In this extract from the introduction to the comedian and writers new collection of his Observer columns, he takes on the scourge of modern life

Lying is probably the inevitable consequence of being able to communicate. Language is an amazing tool, one thats not available to most organisms, but I reckon as soon as you have the power to pass on the truth, its going to occur to you not to. Some of those bee dances and whale calls are almost certainly bullshit.

So I suppose it makes sense that the advent of the most powerful communication technology ever devised the internet and the smartphone should have caused an exponential rise in dishonesty. We should have expected it; we just got distracted by all the hyperbolic chat about the democratisation of truth from people who, if they were being totally honest themselves, would admit that theyre in it primarily for the gadgets.

Im fond of saying that the internet and its smartphone delivery system are a more disastrous human invention than nuclear weapons. And its certainly arguable at this point in history. Though I admit thats largely because theres never been a full-scale nuclear war.

So broadly speaking, if Im right, its good news! One of the many things a full-scale nuclear war would blast away is the arguability of my claim. All of which makes me a sort of doom-mongering optimist. Im saying that maybe there wont ever be a big nuclear war, which leaves the field clear for smartphones to wreak their slightly less dramatic form of havoc in a way that will eclipse the harm done, so far, by nuclear bombs. Hooray!

One of the advantages of nuclear weapons, as disastrous things to invent go, is that they were immediately obviously a disastrous thing to invent. Nobodys going to be fooled for a second into thinking theyre going to democratise anything, except possibly death, which is pretty democratised already.

Conversely, the smartphone/internet combination is in the cigarettes and plastic straws school of disastrous invention. Not because its also tubular neither the internet nor any mobile phones are, to my knowledge, tubular but because it initially seemed harmless and fun. The cancer and scourge-of-marine-life issues only raised their heads later, in stinging rebuke of the initial inventions triviality and superfluousness.

To be fair to smartphones (and I always like to be fair to inanimate objects), they never seemed trivial in the same way as plastic straws. They seemed like theyd be useful. And they are useful. Its very useful to be able to communicate instantly and globally, to be able to find things out, buy things and be entertained by things without having to move, or while moving around doing something else which currently cant be achieved online, such as gardening or attending funerals.

Its extremely useful to be able to do all that. The only fly in the utility ointment is that everyone can do it. Frankly, that spoils it. If you were the only person with smartphone powers able to shop, watch TV, write and receive correspondence, make phone calls, access more data than the Library of Congress wherever you were that would be brilliant. So labour saving! Youd never have to go to work. But when everyone can do it, it effectively means you never leave work if youre lucky enough to be in work, that is, which, if your area of expertise involves shops, restaurants, pubs or any of the old media, youre much less likely to be post-internet. And thats a particularly rough deal because youve also got several extra monthly bills to pay in order to remain a normal citizen: mobile, broadband, cable TV, maybe a bit of Netflix or Amazon Prime, and rental of space in a cloud as well. Well, it all adds to the GDP, I suppose, and conceals the fact that society is coming to bits.

The trouble is that all that paying every month for a new invisible thing that means you can never literally and metaphorically switch off, and which has undermined economic norms that have existed for millennia is the fucking least of it. Its the mere tip of the technological iceberg along which the good ship Life-As-We-Know-It is scraping its hull.

We havent even got to the grooming, the dramatic reversal of the decades-long decline in child abuse, the increasing impossibility of distinguishing truth from lies, the financial degradation of the old-media investigative institutions that used to provide that truth, the bullying, the abuse, the threats of murder and rape, and the incalculable long-term effects of social media, bristling as it is with virtue-signalling, selfies and revenge porn, on all of our brains, particularly those of young people, who have grown up with this technology in its current raw, unregulated form. Plus, people dont keep appointments any more because they can just text and say theyre running late. Its all fucking terrible! Who knows what the ultimate outcome of all this will be but, anecdotally at least, it doesnt look like happiness.

Most insidious of all is the effect on truth. Suddenly it feels so flimsy. My whole view of existence is predicated on the notion that, in the end, the truth will out. Possibly long after the protagonists of any controversy have died, but eventually, and for the eternal knowledge of posterity.

Illustration: David Foldvari/The Observer

Thats how you get taught history at school. Tudor propagandists added a hunched back to Richard IIIs portrait, but we now know he only had scoliosis. The crucial phrase is we now know. But what if the blizzard of words and imagery that the internet generates about everything, often manipulated by malign interest groups, makes the truth impossible ever to discern? Its in that haystack somewhere, but its just one of the pieces of hay. Suddenly the whole of human existence is like an episode of Poirot in which the murder remains unsolved.

And its not just the bare-faced lying that scares me but all the subjectivity. In the online world, which has become such a high percentage of many peoples experience of existence, almost everything we see has been curated for us: the adverts that appear, the political claims that are made, the people we interact with, the products that are suggested to us when we search for something and the news that were told about. Its all been tailored according to what were likely to respond to. No two people see the same thing.

Even the BBC News website is at it. Its taken to asking me if I want to change nation. Considering the Brexit situation, I bloody do. Sadly, the only options are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which is a bit of a samey range if you ask me. But its not really offering to change my nationality; its telling me that it will report stories from where I live, or where Im most interested in, more prominently. I hate that. I just want to look at the BBC News website. I want to see the same one as everyone else, just like I would if Id bought a newspaper in a shop.

I can seek out the subjects I particularly want to find out about by myself. I want to be able to find them, but I dont want them pushed towards me. The level of interest an algorithm thinks Im likely to show in any given news report is not a meaningful gauge of how important it actually is. If I only want to read stories about, say, cricket, Ill go to a cricket website or buy a cricket magazine. I dont want all my news feeds to suddenly start banging on exclusively about cricket because some machine has worked out Im into it, thereby giving me the illusion that the most important global events are all cricket-related.

No wonder we talk about our online echo chambers, where everyone seems to agree with each other and any transgression from a range of approved views is jumped upon and the transgressor shamed. Social media corrals people into interacting solely with those who share their viewpoint more effectively than the court of Versailles in the last days of the Bourbons.

This already dangerous situation is exacerbated by the fact that the only news, adverts or products that each echo chamber will get to see are specifically designed to attract the attention of its members and so inevitably to confirm them in their opinions and prejudices. How else can the censorious and admonitory extreme political correctness of some university campuses coexist in the same world as the unabashed rise of crypto-fascism?

The fact is that, virtually speaking, they dont exist in the same world. There is no unified reality, and that really might be a disaster. Objective truth may always have been unattainable, but that doesnt mean it isnt worth striving for.

If we all just settle into small, mutually ignorant online support groups exchanging comforting half-truths, then civilisation is in for a rough ride. No one will know what is really going on, and working out what is really going on has, for most of history, been humankinds main purpose. Losing that is a high price to pay for being able to order pizza without speaking to anyone.

This is an edited extract from Dishonesty Is the Second-Best Policy, published by Faber (20). To order a copy go to or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.



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