BBC Travel is running my photos from a trip to Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska. It’s a corner of the US once occupied by Russia and whose residents were interned after the Japanese invaded the region during World War Two. Click here to see more.
The L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.
To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.
Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.
“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”
Back in the fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland near the border of Italy to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. After one of many tortuous wine tasting sessions in the city of Sion, accompanied by a light lunch of raclette, my local guide and I – a bit tipsy – hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a parking lot between a restaurant and school. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go inside and take a look.
When we entered we discovered a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing many graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates back to prehistoric times. But most skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.
Several months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. However, most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.
He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).
When I asked him what the most surprising thing was he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them and extending upwards to the surface – so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.
While on a recently assignment in Northern British Columbia, I was introduced to a group of people working for a mining exploration company prospecting for gold. Like most city people, I know very little about mines and mining beyond the occasional bad press those companies get when they cut corners, or become lax, causing damage to the environment.
So it was enlightening to meet these people in person and to hear about their work. The geologists and technicians took me on a tour of their small warehouse, showing me their collection of “core samples” – cylinders of rock that have been cut and extracted from below ground with a diamond drill.
The samples are taken and examined to find concentrations of gold in a given location. If enough of the metal turns up in the cores to justify the high cost of extracting it, a mining operation ensues. The photo below shows a core sample with trace amounts of gold mixed in with the rock on the top left edge of the core.
The people I met were nonchalant about their work, which they regarded as very regular and even mundane; similar to how archaeologists sometimes demystify their undertakings to laypeople. But like with archaeologists, I could discern the slightest sense of repressed expectation and excitement hanging in the air around them. Their work is a bit like playing the slots.
When I stepped back and looked at the whole picture mentally, and considered all of the physical, organizational and emotional effort going into finding a metal with seemingly little intrinsic worth beyond its human-endowed value of profound wealth, the entire operation seemed a bit surreal.
As I was leaving, I asked a senior manager of the company what the next step was if, and when, they found enough gold to justify mining it. He told me that they would likely sell the claim to another company that would do the actual mining.
When I asked what other geographical areas they planned to prospect after hypothetically selling this location off, the man looked at me with a bit of surprise.
“Well, none,” he said, taken aback. “Part of the point of doing all this is that we hope to never have to work again.”
One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.
Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.
Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.
Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.
The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.
To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!
It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.
Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.
It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?
The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.
The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.
Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.
“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”
– Pico Iyer
“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”
– Alexis Wright
“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”
– Ian Jack
“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”
– Samanth Subramanian
“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”
– Colin Thubron
“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”
– Hoa Nguyen
“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”
– Rana Dasgupta
Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.
I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:
“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”
Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:
“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”
The Los Angeles Review of Books is running an essay I wrote about contemporary Sufism and the works of Idries Shah. I argue Shah’s books are a counterpoint to our growing culture of fanaticism.
Social media has become the primary conduit for criticizing others, airing our gripes and mobilizing against real and perceived injustices. It seems like it’s never been easier for members of the general public to disseminate messages and raise awareness of certain issues, online.
But like all technologies that have arisen throughout the course of history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” we pay in exchange for its benefits.
One of the more obvious costs is that we spend large parts of our days distracted and entranced by screens. There are likely a flurry of other negative consequences that lie just below conscious awareness. Pondering this has led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are preempting – or robbing the real world of – other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just through amount of time we spend online versus out in the world.
Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world – where our efforts and the rewards are seemingly more tangible? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.
If so, the consequences for the future might be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.