Peter Marigold shares his account of one evening in July where he found himself in one of the most obvious tourist points in London, Trafalgar Square, and the evolution of the Selfie Stick.
One evening last month I found myself waiting for someone at perhaps the most obvious tourist point in London, Trafalgar Square. With time to kill, I just people-watched the almost entirely foreign groups as they did their tourist things.
Nearby an Asian couple (possibly Korean?) were taking photographs of each other next to one of the fountains. They were super chic characters, groomed, all in black, Chanel (definitely not fake) handbag and matching shades. I would not normally have a reason to approach these people, however at this moment after they had spent some minutes photographing each other with a massive phablet device the size of a VHS tape, I found myself suddenly lurch towards them with a sense of old fashioned duty 'I -must - offer - to - take - their - photo - together' resonated in my head. For, as a Londoner, as a local, I needed to help these helpless people capture their romantic moment together, it's what's been done since... well... the invention of personal cameras. We might remember the weird feeling in the limited days of film, of having the group photograph where one important person is missing from the group... because they were behind the camera, or alternatively the moment in a restaurant where the waiter offers to take the group photograph, forever capturing an important reunion as a slightly blurry badly composed memory. A drunken interpretation of a drunken event.
But no sooner had I taken a step towards them, the lady produced from her bag a Selfie Stick, attached it to her device and embarked on the next round of images including both of them... but not me. I was pole axed. My job as 'the local', redundant. 'Why should I even be talking to these people?' I immediately thought. I had been replaced by a stick.
I watched these beautiful people, impotently, for a few more minutes as they pulled a variety of staged poses, gathered their Harrods bags and drifted away forever. I'll never know if they were actually Korean and they will never know that I was a Londoner in Trafalgar Square.
Over the last few years, mostly since the new millennium, I've become conscious of technological advances that solve problems for travellers, making them more effective travellers. Tourists are inherently dumb. No matter where you are, you will always be the idiot. It's not a bad thing, it's a actually a sign of respect for the local population as you should never be better at navigating a place than someone who has spent their lifetime familiarising themselves with it. But that is changing. When we travel now, we can go and stay with locals in the trendiest neighbourhoods where everyone has beards and bloody fixie bikes, we will have checked obscure underground blogs that clue us up to the warehouse art rave happening populated mostly by the coolest Japanese students in Krakow, and we certainly don't need anybody to take our photograph for us. But for all this convenience, one of the important aspects of travelling (really travelling) is the uncertainty of what you'll find, or rather what you found in retrospect. Horrific as it sounds. Part of travel is missing a boat you're meant to get on and having to wait six hours for the next one with absolutely nothing to do, or a badly drawn paper map disintegrating in your hands in the rain as you stand alone on an anonymous corner in Venice in the middle of the night, or spending the night in a random hotel that has ancient flat desiccated sponge slabs it calls beds. These miserable moments imprint themselves on us because one of the beauties of travel is that negative experiences become positive embedded parts of the narrative. Otherwise we are only visiting Disneyland.
I'm over romanticising this, because I'm fully aware of the joy of making travel easier. I'm not saying that the couple with the Selfie Stick would have had some kind of mind blowing experience by having me take their photograph, but travel for me, is an accumulation of obscure opportunities that might lead to experiences that you can't control, that you can't buy. I would have possibly had a conversation with them... told them about some of the weird things in the local area that they might miss... I could have told them that just next to us through the arch on the way to Buckingham Palace is a cast of Nelson's nose fixed to the wall.
With each technological advance that makes us more self sufficient, we circumnavigate another life experience. You cannot have one without the other. Today, there is not a moment that goes by in which we can't glance at our phone and be entertained. Gone are the days of staring vacantly into space in an airport for hours and hours and hours wondering.... not much... just maybe singing to yourself... or looking endlessly at the same poster. Boredom gives a sense of time and reminds you of the place where you are, and maybe, hopefully, something might happen that you didn't know about that could only happen in that place at that time.
These advances make me think about evolution in general.
Evolution is not a way to achieve greatness and command over all species and all environments, but more like an arms race in which nobody wins; an ongoing skirmish in which we all wind up a bit battered and equipped with ridiculous equipment to wield angrily at each other. We have found ourselves in a no-win race to the same place where bacteria was millions of years ago. I'll be blunt: life, despite what most major religions will tell you, is for, and therefore about, procreation, and living things are very good at doing it. Significantly, very simple life forms; protozoa, fungus, viruses, are amazingly good at doing this. They need very little to get on with the job. However once a life form deviates from its basic duties it may gain a certain small advantage over its neighbour leading it to populate its local environment. But then this process happens again and again and again with each iteration of the organism having a small advantage over its neighbours and thus having more chance to procreate. This necessitates that each new organism is born with a convolution at least equivalent to the predecessor's advantages or be consigned to the extinction pile. And so on and so on as the organisms spill over pointlessly into new environments.
But the end result is that we have organisms that are burdened with complex apparatus necessary to deal with these environments they have flopped into. Rather than remain in the primordial soup and happily divide cells, now we have the ridiculous spectacle of birds equipped with wings because they need to fly so that they can fetch food for their babies in a nest perched on the edge of a cliff, or giraffes with bizarrely long necks that help them pluck food from the tops of trees rather than eat from the floor, peacocks with pretty tails that they need to impress the opposite sex, or us with this unfathomably complex, and ultimately pointless quality of consciousness that we need to interact with each other. Is this what they meant by survival of the fittest????????
None of these creatures ultimate goal is any different to the organisms that made up the slime that we originated from. We haven't become better at procreating, we've become increasingly worse at it. Such is the nature of one-upmanship. The evolutionary potlatch.
That's what I think about when I see a Selfie Stick.
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1) Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2) Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3) Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
DOUGLAS ADAMS, The Salmon of Doubt