So goes the title of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album.
I’ve never really thought too deeply about the meaning of such an obtuse statement; being quirky Sheffield lads, humour/ennui comes in many guises; as their subsequent career and worthy success testifies.
However, I’ve been thinking about it of late: not just because I love their music and love Sheffield (having lived there many years, and also being a Sheffield Wednesday fan, like the Arctic Monkeys), but because I can begin to understand, now, what they were intimating at in that title: ‘You might think you know me - what I am, where I’m from, what I can do, but you really don’t have a clue. Don’t judge me.’
I’ve blogged a few times over the past few months regarding my current employment in the hotel/restaurant business, since the demise of my startup/consulting work and peripheral projects I’ve been involved in - all painfully stumbling down dead-ends. It reached the point where any income at all/any kind of work was better than banging my head against the wall as an ‘entrepreneur’ - fortunately, I was introduced to some part-time work at a local prestigious hotel/restaurant and I seized it, as an interim solution.
Well, a year on and my erstwhile tech/business career remains stalled, so I am still here. Thankfully, the people here are wonderful and although much of what I do is repetitive and menial, poorly-paid, and requires working anti-social hours, it has enabled me to learn a lot about people - and myself.
When I engage in conversation with customers - or colleagues who don’t know my past - often people are surprised, and wonder how I got to where I am. I don’t readily discuss much of my past as it can sound like bullshit, frankly, in the context of who people see me as now.
I’m not the person you think I am. I’d like to be somewhere else, utilising my skills and experience, but, like many others, all I can find is service-industry work - which I am thankful for, trust me. As I said, I’m lucky to work in a beautiful environment, with wonderful colleagues.
Yet, I feel it now defines who I am in the world - and I don’t like it.
I expect more of myself, and desperately feel the need to be building products/companies - creating wealth and jobs. Our time here is limited and I am terrified of going to my grave with my most recent legacy being ‘he did laundry, set breakfast for the guests, poured drinks, cleaned the bar, monitored the CCTV cameras, and was good with the customers.’
Jesus, that terrifies me. Is that it? My eulogy?
Sure, I’m also - most importantly - ‘a good person’ I like to think/am told. But, for me at least, that is not enough.
Getting back to perceptions: when strangers finally extract some of my background from me, they typically think I must be doing this as ‘something to do’ - a paid hobby, almost - my having ‘clearly’ retired very early in life and just wanting a bit of a no-hassle part-time work. Typically, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point in our conversation. Sometimes, I am even mistaken for being the owner of the establishment - which is both flattering and amusing.
In summary: Work does define who you are; I don’t need to cite Maslow here, I am sure.
Listening to BBC Radio 4 the other day (I tend to flip between 3, 4, and the World Service) I was reminded just how beautiful a medium the radio is for learning; so often radio is perceived as primarily being the domain of music we can forget its power to communicate a diverse range of topics in just the space of a couple of hours.
Learned guests, passionate communicators, vox pop, true thoughtful reporting/journalism (remember that?) - radio can embrace it all and segue from poetry to politics in moments, holding you transfixed in a manner neither the internet nor TV can compete with.
The beauty of being able to read, drive, daydream whilst looking out of the window, whilst still absorbing a radio transmission is unique: it doesn’t demand attention from all our senses - it directly taps into our brain in a unique manner - TV requires we accept the distraction of noisy visuals often irrelevant to the narrative. As for the internet - well, now that is a demanding source of information - it insists we interact with it at many levels, and all for a frequently one-dimensional sensory experience. If we spend too much time interacting and playing ergonomic games our ability to learn is compromised.
Radio enables us to switch-off surplus actions/senses and so better absorb and think - to become detached from the here and now: free to imagine.
Stimulation and inspiration can often come best from sources we all too often consider antiquated.
@om recently wrote a piece on the challenge of simply sitting still: being offline, absorbing the environment one is within. The luxury of no interruptions and thinking of nothing other than the moment, if one so wishes.
We are so accustomed to the ‘always-on’ environment we have begun to see it as an enabler rather than an intrusion. How did we cope when the world of the Internet was constrained within our desktop PCs? Did we feel compromised?
No, of course not.
Never before have we had something that is so wholly pervasive in our lives, so we have no empirical reference-point to understand the implications to our mental state in the longer-term.
Then again, maybe we have, which I will come to in a moment…
Apps have become our constant companions. Why read a book, or phone somebody - or simply sit in silence for a while - when we can skim from one virtual environment to another in just a few seconds? Does this enhance our lives or simply serve as a distraction? We reach for an app like we once reached for a cigarette.
The voice in our head is now the voice of thousands of people, all vying for our attention; whether or not this is sustainable I do not know but I’m pretty sure it’s not the apogee of civilisation. Maybe we are just at an intersection of how we are evolving in how we best utilise such technology.
The only parallel I can think of in terms of personal/social ubiquity is the cigarette. Now of course a somewhat frowned-upon habit, it wasn’t long ago that the cigarette was depicted as the great social-enabler; something to sooth our souls, to prompt conversation, to make one appear cool by partaking. Like the smartphone, the packet of 20 was packaged in a manner that meant they could always be by your side - ‘you were never alone’, as one of the brands back then (Strand, as I recall) promised you…
Remember how not that long ago every bar/restaurant was a haze of people smoking, sharing cigarettes: for many they were a vital social tool. Is that the stage we are now at with smart-phones?
If we had needed to go and sit at a desk to consume a cigarette I guess the habit would not have become quite so popular, before its demise. Ironically, the surge in our mobile online desire - an addictive need, for many - has pretty much run parallel to the decline in smoking.
If only we understood when an analogy was just that - and not a metaphor - we might better understand some basic principles in life.
For example: a few weeks ago we undertook an allotment - it was 3 plots of mud, stones, weeds - hopeless. Still, we decided to invest the effort of replenishing the soil, buying some seeds, etc, and under the expert guidance of my wife’s mother we have, in the space of just 3 months, transformed this humble (very) small patch of land into being the provider of a smorgasbord of vegetables and fruit. I have plenty of pictures on my Instagram account if you’re interested in seeing this process unfold.
Sure, it took some (quite a bit, actually!) physical effort, but it was an equitable investment - we put in the effort and it responded, rewarded us, accordingly.
Just imagine if life/business were as transparent, as honest? Because we have seen so many people become so detached from the rewards they expect from the effort they invest, society continues to become dangerously unbalanced: as a result, there is no natural harmony in society and whilst this imbalance continues to compound, so the sense of injustice - and the frustrations/dangers - will continue to accrue.
If only more people could see nature as analogous to life/business - and not just for use in metaphors - more of us may begin to enjoy reaping, what we have sown…
Yesterday, we attended the funeral of a very close friend’s father. Such occasions tend to either be overwhelmingly sad or, whilst inevitably tinged with sadness, a chance to celebrate the life of the departed.
This occasion very much fell into the latter camp, thankfully.
The last funeral we attended was a very different atmosphere: also a sudden death, but in this case it was our nephew who, at 17 years of age, collapsed, whilst playing basketball, and died immediately; we later found out he had an hitherto unknown heart condition. Hundreds of his school friends attended the subsequent church service, and witnessing them trying to come to terms with the death of a peer was as heartbreaking as the grief we felt for our nephew, his father, his brothers, his grandparents.
The key differentiator in these two funerals was the ages of those departed, and so the subsequent nature of each respective eulogy. Our friend’s father was in his 80s and, whilst having suffered from the cruelty of dementia over recent years, there was a lifetime of anecdotes and memories to share: to amuse, to inspire, to reflect upon.
Dying at a young age denies the living such a wealth of rich and varied memories to seek solace in: a favourite film, watched time and time again (to the annoyance of others); a favourite song (that must be listened to at volume ‘11’); moments of fear, love, happiness, wonder, fun, places and people. Work, family. All are to be cherished, for these make us what we are and when we pass away these are our legacy.
In our nephew’s case, we all recall him grimacing/laughing at us (badly) singing Beatles songs, one evening on a camping holiday together, the summer before his death. Inevitably, we also recall that night at the hospital, and the sight of our tall, good-looking nephew rendered as a cadaver. Sadly, bad memories cannot be redacted, but they are best suppressed.
Our friend’s mother recalled being impressed by the fact her suitor (and husband-to-be for the next 47 years) had 2 - two! - cars; quite something in the 1950s and austere Post-War Yorkshire, England.
She soon found out neither car worked, but fell in love with him all the same…
We can’t all build bridges, create hugely successful companies, write sublime songs, or leave a legacy in such a tangible way, but we can all strive to leave memories for others by living our lives with an appreciation of its transient nature.
Today, my wife attends the graduation of her students: many new memories will be created today. Their lives are entering a new phase. The elder sibling of our departed nephew celebrates his 18th birthday this weekend - an age his brother never reached - and in a few weeks time he too will leave home to start his new life at University. So many memories await; as yet unknown.
So, embrace the little things each day, for they are all but memories in the making, and these are our legacy to others. They define us. Ultimately, it’s all we have.
Even in death, new memories can be created: a fellow from a neighbouring village passed-away a few days ago, after a long illness. We didn’t attend the funeral, as we were just casual friends, but asked how it went when we next saw one of his close friends. It seems ‘Woody’ (the nickname of the chap who had died) had the last laugh: 10mins after his cremation, just as everyone was settling into the pub for traditional post-funeral drinks, everyone’s cellphone simultaneously received a text-alert.
There has been a lot of talk about ‘Tech’ and its ability (tendency, in fact) to disrupt being an unequivocally good thing: examples such as Uber and Airbnb are heralded as championing better-deals/service for the consumer, whilst disrupting legacy cartels.
When any service becomes available as an online commodity it becomes a product. Hitherto, our online transactions have been largely limited to tangible products - even a purely digital product, such as an iTunes song or eBook, is still nothing more than a product; disrupting little more than the media it exists within for consumption. So, when the music industry and book publishers finally adapted to this new digital world, the stasis was restored. This was not disruptive, it was simply a new business process they had to embrace.
However, now that consumers are being offered visceral services such as accommodation and taxis via an online service, disruption is not simply a period of adaption/transition, it becomes a hostile act against the incumbents in the analogue world. Apps become meta-brokers and the brokers with the biggest reach become the new monopoly. The implications are far-reaching and not necessarily positive: we are spun the story that such changes are empowering the consumer but in fact all it is doing is centralising the control of the service and transaction; it is, ironically, the opposite of the portrayed peer-to-peer relationship.
Such Apps are in danger of adding little value and functioning as nothing more than an API between the service-broker and the customer/merchant in the analogue world. Digital is a great option for media, but we have already seen that there is a renaissance in tangible content - real books, vinyl records, etc. We are visceral beings, we need more than digital content in our lives. Would you choose to exist on a diet of vitamin pills rather than have a burger or steak? When too much of our lives becomes digital, life becomes vicarious.
Tech has become an epithet that is appropriated by organisations that are nothing of the sort. The term ‘Tech’ is thought to immediately lend gravitas to any service; do you really think a bit of software that acts as a brokerage for bedrooms or taxis is technology? Being categorised as a technology company also, of course, means VC funding is a lot more likely and your valuation will be multiplied many times. This is pretty disingenuous.
I suggest we re-appraise what technology is - and what it means to us - and see the differences between what is genuinely making our lives better (for all, not just a few) and what is simply a bit of software that acts as a broker. The analogue world is where we live, where we die; where we derive our pain and pleasure: we need to better understand the role of technology in our future world and set expectations that demand more of those who claim to be a tech company, accordingly.
I’ve been gifted a Hudl (a very basic, but impressive, Android Tablet), so plan to resume blogging.
Since my MacBook Air broke (and being unable to afford the cost of repairing it) I’ve relied upon my iPhone as being my primary/sole IT device; ironically, this coincided with my career taking a rather radical change in direction and my spirit becoming fairly low, compounded by my being permanently exhausted from my new work. I have blogged about this in past blog entries, leading up to my purdah of late.
Ergo, my silence here for the past few months.
In the meantime, I’ve relied upon Twitter as a conduit to express my thoughts (@carl_rahn), but, inevitably, 140 characters is something of a constraint for many topics.
This sophomore year of blogging will see me take a somewhat different approach to my previous musings: with less emphasis on offering a plethora of hyperlinks, and with content of a less (hopefully!) cathartic nature; I will aim to try and tackle news/subjects that stimulate thought and discussion.
Well, that’s the plan…
As Medium - my preferred online writing/publishing environment - does not yet offer mobile support, I shall initially blog here and cross-post to my Medium account when I have access to a suitable device.