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Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

web-tacugama-chimps-groom

Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

*

Published in The Times

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And now for the weather report

sabc-weather

My grandfather was a quiet man.

An old knee injury and worsening deafness had made him withdraw to an armchair where he would read the newspaper, and although he was always glad to see his grandchildren, we sensed that we should not be too boisterous around the silent, dim house.

Still, he didn’t impose on the people around him. If my wild-spirited grandmother had started a game that degenerated into giggles, my grandfather would simply retreat rather than be gruff. If he listened to the radio he would keep the volume low, pressing his good ear to it instead of turning it up. If he needed space, he got up slowly and found it.

And yet, we knew, there was a moment, once a day, when we should be absolutely silent, and when my grandfather was fully in command of the house.

It usually happened at the end of lunch, although it’s possible that lunch had been planned to end at this precise moment. As my grandmother herded uneaten peas off plates, my grandfather would reach for his radio. A hiss, resolving into silence — and then three pips: the news was beginning.

The newsreaders chopped and changed, but all had the clipped diction and politely interested tone of the prewar BBC, that distinctively theatrical voice that provides the soundtrack to most of Western 20th-century history.

These days, anchor-people are trained to emote. Their faces become stern as they break bad news, and then brighten and soften when they move on to an insert about a corgi that saved a squirrel from a drain.

No such human frailty was tolerated on the BBC, or on the old SABC. The tone remained resolutely uniform, whether reporting on the Nazi invasion of Poland or the winner of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Certain words linger from that time. In the mid-1980s, most bulletins featured euphemistic accounts of killing: “Swapo terrorists” were being “ambushed” in vast numbers. There was also the Inkatha Freedom Party’s leader, “Chief Mango-soothoo Boo-thill-easy”, who was regularly presented as proof that black people could be taught to behave. Every so often PW Botha would drop by, explaining why they would release “Nyalsin Mundeller” as soon as he renounced communism and promised not to seduce every white woman in the land with his killer dimples.

My grandfather would listen to all of this nonsense, eyes closed, impatient. And then, at last, he’d grab the radio and turn the volume all the way up. It was time. The moment he’d been waiting for all morning. The weather report.

A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows

It would boom through the house. Low-pressure cells resounded down the corridor. Patches of cloud howled above our heads. A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows. Nobody was allowed to speak. The weather, it turned out, was the most important news in the world.

I could never understand adults’ preoccupation with the weather. It seemed like a terrible waste of their freedoms. They were allowed to swear and talk about sex but instead they chatted about the impending cold front. They were allowed to watch whatever they wanted on TV but they chose to watch the weather forecast.

As I got older, it seemed increasingly bizarre. The news would sweep from geopolitics to new medical breakthroughs; plunge into human tragedies or soar alongside triumphs – and then it all ended with a short discussion of whether the wind was going to blow from the left or the right.

These days, however, I think I’m starting to feel the allure of the weather report. And I’m beginning to suspect that its appeal has almost nothing to do with the specifics of precipitation.

I don’t think my grandfather wanted to know that it was going to rain the day after tomorrow: he hardly ever left the house, and the suit and hat he wore most of the time suggested that he wasn’t planning to change his habits even if it did rain.

Rather, I think he was listening for the same reason that I like seeing a cold front sweep in a great arc towards Cape Town: to experience the gentle pleasure that comes from feeling very, very, small; of seeing yourself, clearly, as a glorified orangutan searching for a good banana leaf to crouch under until the rain passes.

You’ve probably felt it yourself: that almost sorrowful satisfaction that comes from standing in front of a vast landscape or seascape or skyscape; of being reminded that you’re a speck, and of understanding that that’s OK.

Because behind that 20% chance of showers is a 100% certainty that the sun will rise, the wind will blow, and yet another band of weather will roll in off the Atlantic. An average day, any time in the past hundred-million years. And that’s just fine.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

“Smoking is good for you”

smokingDear one,

I’m so sorry about vanishing like that just before Christmas, but I couldn’t stand the traffic and the wailing toddlers snotting on sweating Santas. I had to get away.  I hope you’ll forgive me for not forwarding an address for postcards and the like. The thing is, I’ve deliberately come to a place where news travels very slowly, if at all. You know how I’m always droning on about how there’s too much news and too much stupid? Well, I decided to go to a place where there’s none.

In the end I didn’t need a visa or even any money. All I needed was a decision: to switch off the babble for a few weeks. So I did.

I haven’t looked at Facebook or Twitter or news websites for two weeks.

Two weeks! Do you realise what that means, dear one? How much rancour I’ve avoided? How much prose-farting I’ve dodged? I feel that these two weeks have added two years to my life. What a glorious place this is!

You’d love it here. At first glance it looks a bit like South Africa, but the longer you stay here, the more you see the differences. The main one is that here, people just get on with things. Those who talk, talk to each other. If they fight, they work it out afterwards, like adults. Nobody drops an imaginary microphone and prances out of a non-existent room. And the most wonderful difference: in this country, people who lecture other people are actual lecturers rather than flakes who think that an audience is a substitute for years of therapy. Lord but it’s good to be free of the aggressive self-pity of the Internet Republic!

I won’t lie, though: getting here was tricky. Call it the turbulence of going cold turkey.

I can admit to you that I was properly hooked, and I knew it. But like a true addict I was deluding myself about the nature of my addiction.

I told myself that my need for news was virtuous; that the urge to check my phone was a desire to stay informed, and that each tweet or headline was contributing to a godlike view of the world, which, by implication, would ultimately lead to a godlike righteousness and wisdom.

You’ve felt it, too. I know you have: that subtle but relentless pressure to have an opinion about everything, to engage earnestly with everything, and, once the virtue commissars have named the target for the day, to rain down rhetorical fire upon it.

Yes, dear one, I told myself that I was hooked by a desire to be informed so that I could use my knowledge for good. But it wasn’t that. After all, if I was after knowledge I would have spent my days reading books by experts rather than poring over the nervous tics of nobodies.

No. The truth is, I was hooked on the jolts, the small but relentless bursts of anxiety that happened every single time I opened Twitter or Facebook or any local news site. I was plugged into an endless stream of second-hand disasters and third-rate manifestos. And every time one of them flared onto the screen, presented as the outrage du jour, it lit me up with a dim, smoky spark.

I know the brain doctors have figured out how this all works and their findings are depressing: it turns out that we’re all just lab rats pressing our noses against a red button marked MORE PLEASE. But I also think I was mistaking anxiety for a feeling of engagement. I was confusing chaos with connectedness.

Dear one, you know that I can be overly dramatic, but this holiday has made me begin to think that the internet is very, very bad for me, and I don’t only mean bad as in distracting and confusing. I mean that I suspect it’s bad for my physical and mental health.

Yes, I know the internet democratised knowledge (or at least porn and kittens) and helped the Arab Spring bring democracy to — oh, wait, never mind that second one. Anyway, it’s hailed as a Good Thing. But so were cigarettes, once. Doctors said so.

And I’m now convinced that we’re in the “smoking is good for you” phase of the internet.

In fact I’m sure that, 50 years from now, medical people will shake their heads and murmur, “Can you believe the toxic filth those poor rubes deliberately pumped into their eyeballs every single day?”

And they’ll be doubly grateful that China banned the internet once it bought the last independent country back in 2045.

I’m sure I’ll see you soon. Writers can’t stay off the internet forever. But, dear one, when I come back, it will be carefully. Very carefully.

Yours in being much more cautious and much more content, T.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

Two minutes of freedom

Charl PauwA few days ago I was on the shore of a lagoon, peering down at what seemed to be thousands of tiny, dead crabs.

The shells were no larger than my fingernail but most were perfectly intact, and I was wondering how the crabs had died when a hearty voice rang out.

“They’ve moulted!” said the voice. These, he said, weren’t dead animals but rather learner-shells shucked off by growing crablets.

I straightened up to stare at the owner of the voice as he provided a few more interesting facts about crustacean puberty. But I wasn’t really listening, because I wasn’t there. I had been transported to about 1987, and the prospect of my inevitable death.

Back then, just before I reached my teens, I knew how I was going to die. It was all very clear and completely inescapable.

It would happen around my 19th birthday, on hot sand under a shrub somewhere in Angola. A spectacularly stupid corporal with a mousy moustache would order me away on some chore, and I would stumble onto an Angolan soldier. We would both panic, our rifles nightmarishly tangled in straps and bits of uniforms, but he would pull his free more quickly. His lucky shot would nick a major artery in my neck. Nothing too painful: I would simply feel myself melting like an ice block dropped onto the sand. He would look down at me apologetically before he hurried away, and I would bleed to death, listening to the songs of disinterested birds and sobbing over the monstrous injustice of it.

The scene was so clear because I had done my research. For years I had been absorbing the great anti-war literature of the 20th century, morbidly fascinated by the futility and scope of organised violence. By the time I was 10 I had no idea how to kiss a girl but I knew how boys died in wars. I played with toy guns and built Lego forts for plastic soldiers, but I knew that these were fantasies; that war wasn’t medals and parades but rather eternities of wasted time and small bits of meat hosed off the floors of helicopters.

I also knew that South Africa was fighting a war against Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and possibly Cuba and the Soviet Union, and that the war would go on long enough for me to be called up and snuffed out under a shrub.

This information came to me not from books but from the nightly television news; a surreal pantomime where big-haired white people in polyester spoke calmly about limpet mines in post offices and pop concerts at Sun City.

They were my doomsday clock, counting down

It’s interesting to look back at those broadcasts now, to marvel at the shoulder pads and the painfully obvious propaganda, but for me they are also infused with childhood horror. They were my doomsday clock, counting down to that day in about 1996 when I would be murdered by the apartheid state.

But every so often the clock stopped.

It happened for only two minutes, perhaps once a week, but I was grateful for it. I’m still grateful.

You never knew when it would happen. It might come after a handsome man with a perm had presented the latest Swapo body count, or before a piece about a beauty pageant in Bloemfontein. But when it began, it felt as if someone had opened the windows and allowed cold, fresh air to pour into a stale polystyrene Auckland Park studio.

Now it was time to leave South Africa; to skim over a clean, wild ocean towards a distant island or a foundering ship. It was time to hear from Charl Pauw.

Perhaps the Nats were trying to convince whites that they lived in a compassionate society. Perhaps someone at the old SABC had a penguin fetish. Whatever the case, there was Charl, with his kind, crinkled face lashed by sea spray, dangling from a helicopter; trying to get through his link while an angry gannet stabbed at his knee; shouting into his microphone as the South Atlantic wind moaned and a vast ship heaved into him.

Slowly, Charl became my envoy to a wider world; someone who could slip beyond the suffocating confines of South Africa and show me places where stupid little corporals held no power to send me to my death.

And now he was here, beside me on the beach, telling me about crabs; still filing a good-natured report on marine life.

I was startled because it was so unexpected. But I think I was also caught off guard because in my mind he had always lived in a timeless, never-resolving news report about oceanic danger. His home was a pitching heli-pad. His friends were penguins.

But now he’d made it home, and he had human friends, and I’d made it past 1996. It was wonderful. I wanted to tell him some of this, but it would have sounded mad. And besides, he was walking on, heading towards some distant flamingos.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

We’ve been framed

frameIn the middle of Cape Town’s Waterfront there stands a large yellow frame. Viewed from directly in front, it encapsulates a famous scene: the city, loomed over by a perfectly flat Table Mountain.

To be photographed inside the frame is to capture the quintessential Cape Town image. There’s even a white X painted on the ground nearby to show photographers where to stand. Because of course you have to line it up perfectly: to shift the view by a few degrees – to put the frame around not-quite-Table-Mountain – would somehow feel like a less true image of the Cape Town experience.

It seems like a gimmick but its popularity with visitors is proof of the power we give to frames. When something – an image, an idea, a news report – is inside an official-feeling framework, it feels more authoritative than something outside the frame.

It’s a deep-rooted prejudice that despots have exploited, airbrushing rivals out of photographs to obliterate them from history, so it’s no wonder that we’re so concerned with making the frame bigger. We realise that too many people and histories have been excluded from too many frames, and it feels progressive to give them their own. But perhaps caution is advised; because just as we have a tendency to disregard anything outside the frame, we might also have a tendency to believe anything inside it.

When I was editing the satire website Hayibo.com, I learned that one particular frame, the news story, wields astonishing power: present us with a headline, some apparently factual statements and a quote, and we seem unable to resist. Hayibo’s stories were never intended to trick people. They were often ludicrous, laced with silly names and outlandish scenarios, and yet far too many people who should have known better took our stories as gospel.

For example, our “report” during the London riots that the African Union would be sending troops and food packages to Britain popped up on UK financial blogs, with a few commodities traders wondering whether a sudden glut of African crops would affect UK indexes.

Worse, when we “revealed” in 2010 that the controversial painting ‘The Spear’ had been bought by German art collector Gunther Knutsach (because, in his own words, “I just like big black penises”), a local journalist – someone trained to tell fact from falsehood – e-mailed me asking for Mr Knutsach’s details. Nut-sack? Geddit? No?

We are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame

Most worrying of all, though, was what happened after we wrote a story about Somali pirates. The piece was pure silliness, explaining how most Somali pirates started their careers by downloading music illegally to make mix-tapes for their girlfriends. If that wasn’t obvious enough, we quoted a buccaneer called Pugwash. But some time later The Times revealed that the story had been cited as fact in an official report by an attorney who specialised in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting.

If highly trained lawyers don’t hear alarm bells when reading quotes about mix-tapes by a Somali pirate called Pugwash, then we are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and I suspect that our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame.

I’ve heard a few media gurus claim that more access to more media content has resulted in a general rise in media literacy and critical thinking. I’m not convinced: I suspect that there’s just more content for people to digest uncritically. I think we’re still as vulnerable to the quasi-authority of the Frame as we ever were. Which is odd, because even when it is being positioned in front of reality by responsible editors, it still shows us a bizarrely warped image.

I suspect that if you read every respected South African news source for a month, a picture would emerge of a country populated entirely by politicians, sports stars, Eskom spokespeople, victims of crime, protesters, about 20 people of dubious creative ability whom the media doggedly insists are celebrities, and two economists.

You would discover a country whose citizens are more agitated by the English Premier League than by the rape pandemic, and where load-shedding causes more outrage than 40 murders a day. In this South Africa, corruption happens in government about once a week and in the corporate world about twice a year. Poverty is getting worse, except when it’s getting better and staying the same. And climate change doesn’t exist at all, unless your favourite weekly has a syndication deal with The Guardian, in which case it does exist and we’re all going to drown, especially Jeremy Clarkson.

The media are essential. It was journalists who told us about Nkandla and who demanded that parliament turn off the signal jammer. Countries where the media are heavily restricted are invariably among the most corrupt. But responsible journalism also needs responsible readers, who are conscious that everything is a picture inside a frame, and who will ask, now and then, to be shown what lies just beyond the edges of the picture.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

Stop the news. I want to get off

pieta

When things are grim, I think of a letter I once read. It was written by an old, sad man to his favourite nephew.

I forget the nephew’s name but the man’s name was Michelangelo and the note, translated from Italian, was dated some time in the early 1560s.

A life of immense physical effort and psychic torment was taking its toll on the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance. His tone was deeply gloomy, and through a catalogue of small setbacks a picture emerged of someone who felt that everything was gradually, depressingly, going to hell. The price of marble was rising. The deadlines were impossible. The patrons were Philistines who couldn’t tell a Pietà from a pizza.

And then he wrote something that I always come back to when life seems particularly difficult. Ah, nephew (he seemed to sigh): these are not good times to be an artist.

I found it a deeply affecting insight into a certain kind of soul, perhaps my own. It is a soul that slowly convinces itself, by collecting small disappointments, fabricating a pattern between them and then mistaking the imagined pattern for some kind of truth, that things have never been this bad. It is a powerful urge, strong enough to convince one of humanity’s greatest artists that the late Renaissance was a bad time to be making art.

Of course, the elderly have been giving up on the world since the first geriatric Homo erectus, 30 years old and ready to be tossed to the hyenas, shook his fist at all the damn youngsters with their newfangled gadget called “fire” (“If raw carrion was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for you.”).

The poetry and art of our species is full of resignation and despair, of disappointed souls allowing themselves to mourn the death of civilisation, of love, of beauty, of hope. Perhaps it’s how we deal with growing old and facing the slowly dawning realisation that things end utterly.

Sometimes, though, it might just be plain delusional.

I fully concede that I might be finding patterns where none exist or mistaking my own anxieties for something more universal, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the global mood seems foul. To brush against the news on any given day is to come away soiled by an oil slick of misery. The planet is going up in smoke. Everyone is a crazy fundamentalist with a gun. Police forces are private armies. Sociopaths run countries, and gentle, funny people are hanging themselves. All day, every day, one simple message hammers at our sensibilities: we’re just the worst.

It’s easy to believe that message. The evidence seems overwhelming. But it’s simply not true. By various yardsticks the world as a whole is a less awful place right now than it has been, well, ever. Certainly there is no shortage of astonishing wickedness. But step back from the bloody minutiae of breaking news and one catches a glimpse of a planet on which murder and slavery are illegal, where reports of torture horrify us because torture is something we have largely left behind in the killing fields of history, and where protesters and pundits use words like “holocaust” and “genocide” to condemn what kings and generals of the last 5,000 years would have described as a quiet day at the office.

Consider Operation Meetinghouse in 1945, in which American aircraft showered Tokyo – a city made largely of wood and paper – with napalm-spraying cluster bomblets. More than 100,000 people were killed and a million injured in 48 hours.

If that information feels oddly difficult to grasp on an emotional level it might just be because you and I have no experience of a planet on which 100,000 people can be deliberately burned to death in two days in a major metropolis. And that, surely, is evidence of some kind of slow progress; some small consolation.

So if the world is a kinder place than it has ever been, why does it seem to grind against our spirits so much more cruelly than ever before?

An obvious culprit is the electronic media, but I suspect the main problem is not the content of the news but its context. We know how to hear about awful events. We’ve done it for millennia, craning against the murmur of the crowd to hear the messenger. But to receive news of awful events while alone, sipping a cappuccino on a sunny street, infects that news with a kind of insanity. And so, touched by that insanity, we assume that the world is going mad, and never suspect that perhaps it is merely the way we see the world that is going mad.

To unplug from the news is not to choose apathy over conscience. It is to choose sanity over chaos, and to choose to see the world as it is: slowly, painfully, spinning towards something better.

*

Originally published in The Times and TimesLive