Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Seen but not heard

On the wall at Chronicle Towers hangs a flatscreen TV that almost constantly keeps the resident newshounds informed of the world’s goings-on, with BBC1 first thing in the morning and Sky News for the rest of the day.

But there’s a fine line between being informed and being distracted, and for this reason the sound is always turned down, with the instant subtitles kept on.

Sometimes the newshounds get so immersed in their work (it does happen) that we end up half-way through Cash in the Attic before anyone gets round to changing channels.

But when it does eventually get switched on, Sky New can lead to some odd misapprehensions.

First off there are the adverts for the iPhone 3G. It’s a jolly desirable piece of kit, with a touch screen and all the shiny smoothness you’d expect from Apple.

Just shake it, the adverts imply, and you’ll be instantly in touch with your Facebook friends, you’ll be Tweeting like a second Stephen Fry (as if one wasn’t enough) and you’ll have at your fingertips all the data you need to make an informed decision about where to eat at what price within 500 yards of your current location.

As long as that location is London.

And then comes the televisual equivalent of the small print, in very spidery low-contrast letters at the end of each ad: “Steps removed and sequence shortened”.

Ah, those cruel words. Remember the moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear, whose self-confidence and swagger are founded upon his conviction that he’s a real spaceman with a flying jetpack, collapses into depression after he sees a TV advert – for himself – that ends with the words “Not a flying toy”?

So it is with the iPhone ads: it takes a lot more fiddling about to get the most out of an iPhone – or indeed any electronic device – than the publicity would have you believe.

Then there are the bizarre adverts for old pennies, polished up and enamelled in red, white and blue. They’re fronted by a man who exudes deep and unnerving psychological menace: not the kind of qualifications you’d normally associate with salesmanship. He has dark, staring eyes, hair that appears to be carved from plastic and a complexion modelled on offcuts from Madame Tussauds. He does not smile; he does not even appear to blink.

Get one of these pennies, he seems to be saying, or your grandchildren will suffer. Even if you haven’t got any grandchildren.

But what are the pennies for? Why does the robotic hive culture represented by the quasi-human in the advert want us to have them?

Even in their heyday, when you could buy a tanner’s worth of gobstoppers and still get change from fourpence, old pennies were only worth 1/240th of a pound, and they haven’t exactly appreciated in value since then. So they’re not exactly future heirlooms – you could rustle up your own in five minutes with a can of Brasso and some poster paints.

And in terms of patriotic significance they’re hardly up there with a ten-foot Union Flag and a CD of Rule Britannia.

So it’s far more likely that all these reconstituted coins of the realm are the physical manifestations of a global communication network. They're not friendly or fluffy like an iPhone, they're a conduit for beaming robotic instructions direct to your brain: resistance is futile, join the Collective.

Sky News gets even weirder, though, when the adverts finish and the subtitled news starts over again. Because the subtitling software, clever though it is, doesn’t always get things right.

Earlier this week we were told about some people in Tasmania battling to “Keep Wales wet with water and Howells.” The mind began to boggle: Who is this Howells character? And isn’t Wales wet enough already?

When the boggling had boggled, it transpired that what these kind-hearted people were really trying to do was save nearly 200 beached whales by covering them with wet towels.

Now there’s usually an unspoken suggestion in reports about stranded whales that somehow it’s All Our Fault, but this time it seems more likely that they got caught out on their annual migration by a very low tide. Luckily, most of them were returned to the sea: an accident of nature with a happy ending.

Either that, or they were trying to warn us about the robots and the pennies. Before they take over the world.

This (or something like it) will be my Bath Chronicle column for March 5 2009.

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