Max Beerbohm: The Aesthete before the Internet

Article excerpt

ACCORDING to a recent French study we--all of us--do everything much faster than our ancestors did. We not only travel faster, more frequently and generally further, but walk, talk, shop and eat more quickly. Participation is everything and the 'instant' has become the norm. Social groups form, mutate, dissolve, regroup with bewildering rapidity; opinions are aired, recorded, forgotten; fashions--in food, clothing, holidays--are obsolete almost before they are born; participation has become momentary, specific; the 'new' is everything. With 'speed dating' relationships need not last longer than it takes a mayfly to hatch, take wing, procreate and die, all on a summer's day. The tempo of life was quickening even before the advent of the Net but has increased exponentially since. The phenomenon is all inclusive since it has dissolved ordinary barriers of class and education just as cheap credit has dissolved those of wealth. Technology is essentially egalitarian but nowhere so egalitarian as in the Net. It requires no qualification or expertise beyond nimble fingers and belief in self, as a being possessed of an intrinsic value of interest not only to identifiable others but to the world generally, the world 'out there'. The identifiable are not family and friends and colleagues at work but personalities of the entertainment and other worlds, the filter through which our thoughts are passed on. If the real world is not enough there is the world of Virtual Reality, like Second Life, where participants can live out the life of their dreams. The essence of it all is movement, flux, the vicarious. The human being, comment the authors of one of these latest French studies, becomes 'un etre bondissant d' un espace a un autre, d' un evenement a un autre, d' un etre a un autre. Surfant sur le reseau d' information, zappant le reel d' une pression de telecommande, il devient un spectre qui refuse la duree'.

The authors apart, others have noted that the effect of this phenomen is not centripetal but centrifugal. It does not provide for cohesion. It separates generations instead of bringing them together. The emphasis is on the individual not on the community. It is a phenomen geared to Self, to self-belief, self-awareness and self-gratification. Its concomitant is constant movement, the essence of modernity. President Sarkozy with his mineral water, jogging--le footing, if you are French--and his boundless activity epitomises movement, the ceaseless projection of oneself on to whatever stage is available at the time. In this he is Mr Blair's successor, in his boundless self-confidence, too.

The Internet provides an almost limitless range of alternatives to the humdrum business of earning one's daily bread. The modern man or woman will use them all. There is a certain experimental quality about all this, a suggestion that man thinks he knows what he wants whereas in truth curiosity or avarice are ceaselessly at work undermining the structure he has built for himself, castles in the sand. It is not clear which society these French researchers were comparing in coming to their conclusions about the pace at which contemporary life is lived. Clearly not that of the caveman which is altogether too remote and different for any comparison to be possible. One has to assume that it was, in certain respects, a society not dissimilar to our own, as subject to unprecedented change, both economically and socially, with about the same ratio of winners to losers, haves to have nots, with, broadly speaking, the same social aspirations over health, welfare, education and personal enrichment and in consequence similar recourse to technological innovation. The ideal candidate for this, in French terms, would be the France of the Third Republic (1870-1940), for Britain the half-century from 1850 to 1904. The key moment for all advanced societies then was the invention of the Internal Combustion engine. Until then civilisation was constructed upon the pace of the horse or ox or sail which severely limited the amount one could hope or expect to do in a given time. …