OPINION: In 1998, I began a column thus: "The camera is responsible for most of the ills of the late 20th century."
I thought it true at the time, little knowing what the following years would bring. And I described a dream that took place in the Botanic Gardens where I urged a quartet of gloomy Finns to biff their cameras into the river. My argument proved irresistible. By dream's end the Canons had gone to the bed of the Avon and the Finns had shed their gloom.
Now, 15 years later, I'm back in the same dreamy gardens and spring's pulling the same stunts: Dappled sunshine, darling ducklings, roses floribundant, rhododendrons frothy, and a lawn as soft and gentle as the nice new pope. And there by the river are the gloomy Finns, still pronouncing their Os with a line through them.
But where once they posed for photos with which to bore their neighbours in Nordic winters, they now sit hunched over their phones, absorbed by screens and blind to the glories of spring.
"Helsinki," I say, and they look up, surprised by the fluency of my Finnish.
"You are not me remembering?" I say, carefully my verb to the end of the clause dragging so as not to arouse suspicion. "Your old friend, Joe."
"I 27,000 friends on Facebook have," sneers the oldest of the Finns, the one they call Dorsal.
"Then perhaps this will jog your memory," I say as I reach out and snatch their cellphones with the deftness of the professional pickpocket I never was.
The Finns encircle me, bristling. I biff one of the phones like a frisbee.
"Nooooo!" wails its owner, too horrified to put a line through his Os, as the Blackberry soars through the air, winking in the spring sun, before landing with a plop in the river where it alarms a darling duckling.
Dorsal steps forward, his fingers frantic for my oesophagus.
"Lay a hand on me and the iPhone gets it," I say, and he backs off.
The kerfuffle attracts a crowd, tourists and idlers, every one of them toting a $1000 phone. And when my old pal, Dorsal, points at me with undisguised venom and bellows "I unfriend you", the mob takes up the cry.
"Unfriend, unfriend," they chant, as I leap into the boughs of an oak like the circus acrobat I never was, the better to address them.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I begin.
"Unfriend, unfriend," they shout, trying to drown me out. But I am fervent with missionary zeal. I see souls to be saved and am undrownoutable.
"Ladies and gentlemen, what's happened? What joke have you fallen for? What's gone wrong? How have you sunk so low? Unfriend? What sort of speech is this? Is it the language of adults? Ladies and gentlemen, you've been undone. The nerds have undone you. The kids you used to tease at school have got revenge. They've shrunk your life. They've baited a hook with electronic pretties and you have bitten. They're playing you like a fish. They've tamed you and milked you, turned your unique and vital self into a mass of data, a seam of likes and unlikes that they can sell for cash. You're being led and bled, my friends, from . . ."
But no-one's listening. I have to grab their eyes and ears. From my pocket I draw Dorsal's iPhone. Instant silence. I let it fly. Enough gigabytes and apps to power a mission to the moon splash and sink and die, their tiny electronic circuits soaked to instant death. Silence, awed silence, but for the cheeping of the darling ducklings.
"Listen to the names," I say, "the names are everything. Facebook, the literature of the superficial. Youtube, gosh it almost comes as close to rhyming as it does to meaning anything. Twitter, vacuity made noise. Are these the route to a life worth living? Is it these you were born for? Is it for these that your forsake the rhododendron froth, the roses floribundant, the darling ducklings, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower and all the sapid vital sensory world? Is this the better life of which your fathers dreamed, this thin commercial noise?"
I sense a shift of mood. The moment teeters. The crowd wavers. Then my old friend, Dorsal, seizes the initiative and a Samsung S4 and with a single fluid movement tosses both into the river. The crowd roars and the sky is suddenly dark with phones flung high. Samsungs and iPhones arc through the bright air and their owners whoop and dance. They are free. It is a far far better thing that I have done than I have ever done before. Even little men can dream.
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