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Don’t be seduced by this clamour of voices

Shooting from the hip, as has been her habit down the years, Doris Lessing used her acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature as an opportunity to take a pop at the great evils of our time: the decline of reading, the rule of Robert Mugabe, the way publishers promote young authors as if they were celebrities, and so on. Mid-flow, she took a brief look at the effects of the internet and its effects on our brains and our lives.

In an age when computers are so ubiquitous as to be beyond comment criticising them is like complaining about the air we breathe it takes a certain recklessness to suggest that, for many, the new technology is more master than servant. “How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet?” Lessing asks. Already, she says, it has “seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.”

A few bloggers and bluggers might justifiably point out that for an opinionated writer to be moaning about people spending too much time expressing opinions and writing is slightly perverse. One might think that, if anything, Lessing would be rather in favour of these hectic and heated online exchanges, rather than dismissing them as inanities. In a recent item on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, the editor of The Spectator, Matthew D’Ancona, presented the opposite view a summary of the case for the internet as a force for political and intellectual change. Bloggers, he suggested, were part of a new kind of debate in which arguments were not articulated by one writer in an old-fashioned, take-it-or-leave-it sort of way, but developed out of discussion which involved all sorts of differing opinions online.

At the end of it all, a sort of collective wisdom would be reached, and that communal truth was likely to be more interesting and unconventional than anything being pushed by an establishment politician or a member of what is now called the old media.

This process of fragmentation, the capacity of the weirdest minority groups to coalesce and grow strong on the internet, are what Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn describes in his new book Microtrends as “small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as one per cent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society”. They are the future of democracy.

Who does one believe Doris Lessing, aged 87, or D’Ancona and Penn, both of whom are at the epicentre of political life here and in America? Is the internet a force for inane addiction or will those millions of small flames of opinion and difference become one great flame of free thought?

Personally, I’m with Doris. An online debate, comprehensively blogged, surely leads not to shared wisdom but to compromise: a great, democratised debate sounds better than it actually is. The authority which the internet offers is often skimmed superficially off the top of things my studiously casual reference to the arguments of Microtrends, for example, may have given the impression, entirely fake, that I’d actually read the book rather than garnered some instant web-wisdom.

The clamour of on-line debate may sound like a revolution in progress indeed, it might well be one but the most important microtrend remains the voice, fierce and uncompromised, of one individual. Where, after all, would you learn more from a thousand hectic blogs across the world or from The Golden Notebook?

Losing the war on waste

In the week when it was reported that children’s standards of literacy were declining, it was good to read in a government-commissioned marketing report that the target audience for a pro-recycling campaign next year should be “affluent and consumptive” women in their 30s.

If the consumption does not have these women spitting blood, the idea of “eco-celebs” leading the campaign might just do the trick. Among the leading contenders for the job is to be found the name of that great friend of the Earth, Stephen Fry.

When asked about the report from Munro and Forster, a government spokeswoman said it was “expanding the debate on waste”. Too right it is.

* Not for the first time, Desmond Morris has uncovered some sound evolutionary reasons for humans behaving badly. Morris, 79, whose own career is a testament to the survival of the fittest, wrote the bestseller The Naked Ape in 1967 and has followed up with such works as The Human Zoo, The Human Sexes, and The Naked Woman.

In his new book The Naked Man, Morris argues that something called neoteny, the retention of a childlike sense of playfulness and curiosity into adulthood, is closely linked to creativity, originality and inventiveness. Homosexual men are healthily neotenous – “Gays have in general made a disproportionately greater contribution to life than non-gays,” he says – and so are promiscuous heterosexual males. That heightened sense of curiosity of theirs, so useful in the advance of mankind, can often end up “spilling over into other aspects of life”. With perfect timing, The Naked Man has been published to coincide with that traditionally neotenous event, the office Christmas party.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.