Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Meet Johnny Generic

Airports are where you see the most diverse groups of people in the world. Every race, every religion, so many different ways of being human.

But the thing that brings us to the airport, our desire to reach a 'foreign land', a place of true difference, is frustrated by the presumption of sameness built into the babysitting technologies that airports and airlines use to control us.

I've never understood why airports should have the poorest selection of reading matter in the world (business magazines, 'airport novels'), and only stock Top 50 CDs.

It gets worse when you get on the plane. Only two choices of meal, and they never have the newspaper you want. (It's always the liberal papers they 'don't seem to have today'.)

Airports should have signs above them like Dante's Inferno, saying 'Abandon Choice All Who Enter Here'.

Japan Air Lines

My JAL Boeing back from Tokyo has a sophisticated in-flight entertainment system. I can flip a groovy little monitor out of my armrest and choose from 18 different channels.

But this apparent freedom is limited by the fact that, although this is a Japanese airline flying between two non-American destinations, all but three of the channels are offering American movies. What's more, all these movies feature frequent explosions, guns and blonde women.

A lot of the choices apparently built into technology are illusory. I have a choice not to smoke, but often end up inhaling other people's fumes. I have a choice not to drive a car, but have spent a lot of my life standing at the kerbside getting nowhere because I have to wait for everybody else's car to pass before I can walk.

Freedoms, it seems, are only freedoms if everybody else wants them.

There are lots of buttons on the new technology that surrounds us, but whatever button I push, I get something American. There is no Muslim button, no Gay button, no Bohemian button. Often there isn't even an Intelligent button.

Meet Johnny Generic

Meet Johnny Generic. Johnny is the composite strawman, Joe Public, Mr Average, Mr Jones, the little diagram on the hand-drying machine. He's a character you get to know pretty well because he's built into the systems you encounter every day as a traveller, a city user, a free agent moving around in a world of consumer choices.

He's the engineer's version of the novelist's 'ideal reader'.

Technology is giving us more and more options, but very seldom are we given ways out of resembling Johnny Generic. Mostly we just get to lick Johnny in different flavours.

Christmas On Earth

I decided to escape Christmas, so I spent it in Japan, a country that is supposed to be Buddhist. But in fact Christmas - a Japanese flavour of Christmas - was everywhere, in trees and lights and schmaltzy christmas music.

It is built into the specification of Johnny, the generic presumed citizen, the business traveller, the American abroad, that he celebrates Christmas. And if Johnny does, I must too.

How can we can escape the reductive normative presumptions about us built into technologies of apparent choice?

By buying into lo-fi, low-res packaged media (websites, fanzines, CDs) rather than high budget entertainments, by abusing technology, by throwing away the manual, by identifying with other categories.

Once we learn these strategies for gentle civic disobedience, we can be a little bit more free. If not actually bohemian, we can at least consider ourselves 'consumers with attitude'.

Digital Presumptions Kill

Digital technology, although it's full of options we didn't know we wanted, is full of limitations too.

Radios: I used to be able to tune a radio as fast as I liked. Now I can only glide at a fixed speed or zap between presets.

Cameras: I used to be able, like Cartier Bresson, to seize a 'decisive moment' by pushing my finger on a mechanical button to open a camera shutter. With my new digital camera there is an infuriating delay while all the systems in the camera make presumptions about where I want the focus to be and what kind of illumination I want (the flash is set to 'always' unless you manually disable it every time you start upthe camera, an action which is in itself frustratingly slow). By the time the camera has activated all its systems and mounted the flashcard, the picture I saw is gone.

Most presumptions built into systems -- the ones designers call foolproof because they consider me a fool and themselves infallible -- are simply irritating. Some, though, are fatal.

I read in today's Japan Times that several US states are preparing legal actions against the two most presumptuous system-makers of all time, IBM and Microsoft, whose perception that the year 2000 was a long way off and didn't need its full date programmed into their software is going to cause untold misery and maybe even death a few months from now.

Consideration Built In

In Japan, where some of the greastest technology in the world is invented, there are a number of social restrictions placed on its use, as if the social fabric of Japanese society were threatened by the liberties technology permits.

* Japanese cars are super-efficient and fast. But they are equipped by law with irritating little bells which chime persistently when you exceed the speed limit.

* Japanese pornography is politically incorrect in exciting ways, but the government demands the pixellation of all sexual body parts.

* The TV in my hotel room had the volume fixed so that it wouldn't go above a certain very feeble level. A piano in a house I visited was not to be played after 9pm in case it disturbed the neighbours - who were on the other side of a pear orchard!

* The internet computers I found in public places were often configured so that users could not send e mail, their web browsers instead defaulting to dull, poorly designed corporate websites.

* The cash dispensers would not issue cash to foreigners, and my hotel would not accept credit cards.

* The Minidisc players I looked at represented a technology designed to be slightly less good than the digital standard, so that people couldn't tape CDs.

* Other systems went against the grain of my spoilt western sense of justice: the store escalators which only go up, drawing you deeper and higher into the store which has cynically provided only stairs for an exit.

* The face masks worn by sufferers of colds, who must pay to protect other people from their own affliction (though this has something admirably altruistic about it, and is probably beneficial for everybody in the end, it's still odd to imagine going into a shop to pay for a system which is restrictive and will not benefit you personally at all).

* At the brand new venues in which I played Kahimi Karie concerts, the audience was quickly ejected after the show and even guest listed friends were not allowed backstage, presumably because rock music is still associated with an undesireable promiscuity (that in itself would not be unJapanese -- think of the Floating World -- but promiscuity combined with the racial difference represented by touring rock bands is... unacceptable).

* My record label told me that features about my work could only be published in magazines in which advertising had been bought. (Even the journalistic freedom to go out on a limb and criticise is mistrusted in this consensual society, where 'the nail that sticks out must be hammered in'.)

* I read a Japanese art critic complain that he could not write articles panning exhibitions because the corporate sponsors and international government agencies who backed his paper and the galleries found it undesireable to receive any bad press and brought pressure to bear to silence dissent. I was told that record reviews here are never judgemental, rarely going beyond uncontroversial information about the artists.

* Even language, the ultimate technology of freedom, is fitted with a glass ceiling: apparently there are no swear words in Japanese, and hardly any insults. It is very difficult to think dissentingly if you can't even find words for the people from whom you wish to distinguish yourself.

Although the Japanese (rather admirably, in my view) killed early christian missionaries rather than let their culture be corrupted by an irrelevant and imperialist wayof thinking (in which there is only one true god instead of shinto's many, and only one right answer instead of many), my Japanese friends tell me that this happened not as a rebuke to european imperialism, but because the ultra-conservative warlords thought their hierarchical society would be threatened by a philosophy in which everyone is equal before God.

And now the Japanese celebrate Christmas.

Sign Your Name

Why don't you become Johnny Generic? Your life will be so much sweeter. All your anxiety and conflict will be rolled away by a great wave of valium.

Simply swear and sign the following oath:

1. There is no nationality other than American.

2. There is no gender other than male.

3. There is no music other than Rock and Pop.

4. There is no religion other than Christian / Agnostic.

5. There is no age other than adult (18-50).

6. There is no art other than Romantic / Impressionist.

7. There is no cinema other than Hollywood (cinema of pyrotechnic apocalypse).

8. There is no aspiration other than luxury (brand name perfume).

9. There is no social unit other than the hetero couple (incipient family).

10. There is no meaningful activity other than work. (Leisure is a sickly, empty place of inauthenticity and unfulfillment.)

11. There is information, but no opinion.

12. There is normality, but not deviance.


Have you sworn and signed? Don't you feel great now, Johnny?

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