BOOKS: The retrieval of reality

BOOKS: The retrieval of reality - Authenticity; By David Boyle; Flamingo pounds 12.99; MT price pounds 11.99.

by Tom Bentley, director of Demos, an independent think tank basedin London
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Authenticity; By David Boyle; Flamingo pounds 12.99; MT price pounds 11.99.

Consumerism has undermined collective institutions that once gave us our bearings. Tom Bentley reads a book that offers new leads.

Ever since Coca-Cola pronounced itself 'The real thing!', a pitched battle has been going on among most retailers to convince people that they offer the genuine article. Politicians have a similar problem.

David Boyle's engaging book, subtitled Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, starts with a visit to the artificial Ocean Dome in Myazaki, Japan. This giant bubble contains 13,500 tons of water, lapping enough synthetic beach to accommodate 10,000 people. Boyle feels something may be amiss, as it is built only yards from the Pacific coast. He contends that the everyday struggle to define and experience 'authenticity' is becoming a central characteristic of our age, and that studying this struggle offers clues about the shape of things to come in business, politics, communities and families.

A book beginning here could easily be another polemic against consumer capitalism, superficial politics and the influence of a cynical media.

Though Boyle criticises all three, his argument is subtler than bestselling broadsides like Naomi Klein's No Logo or Michael Moore's Stupid White Men.

While the virtual and the artificial are already defining features of our societies, and most of us would not be without the convenience and escapism of internet banking, computer games and fast food, we are increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that this kind of experience is all there is.

The hype and hope of the 1990s, when stock markets and house prices rocketed and the e-revolution promised to transform our lives, have given way to a more anxious time.

But Boyle suggests there are signs of a resurgence in authentic experiences and lifestyles, from farmers' markets to downshifting, adventure holidays to street festivals, poems on the Underground to civic activism.

The guts of the argument are that we need to find a new set of relationships between democracy, individualism and capitalism. The peace and prosperity of the past 50 years in western societies has fuelled a demand for personalised lifestyles on a mass scale. Products and experiences that would once have been regarded as limited to specific times, places and cultures are now open to mass participation. Home ownership, world music and back-packing holidays are examples.

But the dominance of personal choice has helped to undermine many of the collective institutions that used to guide our sense of what is real and what really matters. The problem with mass demand for authentic experiences is that the fact of participation itself helps to transform their nature, and to destroy the hierarchies of taste and value that have been used to arbitrate between different choices. The irony of democratising taste is that it makes it virtually impossible to define 'reality' in an objective way. The resulting addiction to post-modern irony and detachment is what Boyle claims we are increasingly reacting against.

His real target is the idea that this latent desire to define ourselves is exploited by external forces that are not quite what they seem. 'We are all living real lives with the constant but indefinable sense that we are being controlled and directed,' he claims. Rather than seeing this as a conspiracy, he probes the myths and assumptions of modernity: the idea that artificial standardisation can improve on irregular nature, the belief that technology can give us mastery over ourselves, and that the individual is sovereign in isolation from his or her social context.

Boyle advocates an approach to 'progress' that emphasises learning, human-scale relationships and a richer quality of life. The book feels like an exploration rather than a programme for change, but its wide range, well-written examples and lively style offer something for us all. I think he's on to something. This is a book to be read on the beach and in the boardroom.

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