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The Happiness Industry, Seveneves and Confessions of a Tinderella

Myth and mischief-making in fact and fiction

By Mark Diston, Simon Sharwood and Nigel Whitfield, 23 May 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston is joined by Vulture South's own Simon Sharwood and Vulture Central's Nigel Whitfield to pore through the latest from the publishing world. William Davies examines the current political and corporate obsession with wellbeing. Neal Stephenson's latest sci-fi tome adds a satirical spin to saving the world and Ms Lonelyheart Rosy Edwards gives an amusing kiss-and-tell account of her trials and tribulations using the addictive dating app Tinder.

The Happiness Industry

William Davies is an author whose interest in economic psychology originated during the recent global crash, when he was astonished to discover that behavioural economics and neuroscience were being presented as credible explanations for the financial meltdown.

Mr Davies’ book opens at the economic forum at Davos in 2014, where there is a resident Buddhist monk who has been scientifically measured to be happier than we mere mortals. The forum also features lectures entitled: Rewiring the Brain and Health and Wealth. He concludes: “Happiness has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management.”

We proceed onwards with one of my favourite quotes from the eminently quotable Friedrich Nietzsche: “Man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that.” And so we are taken back a couple of centuries to an Englishman who only strove for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” – Jeremy Bentham.

William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

Bentham was not interested in happiness per se, more in its utility, which can be interpreted in any number of ways. The last book I read featuring him was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a kind of reverse and perverse high-brow mirror image of happiness if ever there was one.

William Davies observes that money serves two contradictory functions: to serve as a store of value and as a medium of exchange. His background is in economics, but like the best of them, there is a healthy amount of cynicism and black humour in his writing. “Choice” always seems to refer to something which resembles shopping.”

The Happiness Industry is more or less a history of consumerism since the industrial revolution. It contains many pearls of wisdom such as this from Slavoj Žižek: “Enjoyment has become an even greater duty than to obey the rules.”

The book documents the changing relationship between the producer and consumer and how that relationship has been mediated by advertising: “Psychology is very often how societies avoid looking in the mirror.” It contains a few home truths, such as this old chestnut: “Depression is the inability to construct a viable future for oneself.” There are a few dubious inventions, though I was delighted to hear that the Hedonimeter has finally reached the app store.

The Happiness Industry is full of wise words: “The advice is to stop thinking of oneself – but the justification is ultimately a self centred one.” But the conclusion is a clarion call to pessimistic narcissists everywhere, as highlighted here: “The search for the 'objective' reality of our feelings will keep being dashed.”

This book is refreshingly self-helpless. It doesn’t appear aligned to any particular political viewpoint, it is simply the story of our long retreat up our own metaphysical backsides. It is a history of changing attitudes. For instance, the first market research investigators were physically assaulted for being intrusive.

Yet it doesn’t answer that most nonsensical of questions: “How satisfied are you on a scale of one to five?” Nor does it equate happiness with the contents of a shopping list, except in acute and extreme examples. William Davies has nonetheless produced a thought-provoking and interesting little volume which sheds a little light on one of the greatest of modern myths. MD

 William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being book coverAuthor William Davies
Title The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being
Publisher Verso
Price £16.99 (Hardback), £16 (eBook) – up to 50% off direct from Verso
More info Publication web site

Seveneves

Marissa Mayer, or someone with a very similar CV, has become president of the United States. Women's education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, or someone with a more-or-less identical backstory, has become infatuated with her. From the confines of a hastily-contrived orbital habitat, the pair try to safeguard humanity after a cosmic calamity.

Another character might be Jeff Bezos and/or Elon Musk and decides that a private enterprise contribution is needed to secure humanity's future. But a denialist movement questions the motivations of that effort, a well-meaning technocratic class (of whom a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog is a prominent member) can't muster an emotionally-satisfying response and humanity's challenges start to get mighty tasty.

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves book cover

Welcome to Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, a typically sprawling novel from an author in terrific form.

Stephenson always delights in giving geeky readers geeky protagonists to cheer for. Seveneves gives us geeks in space, with the International Space Station (ISS) as their stage and the real prospect of extinction as their motivation. The cast duly employ networked robots, nuclear rocketry and asteroid mining, all explained in pleasing detail, to move things along.

The pace is fast, the detail rich and as readers are asked to contemplate our place in the cosmos we see humanity at its most spiteful, trivial and counter-productive but also at its most resourceful and ingenious. Those competing qualities orbit each other tightly, tied together like some of the space habitats Stephenson devises. The book's contemplative core and high stakes action are also coupled, but uneasily because the book takes a big risk with a manoeuvre through time that I suspect will cause problems for a lot of readers.

The shift also means a change in cast and location. This creates an interesting structure as the story's middle is told in hindsight, which works surprisingly well. Less effective is a conclusion that (not unusually for Stephenson) relies on small, early plot details re-emerging with new weight. Clever backfill and dazzling technologies should keep readers interested even as they grapple with the big changes in style and approach that comes with the story's pivot, but the transition is still awkward.

Stephenson's last novel, REAMDE, was reportedly an attempt at writing a Brainy Airport Novel in order to broaden his appeal. The novel was enjoyable but the terrestrial setting didn't give Stephenson the chance to explore either physics or metaphysics.

Seveneves gets to ponder both, retains its predecessor's impressive pacing, owes a bit to the films Gravity and Armageddon, nods respectfully to Arthur C Clarke and tips its hat to The Time Traveller. Po Bronson might wish he'd penned the satire, Mark Zuckerberg might wonder about the contribution he's making to humanity.

Appreciators of hard science fiction and those who like their satire intertwined with action should find Seveneves to their liking. Those who like their stories linear and neat may be frustrated and delighted in equal measure. Either way, Seveneves is a dangerous thing for northern hemisphere readers to take on holidays: at 850 pages it'll consume your carry-on and it's enough fun that you can forget a tan. SS

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves book coverAuthor Neal Stephenson
Title Seveneves
Publisher The Borough Press
Price £20 (Hardback), £15 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Confessions of a Tinderella

Tinder, the pocket meat market app, seemed to be everywhere last summer. For those who don't know about it, it's a simple premise. Up flashes a photo of someone who mostly – but not always – matches your search criteria. Swipe left if you don't fancy them. Swipe right if you wouldn't mind a wee go on them. If you both swipe right, Tinder tells you that you've matched, and asks if you want to send them a message or 'keep playing.'

It's base, shallow – and surprisingly good fun. "Would. Wouldn't. Wouldn't. OMG totally would," is a way to pass the time, at least. Confessions of a Tinderella is a book that, tells all about the author's real-life experiences with meeting people using the app, lightly tweaked to protect the ghastly and the lovelorn. I suppose it probably falls under the banner of chick-lit; it's certainly not what you would call an arduous read – I started it on Tuesday afternoon and finished it on Thursday.

In fact, it's really more the story of the author's love life – Tinder doesn't even get a mention until you're 20 per cent into the book – as she moves on from the breakup of a long term relationship to try and find love. The title, really, is more about capturing the zeitgeist. This isn't just the collection of amusing anecdotes about internet dates that the title suggests.

Rosy Edwards, Confessions of a Tinderella book cover

Instead, there's plenty about her unfulfilling day job, helping friends plan their marriages, the smug couples who announce they've been priced out of Clapton. The appearance of the latter prompted me to think "thank goodness; we've got enough of those around here already." An interlude in the countryside with parents, asking them when they knew each other was "the one" feels a bit too much like a handy set-up for some of the concluding parts of the book.

Of course, there are the dates, the men met from Tinder, and the "rules" that Rosy comes up with for using the app. Apparently, if someone's photo is black and white, they're probably ginger. If they're not standing beside anything scaleable, they're short.

The usual Tinder memes get a mention too, like the drugged animals, and winter sports photos. The descriptions of the dates contain some genuinely amusing moments, and some horrific experiences with men too. Those, of course, aren't exclusive to people you meet on the internet.

By the end, I was hoping that she would finally be lucky with one of her dates; perhaps I was warming to her, but more likely I just wanted it to be over. In particular, the author's habit of ordering food and drink she doesn't like rather grated. In the last couple of chapters, Rosy recounts the lessons she's learned about how we're all vulnerable and taking a risk. I'm afraid that rather than her voice, it all felt a bit Jerry Springer at this point.

None of that is to say this is a bad book; it's light and frothy in appropriate places, and perhaps female readers will have more empathy for the author than I – though I certainly recognise some of the types of dysfunctional man she met. And, perhaps if I think about my own late 20s, it's easier to understand. But while the title suggests a high tech twist, it could really have been written about phone dating, speed dating, or any other gimmick that's pandered to the singleton. It is, at heart, Bridget Jones with an iPhone. NW ®

Rosy Edwards, Confessions of a Tinderella book coverAuthor Rosy Edwards
Title Confessions of a Tinderella
Publisher Century
Price £9.99 (Paperback), £4.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

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