Several lifetimes ago and on a different continent I was a futurist, which meant I divined the data-leaves in the bottom of the digital tea-cup. Social trends, changes in behaviour, fashion and technologies was my thing. The arrival not just of the internet, email and e-commerce was central to this, but also the fact that these things would be mobile, very soon. I co-wrote a book about it, called Retailisation – the here, there and everywhere of Retail.
From New York my company worked with big brands, such as MTV or Pepsi to evolve ideas. Microsoft, in Seattle, was by far the most interesting project – we were asked to investigate how we “do” things, our work, and our “real” life. How we do, how we prioritize, remember, communicate and effect the necessary things: from the moment we wake until we sleep (and the automated stuff whilst we dream).
It came down to how this ultimate “to do” list might one day be incorporated into the screen we used (carried with us), perhaps our computer, our phone, PDA, or whatever the future brought. It was all about everything, everywhere now.
Since I’ve been on this journey the “to do” lists have grown exponentially. And issues of prioritization are the most difficult of all – after finding a signal. I’m “living in the knowledge” as the Gnostics would say. But hell it is tiring.
Paris was an über “to do” list long before I arrived, it included talking to Magnum, to the guys behind the French “search engine”; staying in the Dan Brown suite of the Ritz, considering the life and loves of Pamela Harriman. Holidays and “life” sent those down the “to do” list. Instead Coryat-like, but in a city perhaps fifty times larger than in his time, I wandered, I visited churches, museums, The Louvre. I dawdled in cafés, and wrote ferociously. An American couple summed me up, thinking I was language-lite, I suppose. “Camden [in London] is a shit-hole, the only good thing in London is the piazza in Covent Garden. This place [the café we sat in], Paris, it’s all too fucking artistic.” Debbie was nineteen, Versace-glassed. She didn’t blush when I asked.
So in Tom’s footsteps but hearing and seeing an atonal orchestra score of dead and imagined people, advertising, the Parisians, the tourists, and the damned memory stick full of even more information, I am also very much at sea. The Rough Guide to Europe (which by its very nature is shortish on each place) had room enough for entire Paris fiefdoms I didn’t see, and there was no set-piece, like Tim Moore’s grumpy adventures in the restaurant, Chartier. Neither was there the cathartic moment, the catalyst of understanding. Instead there was the haunting of Hugo’s humanism, but that is not about now. Neither is Sartre, or Hemingway; even Julian Barnes – another I wanted to write about.
However: everyone is on a mobile, in plush St Germain and rough and ready St.Denis. And the phones work on the subway as well – perhaps this is one vision of our future, that the diversions during travel by bus, train or tube will be about listening, rather than reading. There are always audio-books.
The photographic images of Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson or Doisgneau still echo here because it is a city of “looking”, the pose and the poise. Perhaps less so in St.Denis, but the “look” is there as well. The location that best showed the confusion around was the flea-market at Clignacourt, long a tourist destination. Nowadays rap and street clothes mingle with dodgy looking Louis Quattorze; Danish design and John Coltrane on vinyl make up the crisis at the centre without bringing much helpful context, and asking is no help – unless it is about the price. It was at this time that I discussed the complex updates to “24”, the American techno-terrorist television series: it seemed a simpler and achievable hope, as we were washed over with conflicting messages and streams of information. Tom may have had his grouches, religion may have been a tricky subject, but as complex as his world was becoming, its pioneers believed in the pre-eminence of man (after God). Now man’s mirror, his fashions and those we are given, dwarf us all.
Heading towards Fontainebleu – a long coach journey for Tom – I try and reprioritize the to-do list. Photography, social novels, the city as mirror, artists and their shifting visions of Paris. I really wanted to write about Robert Capa, war-reporting, Ingrid Bergman, documentaries, but now they fall away: what do the kids skateboarding around Victor Hugo square – opposite the Basillica in St Denis, where so many French Bourbon kings are buried – what do they care? And does it empower them to know about this history, of Capa or their Kings? Tom showed Jacobean England the pleasures of pure travel, collecting sights almost no English man or woman had seen; tourism today plays back the anxieties of “at home” because it is very often with us . And even history can’t always help in that case.