William Gibson goes back to the future: Rory Sutherland makes him a cup of tea

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Rory Sutherland. He is clearly a scholar (of sorts) and a gentleman; and he absolutely excels in his role as the advertising industry’s pre-eminent mouthpiece.

Yes, he has off days. But who doesn’t? For instance, I feel he was unfairly lampooned for stating a while back that there’s no place in the advertising industry for brilliant minds or those with boundless curiosity. (And it was certainly unfair of critics to point out that, in stating this, he may have been reflecting his experience at his own agency, Ogilvy and Mather, which has never, in its long history, been troubled by accusations of intellectual hubris.)

No, he was surely stating the obvious. Advertising (in management or account handling mode) may dress like a consultant, yet it’s never happier than when it’s acting like a trustafarian stoner or a slightly snootered butler in a Wodehousian farce.

Anyway… Sutherland is clearly the industry’s greatest asset. He’s like a dowser, effortlessly channelling its attitudes and insights, its insecurities and its smug satisfactions. But not because he’s typical. Not as such. He’s far too eloquent for a start. Perhaps, though, he’s its Berocca man. He regularly comes up with stuff that others might aspire to – but only on a good day.

But I digress. The confession I’m building towards is the revelation that I was filled with nostalgia when I read his latest Spectator column, thanks not to his evocation of Morphy and Richards and Russell and Hobbs, but because of his use of a witless quote from William Gibson.

Time was, when you could expect to come across it at least once a month. Now, not so much. Here it is, in full: “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Doesn’t look like much now, admittedly, but once upon a time it was a mighty shibboleth.

I’ve written many times about Gibson before, so apologies if I seem to be repeating myself. Your instincts are right: I am.

GibsonGibson is a dreary dystopian and his derivative novels, set in a dysfunctional future, are full of drearily adolescent posturing. He suffers, rather sadly, from toxic self-loathing – and wishes you did too. Yet his mindset (and its wider influence) absolutely encapsulated the intellectual humbug at the rotten core of that disastrous decade known (appropriately enough) as The Noughties.

A decade and more ago, The Wired Generation (named after their house journal, naturally) decided that Gibson was a Chosen One. He had been gifted. He could see into the future. He was a true Prophet. He had possession of what my great-grandmother (a theatrically fey Hebridean of the most self-indulgent sort) would have called “second sight.”

Gibson was not alone in shaping the intellectual climate of the age but he was pre-eminent among those most heinously guilty in helping The Wired Generation get two P-words all muddled up: progress and pessimism.

Despite forecasting a period of prosperity unprecedented in human history, the movers and shakers in this post-dotcom generation fostered attitudes among their acolytes that almost guaranteed a period of prolonged retrenchment. The one we’re still living in now.

Happily, as we move towards a post-internet, post-Google age (one in which the focus will be on genuine rather than ersatz technological development) no-one of any consequence takes Gibson (or his stooges) seriously any more. We’re in an era when The Wired Generation is now being systematically removed from office.

In the Noughties, if someone tipped a little Schmidt* into your life, you were invited (in another of the decade’s more redolent phrases) to “suck it up” – because refusal to do so represented a refusal to face a future that could not be gainsaid (having been authenticated by Gibson); and that, logically, meant that the future could not include you.

Now, when someone threatens to tip a little Schmidt into our lives, we’re far more confident about stating unequivocally that we intend to tip it all back again.

It’s a liberating feeling – and the advertising industry in particular will prosper from this change.

So, yes, the truly refreshing thing about Sutherland’s use of Gibson’s cutesy aphorism was his wider context. Sutherland was actually writing about the joy of the electric kettle.

It is a gem. My only slight reservation is that he has been given slightly misleading advice as regards another P-word: power. As in power equals voltage multiplied by current. And yes, metaphorically speaking, the experience of some American agencies is that they tend to operate on a low voltage: but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have enough crackling intellectual energy to boil a kettle.

* A term that derives its etymological inspiration from a historical figure, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. Schmidt’s hilarious book about how Google is going to make the world a better place was actually written by his sidekick, Smithers. It is available for free from Amazon. Only kidding. It costs £25.

No, it’s Sutherland you get for nothing. Here: http://www.spectator.co.uk/life/the-wiki-man/9105692/rory-sutherland-why-havent-americans-discovered-the-electric-kettle/

(Though it should also be pointed out that you can purchase a year’s subscription to the Spectator print magazine, plus full online and app access from just £1 a week.)

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