By Leadbeater, Charles
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 141, No. 5106
Simon Cowell, creator of The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, is perhaps the best-known and most powerful of the lot. In the name of democratising culture, he has created a monopoly that stretches across television, the press and the music industry. By giving us what we want, he has created vast power for himself and we happily go along with it. Cowell is brilliant but twisted - an evil genius.
Michael O'Leary, the force behind Ryanair, is another. Ryanair takes pleasure in humiliating us and yet still we come back for more, in the process making it the most profitable airline in Europe. Peter Mandelson represents another variant: the modern eminence grise, an irresistibly charming dark power, pulling the strings, the power behind the throne. Jose Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, exemplifies yet another common trait of the Evil Genius by offering his fans a Faustian bargain - the football may be methodical and at times dour, but eventually he grinds out victory.
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, is a rare female candidate for the title, at least as she was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the role of Miranda Priestly for the film The Devil Wears Prada. Impossibly demanding, cruel and bullying, Miranda nevertheless had people falling at her feet, wanting to impress her even as she made them grovel. Gordon Ramsay does something similar; his awful behaviour appears to be part of his charm. Welcome to the Age of the Evil Genius.
Why is the Evil Genius such a troubling figure? Because the EG disturbs our cosy assumptions about the relationship between being morally good and being technically good at something. We like to associate the idea of genius with having a high moral purpose. Yet these days talent can also reside in people who appear to be cold, calculating and apparently amoral, even to the point of being devoid of social conscience and a capacity for empathy.
However, the most troubling aspect of the EG is what it says about us. The point about O'Leary and Cowell, Wintour and Ramsay, Mourinho and Mandelson is that they do not force us to do anything. We choose to be enthralled and ensnared in a latter-day form of voluntary servitude. As Simon Glendinning, reader in European philosophy at the London School of Economics, puts it, their power is to make us give in to our desire for something corrupted. Gilbert and George, EGs of the contemporary art world, say that they know things are going right when what they are doing feels wrong.
Where have all these EGs come from and why have they appeared in such numbers lately?
The original idea of the EG comes from Descartes, who caused uproar by positing the possibility of an evil God who was all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful, and yet also deceiving. The Leveson inquiry is an exploration into how the entire political establishment came to be in thrall to an evil genius of this kind, in the form of Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch's reach and power pale in comparison to the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook or Apple. They are Descartes's EG made real: all-seeing, all-knowing, possibly untrustworthy. Apple has our credit card numbers; Google knows what we are searching for; Facebook knows what we say to our friends; Amazon is turning fulfilment into something that can be delivered through our door. No newspaper magnate had such scope to insert himself into our lives, to shape our opinions and interests.
On the surface, Facebook seems to be designed for us, to allow us to connect and share. In reality, we increasingly conduct our lives for it; we choose to channel our lives through its templates and protocols, thus making it even more commercially successful. The power of Facebook and its peers does not prove that they are sinister, but the more we embrace them, the more of our lives, tastes, worries and hopes we hand over to them and the more vulnerable we make ourselves to the possibility they will abuse that intimacy. …