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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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Interview: Momentum’s vice chair Jackie Walker on unity, antisemitism, and discipline in Labour

The leading pro-Corbyn campaigner sets out her plan for the party.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters celebrate after his second win, Jackie Walker – vice chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign organisation Momentum, a Labour member and an activist – talks about the result and the next steps for Labour’s membership.

Walker is a controversial figure in the party. Her history as a black anti-racism activist and advocate for Palestine, and her Jewish background on both sides of her family, did not keep her from being accused of antisemitism for a February Facebook post about the African slave trade. In May, she was suspended from the Labour party for her comments, only to be reinstated a few weeks later after a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Anger was reignited at an event hosted by Momentum that she spoke at during Labour party conference, on whether Labour has an antisemitism problem. Walker said the problem was “exaggerated” by Corbyn’s critics, and used as a “weapon of political mass destruction” by the media. (We spoke to Walker before this debate took place).

After a summer plagued by suspensions of Labour members, accusations of hateful speech on both sides, and calls for civility, Walker discusses what steps need to be taken forward to help bring the party together.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke in his acceptance speech about wiping the slate clean and the need to unite the party. What steps can members from all sides take to unite the party?

I think people have got to stop using antagonistic language with each other, and I think they’ve got to stop looking for ways to undermine the democratic will of the membership. That has now been plainly stated, and that’s even with something like 120,000 members not getting their vote because of the freeze. He has increased his majority – we all need to acknowledge that.

Is there anything that Corbyn’s supporters need to do – or need not to do – to contribute towards unity?

I can’t speak for the whole of Jeremy’s supporters, who are numbered in their hundreds and thousands; I know that in my Labour group, we are always bending over backwards to be friendly and to try and be positive in all of our meetings. So I think we just have to keep on being that – continue trying to win people over by and through our responses.

I was knocking doors for Labour last week in support of a local campaign protesting the planned closure of several doctors’ surgeries – I spoke to a voter on a door who said that they love the Labour party but felt unable to vote for us as long as Corbyn is leader. What should we say to voters like that?

The first thing I do is to ask them why they feel that way; most of the time, what I find is that they’ve been reading the press, which has been rabid about Jeremy Corbyn. In all the research that we and others have done, the British public agree overwhelmingly with the policies espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, so we’ve got to get on the doorstep and start talking about policies. I think that sometimes what happens in constituency Labour party groups is that people are saying “go out there and canvass but don’t mention Jeremy”. I think that we need to do the opposite – we need to go out there and talk about Jeremy and his policies all the time.

Now that Corbyn has a stronger mandate and we’ve had these two programmes on Momentum: Channel 4’s Dispatches and BBC’s Panorama, which were explanations of the group, Momentum’s role will be pivotal. How can Momentum contribute towards party unity and get its membership out on the doorstep?

I think we have to turn our base into an activist base that goes out there and starts campaigning – and doesn’t just campaign during elections but campaigns all the time, outside election time. We have to do the long campaign.

The Corbyn campaign put out a video that was subsequently withdrawn – it had been condemned by the pressure group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has filed a disciplinary complaint against him. What are your thoughts on the video?

I find their use of accusations of antisemitism reprehensible – I am an anti-racist campaigner and I think they debase the whole debate around anti-racism and I think they should be ashamed of themselves. There is nothing wrong with that video that anyone could look at it and say this is antisemitic. I would suggest that if people have doubt, they should look at the video and judge for themselves whether it is antisemitic.

There’s been a compliance process over the last several months that’s excluded people from the party for comments on social media. Now that Corbyn is in again, how should compliance change?

One of the issues is that we have gotten Jeremy back in as leader, but control of the NEC is still under question. Until the NEC actually accepts the recommendations of Chakrabati in terms of the workings of disciplinary procedures, then I think we’re going to be forever embroiled in these kinds of convoluted and strange disciplinary processes that no other political party would either have or put up with.

There have been rumours that Corbyn’s opponents will split from the party, or mount another leadership challenge. What do you think they’ll do?

I have absolutely no idea – there are so many permutations about how this game could now be played – and I say game because I think that there are some who are Jeremy’s opponents who kind of see it as a power game. I read a tweet somewhere saying that the purpose of this leadership election – which has damaged Labour hugely – has nothing to do with the idea that actually Owen Smith, his challenger, could have won, but is part of the process to actually undermine Jeremy. I think people like that should really think again about why they’re in the Labour party and what it is they’re doing.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.