“€œOur travel scientists,”€ said an advertisement that arrived yesterday, “€œhave discovered that you have a passion for shopping on holiday.”€ It would be difficult to be more wrong. I never go on holiday and I detest shopping. I am one of those very fortunate people whose work is his pleasure and who therefore feels no need to take a break from it. Even a bus ride is grist to my tiny mill: I take down what people say en route and use it in evidence against humanity. As for shopping, it is the last thing I would ever do if by chance I did go on holiday: I have long since acquired all that I need and rather wish I had fewer things than more. The only material objects I still covet (a foolish weakness, I admit, given that I now cannot expect to possess them for longer than a few years) are rare books, but I do not think that the term “€œshopping”€ adequately covers their acquisition.

Advertisers seem to think that I am a very nervous fellow, terrified of all the ordinary hazards of living. Last week alone I was offered a security camera system to protect me from attackers, though I am hardly prominent enough to live under threat; all kinds of medication for diseases I don”€™t have but might at some time in the future contract; and walk-in bathtubs to prevent me from falling during the baths that I don”€™t take. I was offered the chance to “€œearn”€ a Ph.D. (“€œEven you can earn one,”€ the advertisement said not altogether flatteringly), presumably after I had completed the drug rehabilitation course that I was also offered. The overall picture of my character that the cyberworld has formed appears to be that of a materialistic, drug-addicted hypochondriac with paranoid phobic anxiety, of some mild academic potential. I must also be deemed tolerably prosperous, because I was also repeatedly offered private jets for hire. Presumably I inherited the wealth, for it is difficult to imagine how a person of such a character could have acquired it otherwise.

The almost comical inaccuracy of the cyberworld’s estimation of my character as revealed by the commercial propaganda it sends in my direction is reassuring. It would have been frightening if, instead, it had correctly estimated my tastes and desires. But man is incalculable and not reducible to a formula, or so at least I hope. The dream”€”or nightmare”€”of technical control over life is an old one and comes in many forms. One manifestation of it is the notion of surgical wars; that is to say, wars that achieve precisely their ends and neither more nor less.

Thank goodness there is a law of unintended consequences to protect us from the ennui of omniscience! How intolerably dull life would be if everything could be calculated precisely in advance, if no one had anything to hide, if life could be, or were, lived entirely in the open, if there were no hypocrisy or dissimulation. But such a life there will never be.

 



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