The young use their mobile phones to navigate through the city like bats use sonar, argues Will Self – and the old aren’t immune
Bats, orienting themselves by a method similar to echolocation – signals flung to masts, flung to satellites, flung to the hum-cooled sub-basements of bypass-land then bounced back to their irradiated ears – the teenagers move about the city. All rendezvous are highly provisional: We will meet at X at Y except in the event of Z … In any event, there is no need to fix the point of intersection in and of four – or more – dimensions. It is achieved by continuous recalibration, so that they do not meet in the accepted sense, but home in on one another. Along the way, vroom shroom of bio-fuelled-bus and slickety-clack of suburban train – FM and air-freshener Magic of minicab, eight thighs glued along the bag seat – they text, email, Blackberry message, the data-stream flapping over their shoulders, leaking through the cracked-open windows, a binary spume of zeros and ones: particulate, smirching house and shop fronts, falling on the bark chips scattered on the verges of parkland off-cuts.
Perhaps. Because it’s not altogether certain that anything material exists in back of the bats in their bat-black benighted state. They do not know the city or its environs, its experiential impact has been … hallucinogenic: the bumpy over-the-shoulder Steadicam track-and-pan of a baby carried across a superstore car park, or the world entire of a rubberised playground surface, its gouged-down to the old bitumen surfaces worthy of some Sebastião Salgado of inner-space – then the serialism of shopping parades, and the autophagy of styles, so impossible to read … for the illiterate … the breaking down of cellular walls, their re-erection in the same form but with different functions/materials, or vice-versa, or versa-vice-versa.
Islands of the known in an ocean of ignorance the thick colloidal waves of which crinkle into sheetrock, rebar, poured concrete, wood-laminated MDF, only at the very moment that they need to be there in order to conform to an image of them bounced down from on high and into the wide eyes of the squinting bats peering into their laps. Or not – because the city lags, lags in the way that the variation of a theme of Compton/Cancun/Chernobyl/Mordor that is the gamescape lags behind the hair-trigger digits of the teens: “I’m lagging!” they scream, bowed down under this insupportable insubstantiality. And so it is that as the teenage bats home flapping in on each other, the city looms into existence around them, only to fade back into the undifferentiated night time of their unconcern once they have liaised and moved on.
And yet … and yet, who are the teenage bats if not ourselves? Have we not willed them this environment, mangled our own grid-patterns and radiating boulevards, clambered out of our machines-for-living and left them rusting by the kerb? In the ateliers of the artificers renders home in on materiality through a form of echolocation: the parametric signals flung to servers, shot through fibre-optic cabling, zipped to the hum-cooled subbasements of bypass-land then zipped back to their irradiated eyes. Just as canonical knowledge of any field – medicine, literature, philosophy – demands of those who would exercise it an inscape formed by memory, so the built environment requires a very real mapping: the connection of A to B by feet, legs and synapses that move and fire in the same corpus.
We, the middle-aged teenage bats, move around the city attached to a bungee that snaps us back to this prelapsarian condition: we do not fear the virtualisation of urban space, its reduction to an archipelago of temporary instantiations, because we still discern the land that is being steadily inundated. Yet within another half-generation – 15 years, say – the bulk of the city’s users and shapers will not have this capability, they will have no conception of arranging a rendezvous at a certain time and place and then sticking to it because the alternative is to become lost – detached from both the particular human association, and also wandering in an unknown territory that can only be traversed by someone willing to learn and retain the myriad details of layout, style and period that constitute the full urban environment.
We are already living in cities where the convergence of material possibility and computer-aided design are producing banjaxed cantonments of the temporary, the disposable and the short-term. In his famous 1974 essay the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked What is it Like to be a Bat? and argued that the world of scientific quantification and observation cannot – in significant ways – be equated to the commonsensical individual perception of the world. But times change, and now we do indeed know what it’s like to be a bat: we have to keep flapping past the mirrored surfaces of the mirrored buildings in which we can see nothing … because it’s dark out there, and in here as well, in our empty and cavernous minds, that are full of nothing but ultrasonic chattering.
Will Self is a journalist, novelist and broadcaster