Always outnumbered. Generally overdresssed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Library of Babel

Coffee, sharp pencil, Rhodia pad - that's how I roll
One of the only good things to come out of Argentina, apart from barbed wire and the biro, is the writer Jorge Luis Borges. He was, by most accounts, a shit poet, but he mastered a peculiar kind of short story, based on the extrapolation of a single mad idea. He's one of the fathers of speculative fiction, and smartass-conceit stories by people like Martin Amis and Will Self.

Here's how some of his stories work:
  • A man who remembers absolutely everything as though it were both current and real. Therefore is trapped in his own past as though it were the present.
  • A country where cartography is the most prized of all the arts. A king plans to make the most wonderfully detailed map in the world, its scale is 1:1
  • A country in which absolutely everything, including social status, is decided by lottery.
  • A library, which is also the universe.
That last one is my favourite, it's called the Library of Babel you can read it, in its entirety, here.

"The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. "

The shelves are full of books which contain a random selection of the 26 letters in the roman alphabet, punctuation and spaces. Most of the books are gibberish. Only, since the library is infinite a great many of the books aren't - in fact they contain not just all the works of literature ever written, but the life stories of everyone who lives in the library.

The library of Babel is a metaphor for language then - and what it shows is that all ideas are nascent in language already. It's just a question of digging them out.
 In the Naked Lunch William Burroughs, writing about getting ideas, says that 'Americans want to jump into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel it out again'. The implication is that the brain is an organ, like the stomach, and stuff goes in, stuff comes out. Just like you can't force food through your stomach, you can't force ideas from your brain. I used to try to write adverts by sitting around talking to the art director for days and days, on the principle that most of the creative process was done in the backrooms of the brain, so really it was just a question of entertaining one another, until the machine belched out the answer.

And maybe, some kinds of ideas do come about like this.

But these days, I don't really have a partner. And when I want to come up with ideas, I just write a column of numbers in the left hand margin and then start writing lines, one after another. I used to only use this technique for tricksy headlines, and found that I'd start getting good ones, usually after about 40th or so.

But I've started to think it's just as good for getting conceptual stuff going. Just like rooting around in the library.

When you think about really great advertising ideas - for instance, 'Just Do It', aren't actually separable from the words which they're expressed in.

So yeah, all a bit serious.

In other news, I've got a new tattoo, bright young designer Michael Bow did my new banner (nice huh?) and I'm fighting in a second boxing match in March.

Good times. Wooh.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Murdoch's continence pad

Doesn't apply to me: I've spent the day masturbating over news footage of refugee orphans

Everyone wants an iPad - you can even sell them by writing stupid headlines like this.

I don't know if you've noticed, but when you open any newspaper at the moment 99% of the advertising looks like the above. Picture of gizmo, headline, price.

I'd say this was a symptom of the  panic that's gripping advertising now that more and more of the things we sell don't really exist. The iPad has a special place as a fetish object that mediates between the consumer and the spirit world of the internet. Consumers like them because it's a hard object that they that can cling on to as their personality and wordly possessions evaporate into cyberspace.

Rupert Murdoch wants you to buy an iPad, so you can download his newspaper The Daily. The Guardian ran the launch story with the headline 'The future of news or dead on arrival?' which I think may be rather wishful thinking on their part.

Murdoch gives the killer angle on The Daily, the one you'd probably only get from a newspaper owner: 'No paper, no mutil-million dollar presses, no trucks.' As John Lanchester pointed out in this very interesting article in the LRB, the things that costs loads of money are the physical logistics of printing a newspaper. In fact, according to Lanchester, if the New York Times were to abandon its presses it would have enough spare cash to give all of its readers a Kindle, twice.

What Murdoch has always been good at doing is selling the same stuff for more money. His media empire is based on a subscription model - Sky sells you the same kind of stuff that you can get for free, with ads, and for money.

He does this, in the case of Sky, using a combination of exclusive content and advertising. That's really the winning combo.