It’s quaint to look back from the vantage point of 43 and consider which of the academic experiences and skills you’ve grasped, albeit weakly, over the last 25 years would be of use to students today – bar those studying ancient history or delusional writer syndrome. Is Marxist media theory still relevant? I guess that depends as much on your opinion of the man as how you rate the latest cooking and talent shows. Is developing B&W photos in a darkroom still a valid skill, or yet another meditative zone long since bulldozed by an impatient twenty-first century? Time will tell, though presumably only if it starts rewinding.
My dissertation related to how drug use affected popular protest in the 1960s and 1990s. My rather sweet conclusion was that the psychotropics of the earlier decade promoted genuine empathy and desire for social change, while the ecstasy tablets favoured by my own generation encouraged only hedonism, despite the free hugs they induced and the friendly emoji (the ne’er-do-well cousins to today’s puritanical variety) they were stamped with. For a few tantalising seconds last week I wondered if this long-lost paper was about to be vindicated by the words of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was being interviewed on Jarvis Cocker’s fabulous radio show. Listening more carefully, I realised the reverse was actually the case.
Curtis maintains that the ‘60s flower children are to blame for much that is broken in the world today; that their need for self-expression, and with it the desire to stand out and be different, fuelled the insatiable capitalism of today due to its inherent promise of choice and uniqueness (a promise that was all too easily monetised). This meant the collective movements of the time ultimately vanished in the haze of a Hendrix guitar solo, and from thereon in we were screwed.
Even more disturbing than realizing my dissertation was fatally flawed, and that rampant selfishness is about to destroy the world, was the next thing Curtis said. Apparently the most radical thing to do in the face of all this damned self-expression is nothing. Nothing? Or even better, he suggested, walk to Aleppo, Syria [and see what you can do to help]. Don’t tell anyone you’re going. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t write a book about it. Don’t write a book about it?
Unthinkable. Or perhaps not. First, ask yourself whether writers (and other creative types) are typically altruists or egoists. Have you met one before? Okay, question answered. Second, do we really need to publish more and more books, to upload more and more thoughts and feelings until we have an infinite number of clever theses and artistic flourishes, or do we need to take direct action according to our consciences, and if that doesn’t work…do nowt?
In another Cocker show, future thinker Dr Yuval Noah Harari asked what humans can bring to a party soon to be hosted by algorithms with more willpower than a zillion horny undergrads. Should they even bother to pitch up? Already taxi drivers are being threatened with imminent redundancy by driverless cars with a much better attitude. I wonder what lies in store for editors of soon-to-be-outdated textbooks. Perhaps our attention to detail could be applied to Virtual Reality programming? Oh, hold on. In the next breath Harari explains that in future middle-aged folk whose first occupation becomes redundant will either join the cabbies in a ‘useless class’ or face annihilation, depending on the political climate of the time.
On the upside, I still haven’t learnt to drive so that’s one less skill I need to find a home for in my darkroom of obsolete abilities – a space I see being curated by an AI version of Timothy Leary that spends its days dropping acid with a regenerated Karl Marx. Rest assured, despite the squeeze I’m sure there’ll be a place for all of us in there in years to come.