The Mysterious Magic of Things

The Wallace Collection

The Victoria & Albert Museum

You Are the Product by John Lanchester, London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017

It’s funny that John Lanchester should use a train analogy in his dissing of Facebook. He quotes Flaubert, writer of that quintessential novel of marital infidelity, Madame Bovary, who thought, Flaubert that is, trains just gave people no more than the ability to be silly (or unfaithful perhaps) in different places. Sometime later in the Nineteenth Century, fictionally speaking, a train was the undoing of Anna Karenina, also unfaithful, also perhaps silly, in a variety of locations.

But trains have been the catalyst for something else much more profound: trains changed the way we all thought about time. It made the idea of time something that was no longer incidental and local, but profound and ubiquitous. Time became a concept that connected us. Einstein used trains in his famous thought experiments about time and relativity. To progress, science, mathematics needed a new concept of time. Time and trains - inextricably linked. (And time is, of course, the bane of the life of trains.)

Technology can have unexpected outcomes, and maybe old fogeys like Gustav Flaubert and John Lanchester are the least qualified to predict what those outcomes might be, not that I can talk. Maybe the hint is in the title of his review, You Are the Product. The product. We, he and I, (and Flaubert for that matter), come from an age of products. It could almost be said that, in our time, now, products have been brought to a kind of transcendence. They are so perfect and so useful they are destroying the oceans, and wrecking the atmosphere. Indeed, they are beginning to learn for themselves, and will soon be taking all our jobs.

The point about a product is that it has defined characteristics, specific boundaries. Facebook may make money from something, as Lanchester says, ‘profoundly bathetic’, showing ads for products, but Facebook isn’t the internet (as Facebook discovered when their attempt to become the internet for some parts of the Indian sub-continent was roundly rejected by their target market), just one particular window onto it.

The internet, like the trains before, is a utility. It isn’t so much a product as a group of technologies and things, working together to make something we can all use. (That’s really stating the obvious.) What prompts Lanchester to quote Flaubert is the suggestion, by Mr Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, that Facebook’s ‘mission’ is to make the world ‘more open and connected’. (Is Zuckerberg making a claim for Facebook that is really more about the internet as a whole?) Whatever the rights and wrongs, Lanchester is moved to ask: is being connected an inherently good thing? Thus Flaubert and his trains.

Whether being connected is a good or bad thing, it’s a reality. Whatever Gustav and John may think, it’s not possible to put the jack back in the box, the genie back in the bottle.

So, you ask, when is he going to talk about The Wallace Collection and the V&A, both of which are much more interesting than Facebook? Is he ever going to get to the point?

Yes, both are wonderful, amazing, a little overwhelming, and in the case of The Wallace, maybe a bit oppressive. Which painting is supposed to be good again? And those horses that had to carry all that armour, wow.

But these portmanteau museums, these fabulous collections, they suddenly look like the past, or rather that the objects on display have been stripped of meaning, or at least of the meaning they may have had only a few short years ago.

A product, something man- (or woman-) made is never just a product, or thing. It always has some kind of meaning, connotation, implication, nuance, some link to someone’s inner life, their beliefs, thoughts, hopes, aspirations (ah, lists of words, so satisfying!) The product served a purpose, it projected something of the maker, and something of the subsequent owner. It was a communication, a connection, to others, to the world. Things had that purpose.

In the absence, that is, of other forms of connection. Connectivity, in the old days, could be a bit intermittent, fitful. You could connect with George Wallace, or his forebears, the Marquesses of Hertford, while you were around at his house, but when you left, you left, no matter how profound an impact his art collection might have had while you were there. Similarly, Henry VIII’s three miles of tapestries would have been pretty awe inspiring while you were in their presence (probably not all at once) but the awe would have gradually ebbed away, the longer you were away, so to speak.

To go back to trains and time for a minute (here we go again) a train isn’t a metaphor or simulacrum of time, but was a catalyst for a re-conceptualising of time. The industrial revolution was a powerful driver of change, particularly in the way we conceived and defined ourselves. Not only did people become a part of the machines that made the products, in some senses people became products, with defined and specific characteristics and boundaries.

This is where John Lanchester comes in. His worry, profound fear really, that Facebook is well on the way to becoming the incarnation of Orwell’s Big Brother, is based on the conception of those who use it do so as discreet, individual products, like so many bottles or dishes; or computers or robots for that matter.

But the connectivity of which he is so dismissive, is changing the way we, the users, see ourselves. The internet is becoming a catalyst for a profound change. Our edges are dissolving. Suddenly things, with their hard boundaries, are no longer a useful metaphor for people or how they interact. Not only are The Wallace and the V&A packed with stuff, they are also the repository for some ideas about us, about art and culture, that seem terribly old-fashioned and irrelevant.

I don’t disagree with John Lanchester, Facebook (and others) are evil, tax-evaders, but I do think that he has missed what is a profound and far-reaching change wrought by the internet as a whole.

I think we all struggle with the fact that so much of our daily lives involves abstract thought, abstract concepts, and the way we deal with this is to anchor those abstractions to concrete metaphors, to link money to stuff, to property for example. Even down to the way we see ourselves, the way we conceive of our own consciousness. We express and conceive of ourselves through stuff, property, the mysterious magic of things. This magic is losing its potency. It is mysterious no longer.

The mystery and the magic have moved on. We are going to need a new metaphor.

Paul Corcoran