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Arch irritation: feeling the inexpressible

2014 May 7
by Zoe Strimpel
I wasn't even left with a wheel.

I wasn’t even left with a wheel.

I’m having some of those days. Not one. Some. You know? Do you though? I don’t know: it’s been pretty damn annoying and I’m just not sure you appreciate just how annoying.

So hear this. Yesterday I tottered out to the street to grab my bike and cycle to the station, and found that my velo – my lovely funny purple  bicycle with red velvet seat – had been stolen. I was now going to miss my train, in addition to being plunged into mourning, so wasted about 20 minutes asking at my local yoga studio if they’d seen it. No. They’d ask, but no. So I walked to the station, angry at the slow boredom of pedestrian travel after the two-wheeled sort, found the next train was not for 45 minutes and the next direct one not for an hour and a half, and began wasting more time, desultorily browsing the uninspiring English-language mags at Relay, and foolishly not buying a sandwich so that later, at my destination, a Polish-border town called Schwedt, I was reduced to bad, bad things to eat. Later that evening, I set out to meet someone, and – viciously tired of walking on terrain I knew so well by bike – I decided to be constructive, not negative, and to rent a Deutsches Bahn City Bike.

Here we go. Are you ready for this?

Had rental gone as planned, I’d have been on time for my next appointment. But it didn’t: after registering thousands of my details twice (one wrong button at the end and I was shunted back to the beginning) and then my card details, I selected a bike. “The bike is unlocked!” said the screen. So I went to get it, but there was no such bike. Machine error. It was obviously a different station or at the bottom of the Spree or being sold off in a drug-squat. So I went back to the machine and chose another one, one I could actually see. “The bike is unlocked!” it chirruped, with me still thinking it had realised it had fucked up, not me, and that I was not going to be charged. I walked to this bike, but it was not unlocked. I went back to the machine, now really running late, and stuck my credit card in again. “! You have no more bikes allowed! ” it read. Suddenly I realised it thought I had taken two bikes, and that – as would become apparent after the 30 minute free period – I had nicked them and would have to pay, probably around €600 apiece.

So I dialled the customer help number written in red on the screen. A very very loud German woman said, in German, something that didn’t sound like: “hello, can I help you? Don’t worry, you haven’t lost all your money on two phantom bikes and a broken machine”. Alas, after trying another 4 times, as well as another number from the website (it was actually the same number), Simon was able to tell me that it was a recorded message saying NOT IN SERVICE. Odd for a system that I happen to know breaks down often, but there you are.

As I was walking to meet him, though, ringing and ringing this number and being told NOT IN SERVICE by the German woman, and becoming ever more stressed at how much money I might lose and how much time I might have to spend in dispute, and why didn’t I note down the false bike numbers, as well as thinking about how I was now running late DESPITE my best efforts…A BIRD SHAT COPIOUSLY ON MY HEAD. I was in the most urban, treeless street in Mitte, but would you believe, the one tree, and the one bird, happened to decide to unload a massive meal on my head at the precise moment I was walking by.

I mean guys, do you really need any more proof that the universe is out to get me?

I think you do. And here it is: TODAY, just one day after the above happened, leaving plenty of time (having no bike) to get somewhere for a 13:30 apt, I set out by foot to a train station. Simple: one line, the S5, to Zoo Station, according to my subway app. Only when I got there, there was no S5. The line doesn’t seem to exist. Still, I bought a ticket (that’s €2.60 thanks), standing on the platform trying to work out where it could be. Then an S1 went by. After walking through a tunnel to the U-bahn and then returning, I realised the S1 was my best option, and went straight to my destination.

There are few maps on platforms in Berlin that show you where trains go. true, different trains pass the same platform. But by the time my slow brain figured out that the S1 was the best bet, there was a four and then a seven minute wait for the next trains – but they didn’t go the right way at all. At last: another S1, OUT OF SERVICE. Time ticked by. I had left lots of time but now…and then, after the out of service train, a seven minute wait for an S2, no S1 in sight.

I had to go and find a taxi, since I had a ten minute walk on the other side, and I predicted- given the past few days- that I”d get lost and go round in circles and that my 3G, which has been loading at the speed of ice melting in Siberia for the past two weeks, would mean my map wouldn’t load at all. I wasted money on a subway ticket, yes. But worst was that I hadn’t been able to zoom in and out and in and out of the subway map, tracing the train to the terminus flashing on the screen to guess its number, in time, and LET THE GODDAMN S1 PASS BY STILL THINKING AN S5 EXISTED.

Isn’t all this so annoying? Do you get me? Now let me say that throughout the deeply irritating sequences of events that have plagued me yesterday and today, I formulated angry descriptions. “When people hear about this”…I spluttered inwardly, “then…”

Then what? Then they’ll feel really terrible for me, of course. And immediately see the way the universe is uniquely predisposed against ME. ZOE STRIMPEL. But as I said the stories to myself that I wanted to unload on others, I could already see their bored expressions. But come on! Couldn’t the sheer annoyingness of all this make for a really good narrative? I mean, there must be novels out there where this kind of thing forms the substance of the plot; the ups and downs of the character, the nucleus for something profound.

But then I couldn’t picture it. I have never read a book like that.

And then I realised: nobody cares, or will care. The levels of irritation and stress caused by these banalities, hitting me as they did at a particularly doubtful juncture in life, are not conveyable through the events that created them. To make a good story there needs to be more; to make an individual feel furious, there’s plenty.

 

Berlin’s new rulers are DJs, not despots

2014 April 28
by Zoe Strimpel
This is About Blank, where hordes of partyers queue to spend their weekends genuflecting to the gods of fun - incarnated in top DJs

This is About Blank, where hordes of partyers queue to spend their weekends genuflecting to the gods of fun – incarnated in top DJs

I’ve been spending a great deal of time reading Alexandra Richie’s history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis. It’s a sweeping chronicle of Europe’s most fearsome city since its first settlers, a story of countless wars, despots and almost endless violence, in which life is built up and destroyed as regularly as waves crashing on a beach. The desire of Berlin’s (all-male) leadership to conquer, destroy, taunt, control and lie is astounding, from the early Christian conquistadors right through to Erich Milche of the SED. It’s no coincidence that what is now Europe’s most responsible country is run by a woman.

Berlin had ups and downs – times of relative tolerance and cultural glory. But one feature runs through its history with particular tenacity and strength: the thirst for and play of power. Germans clustered around rulers, from heads of state of army generals, hero-worshipping them. In the 20th century they worshipped or died. Dictators (usually short, deformed men with terrible moustaches) are defined by their obsession with power for its own sake. But in few places has the almost erotically-charged fixation with power – personal and military – held such sway as in Berlin.

The party stamp: no fun allowed without it

The party stamp: no fun allowed without it

 

Ruler of the crowd

Ruler of the crowd

Well, times have changed in Berlin. Students are more concerned with defending Lampedusan refugees and the rights of sex-workers than imbibing the spirit of the Germanic earth. “Deep” and “house” has replaced “blood and soil” as the rallying call of the youth.  Now the “volk” spend their weekends in scruffy clubs, marketed through subversive messages like “love techno, hate Germany”. (This is the slogan of the collective behind About Blank, a club in a post-industrial, former Communist stronghold with a big garden and an amazing sound system, one of Berlin’s most revered clubs.)

But – even when violence is out of the question – some things will never change and the dynamics of power is one of them, with a leader and followers.

Today, during a session of daytime “cappuccino” clubbing at About Blank, the presence of power and worship seemed strong to me. The clubbers were all dressed up in respectful uniform for the occasion: vintage high-top sneakers, square or round sunglasses, very high-wasted faded jeans for the women, bizarre irregular hair arrangements for the men. Admittedly it wasn’t too stringent a uniform: I wore my cycling leggings from Dorothy Perkins and some Nike trainers and looked more like an American tourist looking for Unter den Linden than someone accustomed to getting past bouncers at hidden clubs.

Some had been at this same “party” since Friday night; nearly 48 hours. They swayed and some looked bleary, barely hanging onto awakeness, despite the drugs. But mostly it was a jolly affair, in good spirit. Above all, the power of the DJs in Berlin is phenomenal. People cram into industrial-size clubs all round the city for entire weekends without leaving, first doing anything to get by the bouncer (the Berghain bouncer is so powerful and mysterious, with seemingly random and self-determined decisions, rather like a despot, that he has his own agent), then bobbing and swaying in formation before the Grand Ruler of the Night and the Party – the music-spinner.

The DJ controls the crowd and the crowd cleaves devoutly to the DJ’s mysterious moves – he or she exerts control over their bodies, their mood, their vocal chords, their pockets, their whole weekends.

Furthermore, the culture of exclusive leisure is a ruler in itself, determining who has cultural capital and who does not. The new urban aristocracy are not people born into posh or rich families; they’re the people who know where the best parties are happening, and this means, where the parties are happening with the highest density of people who define themselves by their clothes: either inspired by the cutting-edge art world (the high jeans, the slanty hair); the politically-charged dreadlock wearers; the deeply scruffy-on-purpose; the glamorous. All were there; a very small proportion of clubbers looked neutrally-apparelled, or clad in Zara or H&M.

The tyranny of cool is alive and well; and while DJs, bouncers and exclusive nightclubs have no profound or sinister relation to the politically-powerful power-mongers of Berlin’s long history, the adherence – bodily and financial – that they command from seas of young people bobbing about before is a curious example of how power never disappears, it only shifts, and in this case, gets its groove on.

“I date operating systems, actually” – My review of Her

2014 April 22
by Zoe Strimpel
"Who am I? What do I want? Oh...it's an OS"

“Who am I? What do I want? Oh…it’s an OS”

Everyone said I should watch Her, because of the themes of dating and technology, and of those things being shown in The Future. Although it sounded dumb, and really old hat (doesn’t anyone remember the 2002 movie Simone, or S1m0ne, about the beautiful simulacra created to replace a stroppy Hollywood star? Or The Fifth Element, which also revolves around a beautiful woman – Milla Jovovich – from another, man-made world?) But quite a few people said it was good – the New York Times basically called it the best goddamn thing since Goethe.

Her takes place in an actually really lovely-seeming LA of the future – everything is spotless, tall, ergonomic, prosperous and eco-friendly. Residents live in high rises with spacious apartments offering panoramic views and take plush, light-filled trains everywhere rather than the fuming cars of today. People drink vegetable juice and fresh fruit and – while they are inevitably absorbed in their beautifully crisp and clever technological devices – they do seem capable of human intimacy.

Scarlett Johansson runs the show and steals the heart; but alas she's too good to be true, or at least, to have a body. Does it matter?

Scarlett Johansson runs the show and steals the heart; but alas she’s too good to be true, or at least, to have a body. Does it matter?

The problem starts with a rather inaccessible character named Theodore Twombly, played by an actually kind of not-hot, hipster-nerdified Jochim Phoenix, as the star. How old he is, where he comes from, what his past is and where he’s going are all left mysteries. He wears nice sweaters and pants, though. Do we care about him? Not really: he could be any number of self-absorbed products of late-late capitalism, as already depicted in numerous films. (Lucky then that the imagery of his world is so captivating; creamy sweeps of elegant civic land, intriguing use of wood and fascinating telephones.)

Twombly works as a letter writer for a company called yourletters.com or similar, dictating his compositions into a screen from which they emerge as handwritten masterpieces of the heart. Judging by his designer flat – or is urban planning just so spectacular in the future? – he makes a good living composing the poetry of other people’s sentimentality. (Is the implication that in this world people have lost the skill even to compose epistolary messages? He doesn’t actually pick up a pen, after all).

Ok, so Twombly is harmless, even talented and has a few friends, but he is both sex-starved and very sad about his ongoing divorce from his ex-wife. The two grow increasingly connected.

Here’s where the whole thing veers off. Feeling particularly lonely one morning after an unpleasant episode of phone sex with a stranger the night before (in Her‘s world, women are very happy to participate for free in random sex services), Twombly looks up at a big advert for a new bespoke operating system, one that’s meant to know and learn about you. Next thing we know, he’s bought it, downloaded it, answered a few questions (his relationship with his mother is one, but it cuts him off mid-ramble), and chooses the voice of the new OS to be a woman. What rises from the screen are the beautiful husky playful tones of Scarlett Johansson, who we never see, of course, because she doesn’t have a body – a point that recurs and recurs.  She’s amazing; funny, responsive, intimate, curious, clever, constant and before long, lusty. They start having phone sex and fall in love, making their relationship official. She’s also keen on reorganising his emails and files; a secretary and girlfriend in one.

Now, Her does a great job of taking seriously the idea of a functional machine-human relationship. It offers a two-hour chance for reflection on what really is the difference between a relationship between a highly intelligent machine and a human, and any other disembodied entity – the Internet in general; paid-phone sex services; cybersex pals; chatroom paramours, Second Life partners. These are the everyday relationships we have already. Less everyday affective bonds have been documented, or fictionalised, between men and mannequins, robots, pretty much anything that can be assigned the meaning of woman or feeling. It’s not new to consider a man falling in love with either an idealised figment of his sexual imagination or a service-care-sex giver. What is interesting here is that it has evidently begun to be seen as a normal and acceptable arrangement; a sexuality, if you will. “I’m dating my OS”, Theodore says to his friends and colleagues who note his happy expression. Some of the comments in reaction  – particularly those of his ex-wife – don’t sound so different from those in relation to people who spend a lot of time on their laptops on porn or internet dating. “He’s dating his laptop”, she yells to a waitress after he lightly criticises her.

These days, the two words “I’m dating” can be followed by an increasingly choice of words, from “my trainer” to “a guy” or “a girl” or “a trans-bi woman” or “five guys” or “three girls and seven guys”. We know ever more about kinks and fetishes and the internet has accommodated them with specialised sites of all kinds. Why not be OS-Positive or OSexual? The acceptability of the statement “I date Operating Systems” seemed a plausible development. Even better, Jonze’s presentation of the OS, named Samantha, is so complimentary – albeit relying on a very vague lexicon of computer engineering futurism – that one is asked to check one’s dystopian assumptions. Maybe having the option to date OSs would be a good thing – after all, Samantha helps Theodore explore his emotions (yawn) after the divorce, to see the world in a new way, keeps him company in lonely hours, offers extremely sensible administrative solutions, reminds him of meetings, and even sends his letters to a publisher, winning him a contract. Wonderful! When she finally “departs” – presumably because the product is being withdrawn though the commercial element of all this was preposterously ignored – it is done with more grace than the average breakup. It’s also worth noting that because of the sound technology and earpieces, Samantha could come on double dates with Theo and his friends and talk and joke with the characters, only once ever striking a wrong note when saying she was partly glad she didn’t have a body so she wouldn’t get old and die.

For all these invitations to think progressively about the future of technology and the human need for love, Spike Jonze is a bit backwards, I can’t help but feel. That he completely fails to engage with the commercial backbone of products such as Samantha (for she is a product, after all) is almost unforgiveable and makes the film far more toothless than it could have been. Twombly does not seem to pay for her and the whole thing is left unbranded. What about a subscription fee? What about choosing his package? (It seemed like an expensive one). What about the fact that she lives in the Cloud, making her eventual disappearance a matter of withdrawal of the service due to losses rather than the poetic retreat into the OS heavens with her new friends, as it is depicted? What about Twombly’s devastating realisation that she’s talking to hundreds of other people and conducting relationships with them too? The word “customer” is not once used, though it would have framed the whole affair usefully for Twombly, who seems to forget he’s paying for Samantha. It’s more convenient for Jonze to skip this part though, because it might raise irritating questions of the overlap between “love” and “money”. Or maybe Jonze just forgot that women like Samantha -or rather- those WITH bodies – don’t exist. Perhaps in his world they do, or should exist, and come for free.

Gender is mostly old-school. Yes, Samantha voices her needs and sleeps around (after a fashion). And yes, there is a female computer programmer mentioned. But ultimately, the OS is a bedroom-voiced woman who plays secretary, genius PA, life coach, shrink, nurturer, sex partner and friend – with the occasional outbreak of womanly irrationality over Theodor’s occasional “distance”. The only other women in the film are a sex-crazed date who won’t sleep with Theodore if he won’t promise to call her; a droopy friend from college who speaks exclusively in psychobabble, the one-dimensional lawyer girlfriend of the (token) male PA at Twombly’s office and – most bizarrely – a woman who desperately wants to play the “body” part in the sex drama of Twombly and Samantha.

The characters themselves are hemmed in by old, boring narratives of self. Who am I? What do I feel? Why do I sometimes do this or that? What do I want? How do I balance all these conflicting feelings? In offering some genuinely interesting glimpses of a potential future, Jonze falls into the trap of giving it a dystopian gloss in the form of the emptiness of the characters, who are ultimately so dispassionate and self-obsessed that you can’t help but think that the best person for the job of taking them on would indeed be a computer. For the humans we know today, it could just be too boring.

It’s great that women’s empowerment groups are flourishing. But the physical world is still built by men

2014 March 7
by Zoe Strimpel
Male aerospace engineers at work. Men are building the world - where are the women's groups dealing with this?

Male aerospace engineers at work. Men are building the world – where are the women’s groups broaching this?

Today I was at the University of East London, where I participated in a lovely event called Visible Women, part of International Women’s Week. Last week I was invited to attend, but was unable to, a similar event at Goldsmiths University, in association with Prospect Magazine. Two weeks ago I was asked to talk to a secondary school about whether Beyonce is a feminist (of course I accepted, pending the right date). I have also very much enjoyed participating at Mumsnet Blogfest, which was about how to be a woman with a voice.

Keep in mind that I am not particularly famous. Usually I am far less impressive-sounding, actually, than the other women I have shared platforms with. They must be inundated. But it’s obvious that there are enough of these innovative events, platforms, and groups to go around.

Is this new? Not exactly: for a good hundred years, there has been a vibrant community of women’s groups in every city in Britain and throughout the US. But there seems to be a great deal of savvy media working around them now. These gals know how to get press, and the press are up for it, so the general buzz about women’s organisations has swelled. It feels like there are many more of them suddenly.

All do good work or intend to.

Still, I can’t help but question the long-term benefits of support networks, empowerment drives and “raising awareness” (is this a bit softer and more general than the iconic consciousness-raising of yore?), taken in isolation from the specifics of gendered dynamics at school, university, home, work, and acquisition of skills and interests. What I mean is not that women’s confidence and support-systems shouldn’t be built and strengthened through community and cooperation and outspokenness. Absolutely they should.

But I can’t shake the sense that other more concrete problems are not attracting the same buzz. General goals are all very well, but what about the severe shortage of women entering computer science departments? What about the lack of women going into maths and physics and engineering? Yes, groups need to be in place to lobby for better maternity and flextime policies so that women can continue their careers in these very fields after children if they want.

But there aren’t enough women going into these fields out of university. And the professions dominated by men happen to be the ones that literally build the world. Literally and conceptually, through engineering and high-flying architecture jobs, men build skyscrapers and bridges, hospitals and airports. Only 13 per cent of American engineers are women, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And British organisations like WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) are barely heard of. They don’t throw cool media-friendly panel events, certainly.

Since men dominate the top of most political and corporate ladders, they also decide where these things go and what they should look like and even who should get to use them. More pressingly, perhaps, men rule technology – as engineers and as entrepreneurs. They build our dating sites, our search engines, our social media pages, our servers, our governmental security programs.

My question is: what would the world look and feel like if women played a bigger role in its construction? What would a woman-conceived bridge, or set of bridges or canal system, or women-built skyscraper, or women-made dating algorithm look like?

Maybe the answer doesn’t matter and even asking it is to get dragged into a world of polarisation and stereotype. But I think it’s a question that should be asked and I can’t help but notice how few young, cool, clever feminist entrepreneurs are addressing the very specific dearth of women builders. I’m not talking about work-life balance, the demands of motherhood or the apparently universal problem of female self-confidence. I‘m talking about: where are the female electrical, civil and digital engineers? Why, when we know that women’s cognitive abilities and even their tastes aren’t THIS different, are they absent? Is it just male culture in these industries? If so, what does that mean, exactly? How can it be changed? Isn’t this something that needs to involve men?

I want to know what a world with more women politicians and construction workers and engineers and tech entrepreneurs would look like but I’m worried that, for all the talk of support and empowerment, I’m going to be a long time waiting.

Zero sum game: the world of boys’ toys dating apps

2014 February 28
by Zoe Strimpel
Is Tinder a nice way to meet people? NOPE!

Is Tinder a nice way to meet people? NOPE!

I hate to be the luddite, reliably heaping fear and loathing on new technology. Sadly, while I am broadly very in favour of technological innovation, I am utterly appalled by what it’s doing for singles. Dating and mating platforms have gone from “numbers game” to just “game” – with no shame whatsoever. It’s like we’re all being dragged into the lowest common denominator of masculine playtime values. World of Warcraft isn’t enough – now meeting the opposite sex has to look like gaming. Not gaming in the metaphorical sense that Neil Strauss, gross pick up artist guru, talked about it. But in the sense of actual games, gambling games. The coincidence and ubiquity of Chat Roulette and Tinder have made this abundantly clear.

Chat Roulette, or excuse me, Chatroulette “is a place where you can interact with new people over text-chat, webcam and mic.” It is not bounded by geographical location. Your screen pans through all the people on video and up for a “chat” and if you like the look of them (my guess someone’s impressive collection of Tolstoy in the background isn’t what’s going to stop most people), you stop and “chat”. If “chat” isn’t a word that hasn’t been utterly dirtified by the internet then OkCupid is a Jane Austen novel.

Tinder is hugely popular. Have you see Tinder? Tinder is what moves me to opine on “what technology is doing to us” or rather, what we (read: Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, aged 27, co-founders of Tinder) are doing to technology.

Tinder is modelled on a card game. There’s no going back. You set the geographical location to whatever you want; 2 miles, 89 miles, and press go. The satellite thinks and loads: now you rifle, literally rifle, through a deck of faces. If you swipe left, you’re binning the face, and a red stamp “nope” appears on the face. If you swipe left out of inertia, retrospectively deciding the person’s face you just binned was maybe a bit nice, maybe showed a glimmer of humanity that you were interested in, well too bad – they’re GONE man. Onwards. Next. Next. Next. Next. Next. Click the heart symbol or swipe right and in Valentine’s Hallmark letters it tells you “you’re a match!”. What does “you’re a match” mean? It means that the man you have clicked yes to also clicked yes to you when he saw your face moments before you saw his (the wonders of the algorithm). That means he liked your face – or he didn’t not like it – or vastly and obviously more likely, he lazily inferred that if there was nobody else available he’d shag you (if he could be bothered) if your face is anything to go by. Once you’re “a match!” you can message the person.

And that’s it. It’s completely bonkers because what happens is that clicking “yes” to a face, or rather, not binning a face, is absolutely identical in output or cost or inflowing knowledge to any other movement on the phone requiring one single flick of the thumb. So when you message the person (of eight or so “matches” none messaged me first), they respond a chronically uncharming message because, surprise surprise, you have nothing to talk about at all. You both did not swipe right, you clicked the heart symbol. That’s what you have in common. Nobody cares much about anything on Tinder – least of all other people – why should they? There’s always a deck of faces to go back to. Rifling takes no effort.

Tinder has been hailed as a “more honest” form of digital dating than internet dating because you get rejected and can reject so easily. Nobody cares about the profile anyway, it’s said, and therefore it’s only the picture that counts. But this is a false justification – checking someone out and thinking their face is nice in real life is a much better investment of time. You can see immediately if they’re enormously fat, have a terrible snarl when talking to their mates, or dead eyes. And if they really are attractive, then they really ARE attractive to you. They might have binned you on Tinder but if you charm them, there is room for negotiation. By contrast, Tinder shows you a face, and asks you to stamp it yay or nay while watching TV or masturbating or whatever people do – so static, rigid.

It’s more honest in the nightmare world of misleading pictures and binned faces that it has created, yes.

It’s not more honest in terms of the enigmatic mechanics of co-present attraction.

To end, I’d like to just remind you that Tinder, Blendr, and every single last online dating site bar MySingleFriend is the product of MEN. Male business school graduates, male engineers, male visionaries, male techies. Just saying. If women enjoy the feeling of thumbing a face into oblivion and the only very thin fulfilment possible when a message is exchanged, then great. But part of me wonders if Tinder’s followers are just – out of a combination of exhaustion and dutiful trend consumerism – just giving in to the dehumanising wet dream of a bunch of American boys.