So here we are. It is, as Stephen Fry put it, ‘most exquisite mobile ever made.’ It is thinner, faster, bigger, more clever and lasts longer.
Except, if you keep it in your pocket it bends.
Except, in a year or so it’ll seem slow, heavy, stupid, with a weak heart.
Better to accept it: the thing that Tim WhatsHisName from Apple held aloft as the great saviour of your life, the thing that will lift you to untold heights, will be relegated, demoted. This is what the incrementally increasing digits do, they are a built-in code that both allows a temporary surge of current excitement at being ‘one up’, while ensuring that as soon as a newer (even thinner even faster…) model becomes available you’ll immediately know that you are suboptimal. At sixes and sevens when, be in no doubt, the 7 appears.
All of which is only by way of an example of a far wider problem, perhaps the greatest of our age: we are living in a time of wide and enduring disappointment. In every way imaginable, we are feeling let down.
As you may be aware, I am currently finishing off a book exploring something the history of the human quest for altitude. It’s called Getting High, and I’m quite sure it will be disappointing. But what I’ve seen in writing it is this repeated pattern of great hope and huge disappointment through the history of flight and ecstasy.
In order to provide focus, I’m using the lens of the late 1960s to shine light on the various ways that we have tried to ‘get high.’ Firstly I look at the LSD counterculture and the parallel religious moves that were being made over that period. These were about the inner journey of transcendence, of achieving great spiritual heights and ecstatic insights – all of which has a very ancient history both in religious practice and entheogenic drug use, with shamans, spirit guides, priests, gurus and pushers all making dramatic promises about what these things can deliver. In short: a return to Eden.
Secondly, I look at the journey that was being made at precisely the same time into outer space. The Apollo missions to the moon again are part of a long history of powered flight, or the dream of it. And what we find from the theorists and early pioneers right through to JFK and the key figures in space exploration are the same sky-high promises being made. Humankind will be saved. War will end. Eden will be regained.
By the end of the 60s we are already seeing some of the fallout, some of the disappointments that are beginning to take hold. What Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing screams in anger is simply this: the drugs didn’t work. And, he makes clear, neither did religion. What surprised me as I read around the history was how quickly people began to bore of the moon landings. There hadn’t been aliens, and they hadn’t discovered a new form of gold. It was just a dead rock. This is the sole reason that further missions were abandoned: the American public were disappointed.
Yet there was one more hope remaining. I go on in the book to show that, right at the end of the 60s, what people began to turn to after these twin disappointments was digital culture. Surely this would be the thing. Not a crude rocket or some inner journey, but a pure amalgam of the two… an electronic redemption, our failing, falling bodies finally augmented and made… divine? Because isn’t this what the smartphone offers? Omniscience, omnipresence, action at a distance…
It’s no coincidence that the original iPhone became known as ‘the Jesus phone.’ It was no less than salvation that people wanted from it.
And what we see now is, I believe, the opening of another sigh of great disappointment. Religion, drugs, space travel and digital culture: all of it has let us down. All of it left us disappointed.
It runs deep.
Capitalism promised great leisure and riches. We have been let down.
Politics promised great change. We have been let down.
Look at the fall-out from the Scottish referendum on independence. Look at the young men going to fight with IS. Look at political apathy and the overriding sense of cynicism. We are living in an age of almost universal disappointment.
In the 1580s Montaigne wrote that ‘to philosophise is to learn how to die.’ He could perhaps have written that it was to learn to deal with disappointment. Death, at its core, presents itself as the fundamental disappointment: after all that, is this it? Dust, rising for such a short while, only to return to dust?
The key question of our time is then this: how can we move beyond disappointment? In Montaigne’s terms, is there life after this death? Once we have faced up to the inevitability of our fall back into the earth, how do we then live? It’s to this question of resurrection – this ‘rising again’ – that Getting High turns as it concludes. The book is something of a memoir too in that this journey through religious, hedonistic, technological and political disappointment – and beyond – is a very personal one.
I don’t want to say too much more here – I’ll save your disappointment for when you read the final version – but suffice to say I believe that there is hope. But before that hope there what I believe we must do is get beyond denial. To accept not just that the iPhone 6 is disappointing, but that every other one will be too, and that all of these devices, all of our contrivances, all of our gadgets, all of our grand schemes and plans, all of it is going to let us down, just as certainly as we will be let down on straps into a hole in the ground some day, just as certainly as we will watch others being let down too.
The Apple is rotten; the promise of omniscience and immortality has turned out to be false. So then, how shall we live?