 

But on the other hand, schools that are integrated, can change a whole community’s perspective. A study in Oldham found that when two schools were merged to create a more balanced pupil population between White Brits and British Asians, the level of anxiety both groups felt diminished. 

3. And kids are doing better at school

The Casey Report notes: “In recent years there has been a general improvement in educational attainment in schools, with a narrowing in the gap between White pupils and pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African/Caribbean/Black ethnic backgrounds.”

A number of ethnic minority groups, including pupils of Chinese, Indian, Irish and Bangladeshi ethnicity, outperformed White British pupils (but not White Gypsy and Roma pupils, who had the lowest attainment levels of all). 

4. Most people feel part of a community

Despite the talk of a divided society, in 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, according to the Community Life Survey, and agreed their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This feeling of cohesiveness is actually higher than in 2003, at the height of New Labour multiculturalism, when the figure stood at 80 per cent. 

5. Muslims are sticklers for the law

Much of the Casey Report dealt with the divisions between British Muslims and other communities, on matters of culture, religious extremism and equality. It also looked at the Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the UK. 

However, while the cultural and ideological clashes may be real, a ComRes/BBC poll in 2015 found that 95 per cent of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain and 93 per cent believed Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. 

6. Employment prospects are improving

The Casey Review rightly notes the discrimination faced by jobseekers, such as study which found CVs with white-sounding names had a better rate of reply. Brits from Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to be unemployed than Whites. 

However, the employment gap between ethnic minorities and White Brits has narrowed over the last decade, from 15.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.8 per cent in 2015. 

In October 2015, public and private sector employers responsible for employing 1.8m people signed a pledge to operate recruitment on a “name blind” basis. 

7. Pretty much everyone understand this

According to the 2011 census, 91.6 per cent of adults in England and Wales had English as their main language. And 98.2 per cent of them could speak English. 

Since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to meet English requirements as part of the immigration process. 

8. Oh, and there’s a British Muslim Mayor ready to tackle integration head on

The Casey Review criticised British Asian community leaders in northern towns for preventing proper discussion of equality and in some cases preventing women from launching rival bids for a council seat.

But it also quoted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and a British Muslim. Khan criticised religious families that force children to adopt a certain lifestyle, and he concluded:

"There is no other city in the world where I would want to raise my daughters than London.

"They have rights, they have protection, the right to wear what they like, think what they like, to meet who they like, to study what they like, more than they would in any other country.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.