Empty your pockets

Whenever I'm at the beach and see a fit young guy in his 20s or 30s, shirt off, not one tattoo visible, I think to myself - "now there is an individual".

It's been written hundreds of times in recent years but it bears repeating that the rebellious undercurrent of getting inked has all but been swamped by the tedious tide of conformity. i.e. You now attract more attention with your shirt off if you don't have you dead cousin's birthdate scrawled across your back.

Then again, the generational mantra of "I'm an individual" is nothing new: what was once a ponytail is now a Ned Kelly beard, flairs and wedges and have been replaced by skinny jeans and wedges. The "Death or Glory" tattoo on your bicep replaced by a sleeve of the things (or your other dead cousin's birthdate on your wrist).

The irony of the rise of the cult of the individual is that it was birthed by the age of mass-production, when post-war, over-tooled manufacturers could suddenly appeal to singular tastes with product runs in 23 different styles, textures and flavours. 

They were, of course, abetted by marketers and advertisers who convinced entire countries you really could be an individual if you smoked Kools, drove a VW Beetle and drank carbonated caffeine.

Anyway, so I can stay up-to-date on this sort of stuff, I've recently been enjoying the 1978 BBC series Connections, written and hosted by science historian James Burke. 

At its heart Connections examines the saying "we all stand on the shoulders of giants". It studies the vast web of influences and innovations that have birthed modern technology, thought, religion, science, weaponry ... the list goes on.

Burke's major contention is no matter how magical you think your microwave oven, heated dunny seat or iPad is, it's actually the result of dozens, if not hundreds of incremental technological advances over centuries or millennia.

In a more recent internet-based project, Burke has tried to illustrate this intellectual symbiosis with his Knowledge Web, an attempt to show how even the most complex of scientific inventions owe much of their existence to sometimes ancient, obscure discoveries.

Burke thus takes us on a journey from how Notre Dame Cathedral led us to chewing gum, Mozart was part of a chain of knowledge that produced the helicopter, Goethe got us to margarine.

Connections the TV show is a far earlier attempt to do the same and in its first series (episode 5, titled 'The Wheel of Fortune') it sketches the ascent of mechanisation, from astronomy, to clocks, to pendulums, the metallurgy behind springs, then screws, to production lines that now make everything from underpants, cars and chocolate cookies.

Back in 1978, Burke made the prescient observation that: "America is a democracy of common possession and the rest of the world is going that way, too.

"We work together, we holiday together, we sit in traffic together, we wear the same clothes, we live in the same house, we drive the same car, we have the same ambitions."

Amongst all this consumerist consensus and conformity, he asks, "what happens to individuality?"

"Oh sure, superficially it's there," says Burke, "my car is a different colour from yours, I watch a different television program than you do. But empty your pockets and see what you get," he says.

I'll update Burke's list for you and guess you'll pull out a mobile phone, cash card, keys, money, perhaps a lighter, a pen.

"The paraphernalia of people's private lives," says Burke, "but is there one object here that thousands, if not millions of people do not own, all of it made by machines, not one object uniquely, individually me.

"And if I'm not here, where am I?"

What's it got in its pocketses?

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