by Tom Hewson


A confession: I’m pretty sure I used the term ‘Kafkaesque’ before I’d read any Kafka. In itself this could count as faintly Kafkaesque in its admission that authenticity and the appearance of authenticity are sometimes interchangeable. So it was ok, then.

When I did read Kafka – first The Trial, then The Castle (which was more of a trial), and then the short stories – I was taken in by an atmosphere that reminded me of a favourite author, Milan Kundera. Kundera’s winding, melancholy critiques of thoughtless tribalism threatened heaviness, but there was always a dry vein of humour nested deep in their crinkled folds. Kafka is funny too, although he seems more focused on the inner world, on reason and logic, justice and will. Both, in any case, are experts in examining what we do when we can’t do anything, like flies in a web.

In Kundera’s The Joke, Ludvik Jahn’s irreverence towards the Communist party slips into a sarcastic postcard sent to his girlfriend, landing him in a forced labour camp. The Trial’s Josef K, meanwhile, is oppressed by a relentless bureaucratic opacity that would seem familiar to any British citizen unlucky enough to have to interact with its modern healthcare system, driving licence agency or local government. There are echoes of what another writer whose -ism preceded them, Karl Marx, called ‘alienation’; the disquieting sense that we hold less control over our lives than we admit.

Great Britain in 2022 certainly felt like a place where extraordinary, baffling, even catastrophic things seemed to happen relatively unchallenged. No, there are no labour camps, no disappearances. We vote, we can protest and strike (although perhaps not as freely for much longer if the current government gets their way). So why do these characters seem to be talking straight to us?

Our webs are subtler, quieter. Not only do they anaesthetise rather than terrorise, but we have proven willing participants in their upkeep; unlike Jahn and K., we actually broadcast our coordinates, intentions and biases to our webmasters in the name of connectivity. Spiders may start by connecting the fencepost with the old broom handle, the garden chair with the greenhouse door, but connectivity is not the goal. Capture is. We are not the spiders – we are the flies.

Yes, there’s something of the technophobe in this line of thought. Luddite, even. But how many true Luddites do we meet today? Perhaps that’s a circular question – I’ve never met anyone without a smartphone because I wouldn’t be able to organise it – but they must be rare. The original Luddites smashed the mechanical looms sent to replace them. Today’s would be forced to sit at them, sewing tapestries of protest.

What might seem technophobia might be better defined as a desire to cordon off a few areas of life. I remember the strange allure of scratch-and-sniff cards as a child, the slightly unnerving packaging-up of an on-demand sensory experience. Their appeal had something to do with the fact that you knew other people were experiencing them, but you didn’t know who, where, or when. Sometimes the sniffs would be paired with TV programmes – look at a banana on the screen, smell a sort-of-banana. ‘Virtual’ meets ‘Real’, hi-tech meets corporeal. The aromas were supposed to offer a rounder, more complete sensory experience, but they just made it weirder, not least because the little cards never smelt like the things they were meant to. The whole idea was an attempt to cross a cognitive divide that didn’t want to be crossed.

Wine promises the same on-demand sensory hit, repeatable and shareable, but it smells and tastes exactly like the thing it is (and sort-of-like the things we say it does). A winemaker in a cellar in Tuscany and a university professor in an apartment building in Singapore can both dive into a bottle of the very stuff itself, perhaps even years apart, on the trail of the very same buzz. Yes, they could watch the same film, or listen to the same piece of music, or open the same can of sardines. The first two are digitised and translated, though, relying on variable equipment to interpret and transmit them. The last, whilst undoubtedly real, is a can of sardines; not, for most, a hedonistic, transcendent or pleasantly-psychoactive experience (let alone one that prompts writers with quiet Januarys to pen articles invoking continental novelists). Is there any other substance that does this?

I was reading Kafka’s short story The Burrow around the same time as the wine-tech startup PIx announced it was all but closing down shop. This strange, claustrophobic piece is written from the point of view of some sort of burrowing creature rattling off an obsessive, even paranoid account of its life’s work, every decision over tunnels, false entrances and defensive strategies agonised over in excruciating detail. At one point, it hears another creature at work, digging nearby. The intrusion proves sickening, incomprehensible, terrifying. Above ground, other presences can be seen, smelt and sized up, defences built, strategies formulated. In familiar earth, though, the sensation of otherness, or even alienation, is much more unsettling.

After Pix’s demise, arguments ensued amongst wine commentators over whether the whole thing was doomed-from-the-start. There were I-told-you-sos, bad blood, appeals to comradeship. The whole thing seemed to stem from that illusion of connectivity created by our online worlds – that, when it comes to the things we do and love, whether teaching, wine, fashion or architecture, we are all in it together. Our #topic unites us.

Digging the same earth, or being trapped in the same web, doesn’t necessarily mean we empathise with one another, though. Being a wine lover doesn’t mean you understand how to sell it (or the people doing the selling). Knowing how to market films doesn’t mean you understand how they’re made. Knowing how to sell a house doesn’t mean you understand how to build one. All this is fine, so long as we retain some perspective on our own perspective, but this is not something the webmasters are interested in fostering.

If wine is often accused of failing to move with the times, then perhaps it’s because many of us treat opening a great bottle as a welcome moment of disconnection from those times. A moment when the scratching stops, when the silk feels a little looser, when the only connection we have might be with people we can’t reach. Yes, the web will always quiver into action, and the making, rating, selling and posting will ripple through the threads. Improvements to all this will eventually be made, by smart people in good faith. The death of Smell-O-Vision, though, was not about the gap between the smell and the screen; it was about the gap between us and the smell. That’s where the fun is. So far, the spiders have not been able to get from one side to the other.

Photo by Gordon Beagley on Unsplash

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