Archived entries for More than meets the eye

Knowledge in the night

I’ve been experiencing a lack of sleep recently, due to a recent illness. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who, upon confronting a sleepless night, gets up and starts to write rather profound ideas or poetry, inspired by the stillness of the moment or the rare opportunity to delve undisturbed into the depths of the soul.

I need…to discover the very purpose of this fleeting existence, to discover what brings us here and to speculate our ultimate destination.

I need…to put into words what it means to capture a breathtaking view, to experience the fresh scent of a new Summer’s day, or the life-affirming laughter of close friends.

I need…to pee, actually.

I suppose I am, in some respects, doing philosophy late at night. I’m questioning the foundations of knowledge, namely, trying to work out if I really know I need to go.

“Do I really want to go now? Can I wait? Should I wait? It’s cold out there, maybe I don’t need to go at all, and it’s just my body’s way of telling me it’s bored and it would rather be sleeping, thank you very much.”

When he wasn’t pondering the nature of justice, I’m sure Socrates must have asked himself similar questions.

I didn’t spend too much time on these epistemological queries, though; I would have wet the bed. If I’d have tried explaining to my exasperated girlfriend that Socrates made me soak myself, I’d be writing this with a blunt crayon and a special bracelet.

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Shopping’s not that simple

new_appart.jpg

An appropriate end to my first year in Brussels, marked in the same way it began with a party hosted by the Welsh assembly to mark St David’s Day. After twelve months here, it seems fitting to embark on my first serious move to new accommodation, and this weekend Zoë and I installed ourselves into our new home for the next twelve months. The flat is lovely; it’s got a decent kitchen, wooden floors, and a terrace. It’s similar to the previous flat I lived in that I find myself once more above a dentist’s surgery, which is probably good for things like securing a reliable electricity supply: “I’m terribly sorry, Monsieur Redon, but we’ll have to finish the root canal operation another time. We’ve been a bit naughty, you see, and forgotten to pay the electrics this month, what with going away and everything; we’re still in holiday mood! What’s that, sorry sir? Painful? It is, isn’t it? Coming back from holiday, back to the same old routine of work, imagining that this time last week you were…ah, right, er, I’ll just try and find you something. Try not to bleed onto the carpet.”


While we’re on the subject of change (glad you’ve still with me), the European commission has put up yet another of its vague banners onto the side of the Berlaymont building.

ec_consumer_banner.jpg

This time, it’s supposed to be about consumer rights, but personally I find the choice of imagery a bit strange. I mean, promoting better consumer protection is all very well, and I’d imagine a picture of, say, a happy shopper and a happy till assistant, smiling because of course your average Sunday shopper always walks into the supermarket in the full knowledge of the latest EU initiative geared towards the consumer. Just like the lad that packs the bags for you was briefed only that very morning on the latest proposals. Happy vibes all round then, courtesy of Santa. Sorry, I meant that other well known bringer of goodwill, Maglena Kuneva. Easy to get the two mixed up, isn’t it?

Anyway, the image the EC has chosen isn’t remotely like this at all. It’s a female shopper with, yep, a bag over her head. The slogan is: “Know your Rights. Use your Rights”. Now, maybe it’s just me, but personally when I see that image, all I can think of is, well, the sort of situation where you have a bag over your head. Such as when you’re being interrogated. By an anti-terrorist squad or something. The slogan just adds to the confusion because it implies that the woman with the bag over her head hasn’t got a clue, not only about what on earth’s going on outside the interior of the paper bag, but what rights she’s entitled to. So, to recap, she’s being interrogated and doesn’t have access to a lawyer. She might, in fact, not even be allowed to have access to a lawyer at all, because when she was captured and had a bag put on her head, maybe they decided that she no longer had legal status. Otherwise she’d get a lawyer, just like people without bags on their heads. When you come to thing about it, there are loads of us without bags on our heads that don’t have a clue what rights we have or don’t have, that’s why we employ lawyers in the first place. As you can see, this poster might very well lead to mass confusion where the average Sunday shopper suddenly becomes very agitated because the EC has announced that if you didn’t know that you’re paying too much for those frozen peas, well, you might find yourself woken up at four in the morning and the next thing you know, they’ve got you on tape saying that yes, you’re very pleased about the great value that the European commission gives to the well-being of European consumers and could you please go home now.

I can’t wait for the next banner.

Settling down

brussels-christmas.jpg

Ah, the chaos of Christmas. It’s going to be good to go back to Wales for a short while, though. It’s been an intense couple of months, I’m slowly getting used to the fast-paced and often unpredictable nature of my work (today, for example, I was still in the office at 8pm writing up a press conference on aviation emissions) and I’ve also grown to like Brussels a lot more. Yes, it’s freezing cold here right now and probably will be until late March, I recently had a daunting lecture on the Belgian tax system for freelance journalists and the whole place is currently a bit chaotic as the country’s only just agreed to have an interim government after 192 days of not having one at all. Yet last weekend I was in the Christmas markets at Flagey, they had the brass band playing (see above), and everyone was in good spirits. I had some vin chaud and the Région de Bruxelles-Capitale local authority gave me a free, beautifully made wooden yo-yo. Last night I went to watch a local choir perform some Christmas songs, and it was a very local affair, with a handful of friends and relatives in the audience, babies trying to join in and the odd choir member dashing in at the last minute so as not to be left out. The singing was fantastic, though, and it was a shame that Zoe and I had to leave because they were all really friendly and offered us drinks and snacks after the concert. We met a lad from Nigeria who wanted to play the piano for us, right there and then, and, when we said we couldn’t stay, asked if we’d like to listen to him some other time, let’s keep in touch.
It’ll also be interesting to have a break because this time I’ll be going home from a relatively settled position. The last time I went home for any real length of time, I was in an interim period between work experience and finding a job. This time, I’m more of a resident here. I have a local pub, a local park where I go jogging, a boulangerie for croissants on Sundays and am beginning to get to grips with the merits of the thousands of different beers on offer (Particular favourties which spring to mind are the deceptively strong “Westmalle“, the let’s-have-a-proper-chat “Chimay Bleu” and the delighful innuendo of “Bush“, the latter involving amusing requests towards attractive female bar staff…suggestions on a postcard please). Armed with tales of beer, trips to the boulangerie and le boulot (French slang for work), I’m actually quite excited about seeing old friends again, some of whom I haven’t seen for almost a year, and revealing that there’s actually a lot more to life in Belgium than they might expect.



Copyright Matt Williams© 2006–2014. All rights reserved.

RSS Feed. This blog is proudly powered by Wordpress and uses Modern Clix, a theme by Rodrigo Galindez.