Wednesday, January 24, 1996

Browsing

IF You were approached by somebody who solicitously inquired, "Do you need any help at all? We do have that in the cerise as well. Would you like to see it in the cerise?" You might, in the distant past, have been tempted to reply to the interloper with a firm "No thanks, I'm only browsing". These days, to apply the word "only" to the activity would be to make a large and embarrassing error, since browsing has become one of the defining activities of the 1990s.

For many years, the word "browse" seemed to be moving away from its original meaning, which older dictionaries define as "to eat and nibble of small twigs and leaves". Often they accommodatingly add that the word is derived from the obsolete French word broust, meaning a young shoot, in turn giving brouster, to feed on these tasty morsels. The immediate image is of squat, hen like creatures with big eyes, far too timid, or ill equipped to fight for food, picking only those pieces that require no heavy chewing and are easily digestible in their minute stomachs the sort of folks, in fact, that you might expect to find jammed in front of computer terminals.

More recent definitions tend to switch the emphasis to the figurative meaning, so that "browse" comes to qualify the standard of attention given to a text. The word came to be applied to a certain, very relaxed form of reading. This probably had much to do with the random way in which factoids and phrases were picked up, but also with the fact that to do so it was necessary to finger your way through the leaves of the book.

With the invention of hypertext, the character of browsing was transformed. The word may previously have suggested reading without due care, but with the arrival of multi layered, non linear text, browsing became the only plausible approach. (In this context, surf the internet verb much favoured by aul' fellas frying to sell canned drinks to teenagers, opens up a far less fruitful set of metaphors.)

Hence people using the World Wide Web (WWW) the world's largest hypertext no matter how serious their intent, remain browsers. Unlike the feeding of the devilish trains that proto green novelist, Henry David Thoreau noticed had "browsed off all the woods on Walden shore," WWW browsing is an extremely ecologically sustainable activity, since you can browse and browse and browse, but there will still be plenty left for everyone.

There is, of course, money in browsing, as the owners of Netscape, the brand name most associated with the word, discovered in 1995. Marc Andreesen and his colleagues at the company developed a programme for reading the Web, referred to, naturally enough, as a browser. Though many other companies also developed "browsers" such as Mosaic, Ariadna and PowerBrowser, none has yet matched the success of Netscape. When the company went on the US stock market last year, Andreesen is reported to have made $ 50 million overnight. Hardly chicken feed.

LOAD-DATE: January 24, 1996

Wednesday, January 17, 1996

Stalk

STICKS and stones may break my bones, but only word, "stalker" seems guaranteed to have an equally forceful effect. There was always something odd and unnatural about "stalking" even when the word meant to walk warily, on the tips of the toes, as though the legs themselves had been lengthened into stalk like structures. Initially this type of walking was associated as much with hauteur as with hunting, but lately things have changed, and the word has come to represent a peculiarly nasty brand of fin-de-siecle self abasement.

The sinister qualities of the word were greatly enhanced by both the John Stalker affair, and by Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker. It was, however, in December 1980, when stalker superstar Mark Chapman shot his idol John Lennon, that the term first became defined in the public imagination in its modern sense, as one closely associated with violence and social alienation. When the word again featured in coverage a few months later, of the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan, "stalker" had finally stepped out of the shadows.

Reagan's stalker, John Hinckley, also helped highlight a crucial audio visual document for all prospective stalkers Martin Scorsese's 1976, Taxi Driver. When Hinckley shot at the President he did 50, he has suggested, in emulation of the film's hero, citing a desire to communicate with Jodie Foster, who played a young prostitute in the film. Ever since, the Paul Schrader scripted film has been a touchstone for screen wackos right up to Kassovitz's Vinz in La Haine.

At times it seems that the real popularity of the word is related to the type of images it helps create in films. Night in the trailer park. The police close in on their target, force a flimsy door and roll into the dingy Formica hutch that somebody calls home. A torch passes over a wall, straying across a movie star pin up and an empty Big Mac carton. Someone throws the light switch and a million taped up images of one face and one body fill the screen. If the police are having a good day, some of the photos will be scrawled over with quotations from the Kabbala in candy pink lipstick.

While garish lipstick may be a form of communication much favoured by movie stalkers, their real life counterparts have, predictably, adopted more modern methods. It is now possible to stalk by telephone, removing any necessity to move on tiptoes, and even through the Internet, removing any obligation to contact the "victim".

In 1990, California passed the United States' first law making stalking a felony all other states have since followed suit. On this side of the Atlantic, the word remains the property of the media. But even without the sanction of law, it is enjoying a full and active life. Neither the man who followed Princess Anne, nor the one who waited for Princess Diana with out a camera, was charged with stalking, but nobody writing about either event was in any doubt these men were stalkers.

British men's magazine Loaded, cautious as ever when it comes to the sensitive stuff, features a rubric in which readers are encouraged to get their arms around a star while a friend takes a picture. The resulting photos of bodybuilders, porn stars and chat show hosts are printed under the title "Now You're Stalking" tactlessly converting the most solitary of contemporary pastimes into a team sport.

LOAD-DATE: January 17, 1996

Wednesday, January 10, 1996

Sorted

THERE is a strong temptation to see the popularity of the word "sorted" as related to the rise of what was has been called Estuary English. This popular southern English dialect, a kind of slurred, neo cockney hailstorm of glottal stops, was popularised nationally in the early 1990s by such media intellectuals as Danny Baker, endorsed southern based footballers, and later spoken by the cast of Hollyoaks.

In particular, players from London based football clubs have done much to help "sorted" on its journey from local vocal tick, to national crie de guerre in 1989, Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt defended his then team mate, Paul Gascoigne, against charges of immaturity and irresponsibility. "To his credit he has done brilliantly," Mabbutt told a London Times sports writer, "even though he is always being sorted out by opponents because he is a quality player. Even given Gazza's hell raising reputation, it seems likely that his fellow footballers were on these occasions offering the star knees to the groin rather than tributes of illicit narcotics.

Until Pulp lead singer and TOTP star Jarvis Cocker jammed a crowbar between "sorted" and "out", however, the word's associations with drug culture remained a secrets shared by about three million people. Cocker has suggested that when he co opted the word into the title of his 1995 hit, Sorted for E's and Win, he was using a phrase suggested by a woman encountered in a Sheffield nightclub.

Cocker's correspondent, in her turn, claimed to have carried the runes from an even more powerful site of authenticity than Sheffield. At Spike island, Manchester, in May 1991 the time and place of an epoch making Stone Roses gig barkers were reported to have wandered through the crowd, solicitously inquiring whether people were amply equipped in terms of amphetamine derivatives.

Somewhere between Spike Island and Jarvis Cocker, several other people caught on to the word. One appropriation suggests that advertising runs a little ahead of popular culture. In its series of commercials for Audi, London firm Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty climaxed a VO monologue on the beauties of Vienna with a simple tag line that did far more for the product's credibility than an hour of Freudian photography "Sorted," decides the thoroughly decent but fund a mentally funky oink at the wheel.

Once "sorted" had taken the term to the upper reaches of the Gallup charts, it would be easy to imagine that the word would soon lose its popularity. In fact, quite the opposite happened propriety over the word merely changed hands. After the death of Leah Betts, ad agency Knight Leach Delaney and "youth marketing specialists" FFI came together to create an anti Ecstasy poster for use across Britain. The image featured a Sun style image of Betts in extremis with one word overprinted in roaring type, turning sorted into the revolting, gleeful "gotcha" of the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 03, 1996

Content

At this very moment there is a search under way, a mad, desperate search, a search every bit as crazed, driven and misguided as the one instigated against Dr. Richard Kimble. Out there in the darkness, maybe down a manhole, or up a tree, "content" is hiding. He may lurk breathlessly in a vault in Abbey Road, like The Beatles Anthology, or in the dankest corners of Shepherd's Bush, like the programming of UK Gold, but wherever he is, the US Marshal will not sleep until this fugitive has been run to earth.

It is all very well, it seems, to have palm sized silver disks that can carry 600 megabytes of information. It may be worthy of note that European publishing giants are sprouting electronic wings, or that even RTE Radio I now has 24 hours of medium every day. But we now need something that can be converted into zeroes and ones and siphoned into all these new media something that can be sent ad astra and bounced back to a deep dish near you, something anything that can be called "content".

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a global entertainment conglomerate with multimedia ambitions must be in search of "software content". Now that legislation which once enforced a legal separation between "content" and "carriage" is either being struck off or placed under attack Marshal McLuhans much misunderstood aphorism "the medium is the message" has a new and depressing significance.

Take the typical television advertisement for a multimedia information product. A young child and an elder snivel over a snapping and popping CDROM about all the animals in the sea, or all the animals which might tear off your small limbs if you ever left your bedroom. The ad is not, of course, in the end about the animals, or about the educational possibilities of digital technology, it is about buying in to the future, it is about gulping down the elixir of eternal youth to a soundtrack of dolphin quacks.

Look closely The copywriter may sheepishly assert that owning this machine will bring the sights and sounds of lions, tigers and dissected human bodies into the home, but what the blipvert actually says, it's latent content if you like, is that "content" has no importance. What you need to share life everlasting is this delivery system, this container, this medium.

Obviously, it is necessary to disguise this reality. "Content", after all, continues to exert an atavistic fascination that is extremely effective when it comes to selling hardware. "Content" is the perfect lie, the one that will let us believe that somewhere, buried deep in the heart of the machine code, there is a reason why. Give it up.