We play on each other’s weaknesses all the time, don’t we? Inevitably, I suppose, and most often harmlessly. But imagine a world in which we didn’t. We aren’t shown the aspirational lifestyle that goes with the soft drink. We’re told straight out that it’s just water and sugar and flavourings - but quite pleasant, actually. Oh, and some colourings. At this price. Or perhaps we don’t see it at all. The company making that drink … does something else with its money. Buys into the health-food industry, perhaps. Later the same imaginary day, the fashion industry starts to hire real people as models.
In this different world, holiday advertising mentions the length of the flight and the legroom. Brochures contain articles debating the parking/overnight options around Heathrow. News broadcasts occasionally tell you that there’s nothing much going on, although there was a dog show in Piedmont yesterday, if you’re interested? The marketing campaign for the latest fat little hatchback no longer features empty mountain roads, nor that smug young man driving through an empty glass city, but it does mention, er … actually, how do you market yet another fat little hatchback? There’s legroom in the front at least, says the car company’s Head of Sales.
Because every catchy idea nowadays has to have a name, let’s call this the “kindness economy”, because that’s easier to say than “considerateness economy” (and also because I haven’t thought through the argument for the “respect economy” yet) - and because every named trend has to have a guru, let’s imagine that I’ve published a book called “The Kindness Economy” (I haven’t) and I’m speaking on the subject at mindfulness seminars all over the world (I’m not). I get flown in as a keynote speaker at business conferences (I don’t), and you can subscribe to my online seminars (you can’t).
There’s merchandise (there isn’t), and you can already look me up at brainyquote.com (nope!). My message to the world, which has caught the public imagination, is (isn’t) simply this: we need to be kind to each other!
Narrow escapes. Because this is exactly the point at which the kindness economy breaks down. The point at which we give it a name and take it on, I mean. Human nature dictates that once we collectively set out to be kind, kindness becomes our entitlement rather than everybody else’s. It’s not how kind I am, it’s that time you missed an opportunity to be kind to me. We become alert to our own experiences of unkindness. You can substitute tolerance for kindness, or any other virtue, and it’s the same. If we’re talking about not playing on each other’s weaknesses in the advertising sense, anything beyond the most basic, factual statement of a product’s availability will sooner or later be shot down on social media.
It’s okay. This is who we are. We start to police kindness, and some of us become unkind in the name of kindness. It’s neither good nor bad, but the way our minds work. If we decide collectively that we want to live in a kindness society, or a tolerant society, and yes I did say “economy” earlier, we have to - or rather, we do - force it for a while before it becomes natural. We want to live in a kindness society, so a kindness industry springs up to make it so. Kindness becomes compulsory. Force it ‘til you make it.
Whether compulsion is persuasive - I don’t know. But I do know that the utopia at the end of the rainbow - the kindness society in which everybody is kind to everybody else - depends on a range of near-impossibilities. The kindness industry, which needs incidences of unkindness to sustain itself, puts itself out of business. We go back to living in a society and not an economy (where success is selling you that cake, or sugary drink, or fast food, regardless of your health). We start to look at our own behaviour, and not each other’s. We make a transition in the way we regard ourselves, and in what we’re prepared to see in others - in what we’re most ready to see in others. I wonder whether I’m talking about the forgiveness society, never mind kindness.
To finish on a digression, I was remembering The Trigan Empire the other day. This was a comic strip that turned up in Look and Learn magazine from 1966 onwards (thanks, Wikipedia) and contributed more to my early life than Kennedy’s Latin Primer, Hillard & Botting, Watson’s La Langue des Francais ever did. If I remember rightly, The Trigan Empire featured more scaly green monsters with tentacles than fully developed female characters with agency, but that isn’t the reason it comes back into my mind occasionally. At a time when my working day was taken up with the ablative case of the Latin word for war, and long division, and the pen of my aunt that was on the table of my uncle, et cetera, my leisure moments were taken up with Keren.
Keren was blue. All the other characters in The Trigan Empire had skin the same colour as mine (except the villains and monsters, who were generally green). But Keren was blue. His skin was blue. I thought that was so cool. Cool to be different, I suppose, cool to be blue. That was my attitude back then, and nowadays - I wonder; if I turned off the entire media, would I be able to get back to it?
Oh, setting it up. There was the delay while I found my Apple password, then the bit where I downloaded the Sonos app and opened an account with Sonos, and then the inner debate over whether to pick “Den” or “Family Room” to categorise this room, then a video suggesting that I hold my iPhone upside down and wave it around the room, then the opportunity to do just that (to tune the speaker), which I skipped because the room needed to be quiet, apparently, and the washing machine was chugging along next door…
… then the tense five minutes - not surprising to a person of my age - in which I grappled with the discovery that my new speaker did everything except play the music on my iPhone. Streaming services, internet radio, podcasts, but not the music for which I bought the thing. The step-by-step guide said to click on Browse and then to click on On this iPhone … which didn’t appear under Browse. Googled the problem, and every site said to click on Browse and then to click on On This iPhone. Yeah. Not surprising to a person of my age, et cetera. In my day, we used to plug things in and switch them on, blah blah blah.
But I’m getting younger. I don’t think I could find it again without the Mission: Impossible theme tune playing in the background, but there’s a setting in, er, Settings that you need to change to tell the iPhone to let an outside speaker play its music - I think that was it. A setting on the iPhone, I mean. Keep calm. It’s in there somewhere. [Memo to self: hang up the laundry] Oh, and when the iPhone auto-shuts down, so does the music. So unless you’re seriously into minimalism, change that. Oh, wow! Hazel O’Connor! Yes! I still like this.
“...Tell me your secrets,
Sing me the song,
Sing it to me in the silent tongue.”
And they say code is poetry. Some of this music has survived through generations of my technology, which is weird if you think about it (again, I have the CD somewhere; I must have “ripped” it onto something at some point, although I don’t remember), and some of it is new-ish, which is giving me some interesting mood changes. Brian Eno. Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Okay. Looking that one up, I find that it was composed to be “interesting but ignorable,” which is not a bad aspiration to have. I’d like to claim “interesting”, but I suppose “ignorable” - well. That just comes naturally.
Now that I’ve opened an account online and stipulated that I have a Family Room, perhaps I should watch out for the family-oriented pop-up advertising. Not that I’m suggesting Sonos would do any of that, you understand, but there’s something about the idea of a Family Room that triggers - well, memories, but also thoughts of things and shopping. Tonka toys. Mattel. Fun for all the family. Hey, Dory Previn. Deep Purple, gosh. I never owned this … oh no, wait a minute, yes. Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, I remember. That was the day we - anyway.
I suppose if I was orienting myself for the surveillance economy, rather than just setting myself up to reminisce to music, perhaps “Den” would have been a better choice. A den with a mantelpiece and space for pictures. I’d want to see pop-up ads offering, I don’t know, Photoshopped framed photographs of me big-game fishing with Ernest Hemingway; sitting in that line-up with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference; carried on the shoulders of my team-mates after the final whistle of the World Cup Final…
…I don’t know, perhaps I should rethink my idea of a Den. But not before I’ve ordered that six-foot wall-mounted (fake, biodegradable) Swordfish to go above the big log fire, and the big log fire to go beneath the Swordfish (I just think Swordfish should have a capital S) and the big furry rug with the bear’s head at one end, which doubles as a combination warm hat and cloak. I think I like the fashion for hats with ears, but perhaps that’s one fashion that I shouldn’t, um. Was it The Hotel New Hampshire (John Irving, 1981) in which the woman dressed as a bear? There was a film.
Maybe my Den needs furniture. Imitation oak and imitation leather. A cigar-flavoured air freshener - no, hang on. My Family Room is fine as it is, even if in real life I get a “single-person discount” on my Council Tax for being the only person living in it. It’s a Man Room, or if all the talk about the clever analysis of Big Data actually means anything, a William Room. Tangerine Dream. William Basinski, Vivian & Ondine. I suspect that the surveillance economy is going to fizzle out, actually, because if it’s basing its commercial decision-making on the belief that I’ve really got a Family Room just because I ticked that box, it’s going to be going out of business quite quickly.
Slade? T Rex? Wait a minute. How can this system possibly be playing my old singles?
*I don’t mean to sound so surprised. Update. I’ve just bought a second one. That’s working too. I now have “stereo effect without wires”, as the man in the shop put it. Happy now.