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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Jun-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 835

Driving with Jeeves on a push and pull path

Elizabeth Farrelly

OK, I admit it. I talk to my GPS. It’s innocent enough, and if anyone sees me, they just think I’m having a hands-free with my priest, whatever. I call him Jeeves, my GPS, or James. Sometimes Jeremy. He’s fine with that.

He – for he is definitely male – has a west-of-centre American accent with a slight Max Headroom twang. (Remember M-M-M-Max? The artificial intelligence guy? Check him out). Somehow the J-J-J-J-names seem to suit Jeeves’s peculiar mix of hauteur and obsequiousness. And it’s not just talk. When Jeeves is turned on and lit up there is a definite feeling of affection. Love, even.

For the GPS is not just a map. In fact, in most ways it’s not a map at all. What it doesn’t offer is a big picture for you to stumble through at will. It’s not a Global Understanding System. A GUS. Hardly.

The GPS feeds you information, yes, but strictly on a need-to-know basis: “In 200 metres turn right, turn right.” It gives you what you need, when you need it – the mushroom treatment.

And yet you love the little guy. You feel grateful for the guidance yet warmed by the attention. And, let’s face it, by the unflaggingly good-natured obedience. Like when you do the wrong thing and Jeeves, with infinite patience, just goes: “rerouting, rerouting” (pronounced, re-rowding). And does it. No dummy-spit.

I mean, isn’t that the perfect spouse? “Darling, I’m having a relationship with someone else.” “Rerouting, rerouting.” “With my GPS, in fact.” “Rerouting.”

Doubters may point out that the GPS is strictly limited in scope (no jokes, no adventures, no poetry beyond the DIY sort). Also that the GPS is yet another aid to de-education, a proxy brain that builds no neurons and leaves no mental residue (a cognitive map, for example). It is, in fact, an example of what is known as pull culture.

Analysts divide culture into push and pull. Push culture is, broadly speaking, traditional; culture that is given. Novels and plays, footy, film festivals and free-to-air telly. Pull, on the other hand, is culture you choose; culture you invite into your life and head. Examples include digital TV, the blogosphere, virtual reality games and networked novels where cyber-readers contribute plot moves.

In the abstract, it’s a reasonably clear supply-side versus demand-side kind of distinction. A push economy anticipates consumer demand, then satisfies it. A pull economy, by contrast, is flexible and responsive, using networking technologies and open platforms to customise services to needs in an “on-the-fly” process.

Push culture is therefore seen as old-fashioned, aggressive and macho, while pull culture – trained to give you what you want – is responsive, submissive and (to that extent) feminine. Hmmm. It’s also the thing of the future.

This shift, analogous to the 1990s move from industrial to service economy, may be consumerism’s next developmental stage. But is it true? Is pull really a new paradigm? Is the difference that great? That clear?

There are power issues here. Traditional culture presumes all consumers passive, or “female”; pull culture makes the consumer powerful, active, “male”. Of course, in culture as in gender, reality is murkier. There’s an element of pull just in deciding to go to the theatre, or the match. But pull is essentially choice. And it is the guiding presumption of our time, from gene-splicing to consumer politics: you can’t have too much choice.

But is it really what we want? Just as feminism must now wonder do women really want males docile, consumers must decide, do we really want to shape our own plays and novels? Or is it more exciting – because it is more real – not to have control? Would you watch State of Origin if you could choose the outcome? Or is it paradoxically more fun to submit to the “fate” that is the author’s mind?

This affects universities, where the transformation of students into customers forces tutors, as content-providers, into approval-seeking behaviours, shaping content to what the kids want to hear. Where students who are regularly required to frame, then answer, their own essay questions, suffer the same paralysis of over-choice familiar to any buyer of, say, shampoo.

Ditto libraries, where the fashion for virtuality, and the sheer cost-effectiveness of keeping books hidden rather than on shelves, means the reader must know in advance exactly what she wants to read.

Pull culture, in Maximilian choice, is usually seen as fast, fluid and risky – the sprightly young hare compared with push culture’s safe old tortoise. But is there a point beyond which increasing your pull actually decreases your risk of exposure to anything you can’t already imagine? Much, even most, learning comes through chance. Through discovering books you didn’t know existed, confronting questions you didn’t think askable, weeping over a bit of Tolstoy or Dickens you’d have replotted if you could. These are our appointments with necessity. We re-route at our peril.


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