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12 August 2023

De-optimise your life

Picking up novels from Tube station bookshelves has opened my eyes to the randomness and serendipity technology aims to rid us of.

By Marie Le Conte

It all began with a man who wouldn’t leave his car. Murray Tepper was a mild-mannered middle-aged man but still, even when asked, he wouldn’t budge. He’d park there and read the paper. I couldn’t get enough of him, and neither could New York; by the end the police had got involved, and the mayor, and the press, and his wife. Really, it was a whole thing. It was tremendous.

After that I spent some time in Sweden with some Scottish murderers. They weren’t pleasant but they were compelling, though I have to say I was secretly pleased when I was rid of them. Finally I crossed Hungary with some randy young basketball players. They spent a lot of their time naked but that was fine; I enjoyed their company.

By the time I left them behind, I realised that I’d made the right choice. Picking up novels at random from the little bookshelves at Tube stations was a really great idea. Without them, I never would have read Tepper Isn’t Going Out, The Treasure or Under the Frog. I’d never heard of any of the authors before and at least one of those books was published before my grandmother was born.

Since then, my reading tour of London has taken me to many other places. Most recently I read a biography of the Marquis de La Fayette, not because I particularly care about him, but purely because it was there. Did you know that he called his son Georges Washington de La Fayette? I didn’t. It’s very funny. I love it.

It’s also made me think about other areas of my life, and about those men in Silicon Valley who sound like they’d be terrible on a night out. They’d have the money to bring you to a really terrific restaurant but it would only serve food that looked like it was made for aristocratic pets. They’d talk to you about why you should eat it to live for as long as possible. They’d make you pay 2.73 per cent of the bill at the end because they figured out that your salary represents 2.73 per cent of their income, and fair is fair.

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They want life to be as streamlined and optimised as possible, and they run everything now so our lives have also become more streamlined and optimised. If you want something to read, you can browse BookTok, hear of a book that may interest you, google it, buy it on Amazon, and have it delivered the very next day. You can do the same with Instagram influencers and clothes, jewellery and make-up, then at the end of the day you can lie in bed and get tucked in by the Netflix algorithm, which knows what you like and has some helpful suggestions.

It is handy and saves time, especially if you have things like children and a busy job. I, however, have neither of those, so I have decided to fight back. As of this year, I am de-optimising my life.

If I am going to a restaurant, it is because I walked past it and stuck my nose on the front window, squinting at the menus and trying to see if the people eating there seemed happy. Running errands must involve going to shop after shop after shop, even if it’s dull and I need to go to several branches because the one close to my flat doesn’t have what I need.

As for the cinema, I will return to what I did some years ago, which is to watch trailers, do no googling whatsoever afterwards, then make my pick depending on which three minutes felt the most interesting. It will require some trial and error. The last time I did it was when I needed a comedy to cheer me up, and I went to see that flick I’d seen a trailer for, and which seemed dark but fun. It was The Banshees of Inisherin. It is fair to say it did not cheer me up. A small donkey dies in it. No one needs that when they’re sad.

Like a Luddite, I will keep going out of my way to make life more complicated than it needs to be, and I think I will like it a lot. It’s all well and good to let yourself get gently guided by apps and websites that act like they know you better than you know yourself, but it defeats the point.

People evolve and change as they go through life, but they can only do that if life gets in the way once in a while. If we all end up comfortably sitting in our own siloes, it is hard to see how we won’t end up calcifying.

Some people never grow up because they stuck with their high school sweetheart and that ended up preserving them both in amber, forever stuck with the brains of 17-year-olds. I worry that technology is now doing this to all of us. The internet has become our collective teenage boyfriend, whose comforting presence means that we never have to go and see what’s out there.

I’m pleased I didn’t end up with the boy I loved when I was 17, and so see it as my duty to free myself from the one my phone has created for me. Where will it lead me? I have no idea. That’s the whole point.

[See also: A TikTok publishing house is bad news for books]

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