Tag Archives: technology

Comics Malcolm Hardee & Martin Soan adrift in an era before the iPhone

MartinSoan_11jan2015

Martin Soan yesterday, with keys to comedy

Martin Soan owns an iPhone and has just replaced his old iMac computer with a new one….

So I was sitting in Martin Soan’s living room yesterday afternoon and he was talking to showman Adam Taffler about the line-up for their 2nd February show at Up The Creek in memory of the 10th anniversary of the death of Malcolm Hardee. Tempus fuckit.

Malcolm was never a great fan of technology. But he used to, in effect, manage Martin’s comedy act The Greatest Show on Legs. In those long-gone days, acts could lose bookings if someone phoned and there was no-one there to answer the phone.

We are talking, here, of an era when everyone had land lines and mobile phones had not yet been invented. This is the story Martin Soan told yesterday:


I told Malcolm: “There’s things I’ve heard about like answer machines.”

He said: “What’s that?”

I said: “They answer your phone for you.”.

“Fuck off!” he says in disbelief.

“I said: “No, no, no. It’s true. Let’s just buy you one, Malcolm, then we’ll know when people have called up.”

So we got this answering machine that cost us something like £120 – something ridiculously expensive. It had a tape cassette which Malcolm kept fucking-up.

Years later, Malcolm gets one of the first mobile phones and we go down to the West Country.

I ask him: “What did you get one of them for?”

“Well,” he said, “you got that answering machine. I’m just trying to get more bookings, so I got a mobile phone, didn’t I? Is there a signal yet?”

We are travelling to the West Country in a car.

I tell him: “No there’s no signal.”

And we travel and travel and it’s No signal. No signal. No signal. And I tell him: “These mobile phone things are ridiculous.”

And he says: “Mart, you’ll have one of these one day.”

And I tell him: “Fuck off! It’s useless!”

So we go on and on in the car and it’s No signal… No signal… No signal… and we’re going through all these little villages on the A303 or whatever.

Eventually, we come into this little village and I tell him: “There’s a bit of a signal here, Malcolm, bit of a signal.” And he pulls up the car:

“Give us the phone!” he says. “Give us the phone!”

And he grabs this mobile phone with its huge aerial and he stands in the middle of this little village trying to get a signal on it…

… and he’s standing next to a telephone box.

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Pretty soon, comedian Martin Soan will not be speaking to me. Lucky him…

Pretty soon, comedian Martin Soan will not be speaking to me. Lucky him, some might say.

Yesterday’s blog about things I cut out of my blogs reminded me of something else I had cut out but still had as an iPhone recording: a chat I had with Martin shortly after one of his several 60th birthday parties.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog in which Martin talked about spirituality.

When he read it, he told me he thought it made him sound like a drunken airhead. I think what he said was very interesting. Okay, he was drunk, but he can still say interesting things when he’s drunk.

He was slightly drunk in this conversation, too, recorded shortly afterwards. If he doesn’t like what is quoted, he can always claim he was drunk. I do not have that excuse.

A brick wall - or it could be anything you want

A brick wall – or maybe it could be anything you want it to be

“I read an article years ago,” I was saying to Martin, “which suggested that, in the future, you’ll be able to manipulate molecules. Everything we see is just molecules. The air, the stone walls, my hand: they’re all just molecules. So, if you can control the molecules, you don’t need to have walls for your house that are permanent brick walls. You can make them of anything you want. You could reconfigure the walls’ structure with the press of a button. You could have leaves or television screens instead of walls and change them in the click of a button if you have access to the right molecular structure.”

“But going back to my previous drunken blog with you,” interrupted Martin, “about spirituality.”

“Much appreciated,” I said.

“Fuck off,” laughed Martin. “Are you ever going to escape Man’s essential… How many millennia are we going to have to live into the future before we pass on to the next stage of evolution? That’s if Man’s even lucky enough to be included in the next stage of evolution. Manipulating molecules is just going along a linear line of technology and invention in such a small speck of evolution.”

I told Martin he should sell this ‘found art’ to Tate Modern

I told Martin he could sell this ‘found art’ to Tate Modern

“I think,” I said, “within a hundred years, we…”

Martin started laughing loudly: “You think you could go down Argos and get it?”

“Within 100 years, we could manipulate molecules,” I said.

“But that,” said Martin, “wouldn’t necessarily mean you had any more understanding, would it?”

“It would mean different ways of living,” I said. “I mean, Shakespeare was only 400 years ago. The Queen Mother lived to over 100. The distance between Shakespeare’s time and now is only the length of four people’s lives.”

“But,” argued Martin, “for several millennia, Man’s been exactly the same.”

“In Shakespeare’s time,” I said, “there were people living in wattle huts.”

“But is that the point?” asked Martin. “To be warm?”

“When I came down to London for the first time when I was a kid,” I said, “you walked along Whitehall or looked at St Pancras Station and there was no detailing on the buildings, because it was all totally caked in black soot and it smelled of soot.

Claude Monet’s view of London at the turn of the 20th century

Claude Monet’s view of London at the turn of the 20th century

“In the thick pea-souper smogs, we got let off school early, the air smelled of sulphur or something and, if you held your arm out in front of you, you couldn’t see your hand. You had to move carefully along the pavements step by step and pray when you crossed a road. If you walk around now, it’s a completely different world.”

“Certain things are better…” admitted Martin.

“Almost everything’s better,” I said.

“Ahhh, John,” said Martin, “I don’t think that’s true.”

“What’s got worse?” I asked. “I read old newspapers when I was researching a TV programme and, in 1780-odd and 1880-odd, you could not walk down Regent Street in the daylight in mid-afternoon without the risk of getting mugged. They were calling out the army every Friday and Saturday night to quell drunken riots in places like Woking. The army! The more the cameras look at us and the more GCHQ hacks into us, the safer it will be.”

There was a long, long pause.

“John…” said Martin. There was another long pause “…John…” he repeated.

“But really,” I said, “Just 400 years ago – which is nothing in time terms – people were living in mud huts in Britain. If you brought someone from 1613 to here, they’d have no idea what was going on.”

“But John,” argued Martin, “you’re just basing the next stage of Man’s evolution on sitting in a warm place with a computer and loads of puddings bought from Marks & Spencer… and without any walls. I don’t think that’s necessarily the next step in Man’s evolution. Molecular-manipulated houses and blogging and Marks & Spencer puddings – that’s your next step in evolution.”

“Yes,” I said. “Wasn’t it the US Agriculture Secretary who got sacked for saying people just want a tight pussy, loose shoes and a warm place to shit? There was some racism involved too but remove the racism and he has a point.”

“Will we live any longer?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” I said.

“But is living longer important?” asked Martin.

“It’s a bad thing living longer,” I agreed.

“I saw this TV programme by Kate Humble,” said Martin, “and she went to this part of Afghanistan where the average life expectancy is 35 years and, of course, their life is fucking hard. But that’s what I think life is. I mean, in Sex and The City, they’re moaning because they haven’t got the right boyfriend and can’t find the right shoes and they’ll live to 90 and they’ll spend the last part after they’re 60 bitter. Wouldn’t it just be better to burn out in glory and respect by the age of 35? It’s better to have a good life than a long life.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “There was that Greek myth about the wife who asked the Gods to give her husband eternal life and, of course, she found out that was the wrong thing to ask for. She actually wanted eternal youth, not eternal life. Eternal life would be appalling.”

“And that American sci-fi series,” said Martin. “The famous episode where there was a third-rate comedian who sold his soul to the Devil. He said I just want everyone to laugh at me all the time and, of course, he went out and someone was stabbed and he got blamed and everyone was laughing at him Oh! That’s so funny, man! and he got sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair and everyone was laughing Hahaha! What a way to go out! Now that’s what I call a funny man!”

“Life’s constantly getting better,” I said.

“Most of the guys who sell me my food,” said Martin, “are orphans from foreign countries.”

Downtown Fallujah, Iraq, 2003 - better than East Glasgow

Fallujah, Iraq, 2003 – more life-enhancing than East Glasgow

Janey Godley,” I said, “had a line in one of her shows that life expectancy in Fallujah, Iraq, is 65… In the East End of Glasgow, it’s 55.”

“Also,” said Martin “there was a line in The Wire – though all these things we quote we don’t know if they’re true – that literacy levels are worse in downtown Baltimore than in central Africa.”

“But centuries ago,” I said, “everywhere was shit. Now some places aren’t shit. I imagine the Central African Republic is as bad as it ever was, but Manhattan isn’t as bad as it was.”

Martin then opened the back window of his living room and pulled a beer from the refrigerator which he keeps outside.

“You leave me alone, John,” he said. “I’m drunk. Leave me alone.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “You got drunk and I got my blog and you’re sitting here accumulating money even as we speak…”

“Accumulating money?” Martin asked.

“The value of your house has probably gone up by £10,000 in the last ten minutes,” I said. “This is Peckham. Things are getting better all the time.”

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How to badly interview a good geek self-help guru, techno-nerd and ‘creatin’

Leila Johnston yesterday – often interrupted

Rule One of interviewing someone. Do not interrupt them with your own ideas.

In December 2011, I wrote a blog asking Leila Johnston what she actually does.

Yesterday, I met her in the main street in Borehamwood and asked her again. The answer seems to be Everything. She is certainly not boring yet, despite this, she is going to be talking at an up-coming Boring Conference about living in Greenock and having IBM posters on her bedroom wall when she was six years old.

Next month, she will be talking about Making Things Fast to BBC Radio staff at Broadcasting House in London… “I’m trying to cast myself as a sort of geek self-help guru,” she tells me. “It’s a kind of modern motivational talk.

“Also in November, I’ll be doing the same talk for a thing called The Monday Club run by someone from The Idler… and I’m hosting a panel of computer art pioneers from the 1960s at the Site Gallery in Sheffield… and I’m doing an investigation into people’s ghostly experiences for Den of Geek‘s Den of Eek night… and I’ve been asked to come up with a data art installation for a wall in an office at Broadcasting House… but, In December, I don’t plan on doing anything except maybe getting a dog for my new semi-rural lifestyle. And sending out lots of pitches, of course. And editing The Literary Platform. And working with a magician and illusionist.”

Leila’s reference to her “new semi-rural lifestyle” is because, just over six months ago, she went up to Sheffield for three months to work on The Happenstance Project which aims to insert people from the world of technology into arts organisations.

“There are three participating art galleries,” she told me yesterday, “and I was put in the one in Sheffield. It was a residency. Like an artist-in-residence.”

“A nerd-in-residence,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Leila laughed. “There was a lot of debate about the word ‘technologist’…”

“Is that what you are?” I asked. “A technologist?”

“Well, that’s part of the way I cast myself, I suppose,” she answered.

“Really, though,” I said, “you’re half-and-half. You’re an arty writer and a nerdy geek.”

“There’s a phrase being used at the moment,” Leila told me. “A ‘creative technologist’. Which is quite a nice thing to be, because it implies you’re given a bit of freedom to invent stuff.”

“Some new word will be created,” I said. “A ‘Creatologist’ maybe, though that makes it sound like you don’t believe in Darwinian evolution.”

“A creatin, perhaps,” laughed Leila. “Maybe I’m a creatin. It’s only in the last year or two that people have accepted there are people like me who can help bring arts into a digital era, because a lot of arts organisations are still working in really archaic, inefficient ways. They don’t really know anything about the possibilities of technology. There’s a whole world of creative tools they don’t really understand.”

“Every art gallery could have the Mona Lisa on their walls,” I suggested.

Leila laughed. “You can’t get very close to the real thing anyway,” she said.

“You could have 3D printed, 18-squillion pixel versions on the walls of different galleries around the world,” I suggested.

“You could recreate the whole Louvre,” said Leila, not exactly convinced.

“Duplicate the Getty Art Collection in Los Angeles around the world,” I suggested.

“Make every art gallery into a sort-of super-villain’s lair,” laughed Leila.

“It could be sponsored,” I suggested. “The walls of every Tesco could be like the Louvre… Capitalism at work.”

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“When I walked round Moscow under Communism,” I said. “It was dull. Lots of posters and banners, but all the same. Art which might have been cutting-edge in 1917 but wasn’t now. Everything had stagnated. It was a literally decadent society. Not colourful. It was all red, white and grey. The buildings were grey; the street art was red-and-white. In medieval times, the Medicis sponsored the best creative artists and they took months or years to make pieces of art which were stuck on one wall in one building forever. Nowadays, in the West, advertising agencies pay the best visual artists and the most creative minds bundles of money to work for them. So, walking round the streets, when you’re waiting for a train in the tube, when you’re watching TV, you’re surrounded by constantly-changing, highly-creative advertising art. It’s like you’re living in a constantly changing art gallery. Capitalism at its best.”

This, you see, is a perfect example of how not to conduct an interview… to give your own opinions instead of finding out the other person’s.

“Mmmm…” said Leila. “Interesting.”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“I don’t think I realised you were managing editor of The Literary Platform,” I said, trying to get back on course.

“Well,” said Leila, “after Happenstance, which was a three-month thing, I decided to stay in Sheffield because I liked it so much and one thing I got involved in was The Literary Platform. It’s a website which showcases projects involving new technology and storytelling. If somebody’s made an amazing iPad app that is somehow interactive and you can tell a story… or there’s something about the future of reading and eBooks… things like that. It’s got a business side and a creative side, but my own posts are all about the creative side. I’m always looking for new projects to showcase and people to feature.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“There’s a guy I’ve just interviewed,” Leila told me, “who is going to (the late Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes’ house for a few days and he’s going to be filmed with a web cam and just write whatever anyone asks him to.”

“Cheques?” I suggested.

“Well,” Leila said, “like Write me some copy for my website… Write me a story about this… People can send in suggestions and he will have to write whatever anyone wants and it’s for charity. Good, but a bit weird. Closing himself off in this house on his own.”

“It’s like he’s trying to be the David Blaine of writing,” I suggested. “What did you study at university?”

“History of Art,” Leila told me. “And then English for my Masters.”

“So you’re writing letters as two Victorian ladies…” I prompted randomly.

“Yes, we’re doing it with SAEs,” Leila explained. “I’ve got two digital receipt printers which are connected to the internet – so they’re like fax machines – and me and my friend Tim, who I write loads of things with, are writing letters to each other as characters called Elspeth and Lottie. They are like Victorian ladies who happen to own these electronic printers and all they write about are their friends who are in long-running 20th century TV shows.”

“And you have written an interactive opera about the Minotaur,” I said, changing the subject. “Minotaur! – The Moosical.”

“It’s quite nerdy,” Leila said. “It’s a rock opera.”

“…as opposed to some fat Italian woman screeching?” I asked.

“Exactly,” agreed Leila. “It’s not an opera at all and some of the songs are quite Elvis/rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s geeky, it’s about hacking, radiation, a big maze, a heartbreaking love story between the Minotaur and Pandora who’s a woman afflicted with a curse of emitting toxic force fields so people can’t get close to her. Then there’s Theseus, who wants to marry Pandora. We’ve written quite a lot of songs and some music because we’re not musicians, but we might do it with puppets.”

“Where might this be put on?” I asked.

“If we can figure out a way of recording and playing the songs, then we might be able to do something at a geeky comedy night.”

“You should put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested, “and stream it on the internet, if you can figure out some way of charging 1p or 2p per view.”

“Have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Leila asked.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s really funny,” said Leila. “The Jason Segal character’s dream is to put on a tragic puppet musical about Dracula using the ‘Count’ character from The Muppets.”

“If you can get the bloke who did the giant puppet for War Horse,” I said, “you could do it at the National Theatre.”

“Somebody I know said he might be able to get it on Radio 3,” Leila said, “but my hit rate with producers is… They tend to get busy on other things or they leave their job…”

“Why are you thinking of radio?” I asked. “As a pilot for a TV show?”

“No,” said Leila, “just to get something made. In itself. Maybe it could lead to something else.”

“You work for a magician,” I said. “Do you want to talk about what you do for him?”

“No,” said Leila.

“Did I tell you I’ve been to North Korea?” I asked.

“Ah…” said Leila.

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Why no-one should ever interview me + I explain the Malcolm Hardee Awards

Hayden Cohen interviews me in the Royal Mile last month

This year, from mid-August to mid-October, the SoundCloud website supported fifteen ‘SoundCloud Fellows’  “on a project of their own design that inspires, engages, and communicates the unique breadth of sound”.

Surprisingly, this included comedian Hayden Cohen chatting to me for eight minutes in the doorway of a shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in mid-August. It was part of a series of interviews called Royal Mile Stories: The Bumpy Road to EdFringe which he has now put online.

He asked me to chat after I had gone to see his Edinburgh Fringe show Age of The Geek. He describes himself as “an arty person obsessed with technology… because technology’s amazing. The idea that it’s limitless. Arthur C Clarke said technology has reached its peak when you don’t know the difference between technology and magic. And someone else said technology has become ubiquitous when you can throw it away in the rubbish bin. Back in the day, radios were seen as WOW! Radios!!! but now people throw them in rubbish skips all the time.”

Anyone who has ever heard me interviewed will know the feeling. The interview was theoretically about the Malcolm Hardee Awards and you can hear the full unedited version here:

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Before “Star Wars” men, I dream of comic Stewart Lee in a tight-fitting suit

Slow traffic yesterday was not as fast as comic Stewart Lee.

I drove up to Edinburgh from London yesterday. It took an hour longer than normal because, between Birmingham and Preston – a distance of 95 miles – the M6 motorway was clogged and we were stopping as often and as unpredictably as the humour in a BBC3 comedy show.

The good news, though, was it took so long that even my non-technical brain realised I could plug my new iPhone into the car’s cigarette lighter socket and, by putting the iPhone in the papier mâché mounting moulded by a friend for my SatNav (after some bastard thieves nicked the original in Greenwich) I could use T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan to listen to the BBC TV News channel while driving up the motorway. To be safe – of course, officer – I only watched the screen when stuck in traffic jams.

I felt as if I had, somehow, dipped a belated toe into what would have seemed a wildly futuristic world to Jules Verne or H.G.Wells.

Which is appropriate, because I am up in Edinburgh to attend a two day event organised by the Guardian newspaper at which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain “how Star Wars, a film rejected by most of the major studios, was put into production by 20th Century Fox and went on to become one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema”.

By coincidence last night, just before I went to bed, I was phoned by the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s sister Clare. She had mis-dialled. When I told her I was in Edinburgh, she asked:

“Oh, are you up there scouting something for the Fringe?”

When I told her why I was up in Edinburgh, she said:

“Oh, me and Steve (her husband) went to Tunisia last month and saw the Star Wars sets there out in the desert… We went out into the Sahara Desert… and it rained!… Isn’t that typical?… It was lovely, though.”

I then went to bed.

For unknown reasons, I woke up several times during the night, which means I remember a dream I had. It involved Malcolm Hardee Award winning, sophisticated and intelligent comedian Stewart Lee (whose TV show was yesterday re-commissioned by BBC2 for another two series).

He was performing at the Hackney Empire in London wearing a suit several times too small for him. (Two days ago, a friend of mine complained that my trousers were too short because she could see my socks.) On stage, he looked like sexually-disgraced American comic Pee-wee Herman.

Stewart’s act involved stuffing rapidly into his mouth several ham sandwiches on brown bread then trying to speak, which simply meant he was spitting and spewing out lots of little pieces of half-eaten brown bread and ham while he told for-him unusually rapid-fire jokes.

I have seen this ‘act’ before but cannot remember who did it.

The ham sandwiches were similar to ones I had eaten on the long drive up to Edinburgh.

This goes some way to explaining the content of the dream, but possibly not far enough for comfort.

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In a future of 3D printing and graphene, nothing is safe from becoming outdated

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Nothing is safe from the future.

You know you have lived too long when you see entire technologies come and go.

I realised that when the fax machine became the trendy new piece of life-changing technology and then mostly disappeared, replaced by e-mails and scanners.

I realised that when I first went into a large department store to see notices that they no longer accepted cheques.

When I was a child, there were two dependable professions, neither of which – it seemed – would ever stop.

One was being a watch repairer and the other was working in a bank.

People – it seemed then – would always need to tell the time and would always need to access their cash over-the-counter in a bank.

But then along came electronic watches and now people check the time on their mobile telephones (as well as taking photographs and videos on their phones).

And along came through-the-wall machines in the high street, then internet banking and now the disappearance of banknotes themselves cannot be far off – to be replaced – it seemed a few years ago – by plastic cards although now – it seems – maybe to be replaced by mobile phones which can be used in conjunction with check-out technology.

Newspapers, magazines, books, hold-in-your-hand recordings of music – all are destined for a future dustbin not too far away.

Nothing is safe from the future.

A few weeks ago, on the BBC News channel’s Click programme I saw a report on 3D scanner/printers.

Today you can put a piece of printed paper into a machine and it can be photocopied exactly.

But the technology also now exists to copy in 3D.

You can put a 3D design into a computer as a file and send it to a machine perhaps on the other side of the world which will create the 3D object.

Technology advances quickly.

What can be done in one simple material today will inevitably be possible in other materials in the future. Say plastic.

OK – that can be done already. And there are various videos of 3D printing on YouTube.

There is talk of a “home-use 3D printer” market. People could use 3D printers to ‘print’ spare parts rather than buy then in shops or order them through the post. They could ‘print’ almost anything in 3D. Obviously there are current problems about machine size and keeping enough raw materials in the home for the ‘printing’, but these problems are not insurmountable in a few decades or less.

So, given that a plastic filing tray is quite a simple object which can be made from one supply of plastic, it would be possible to send a design from Sydney in Australia over the internet and a machine in a home in London would create it. Like a photocopy but in 3D.

If you could design an object that could be made entirely from plastic – say a mobile telephone – you could photocopy that in 3D.

Of course, maybe you could not create such a thing entirely from plastic now, but there is – as the joker lurking in the pack – graphene, billed as the new super material which will change the world.

Invented in Britain at the University of Manchester seven years ago, it conducts electricity and heat.

One of its co-inventors, Professor Konstantin Novoselov, says: “Because it is only one atom thick it is quite transparent — there are not many materials that can conduct electricity which are transparent.’

You could stack three million graphene sheets on top of each other and the pile would be one millimetre high. It is claimed graphene could lead to mobile phones you can roll up and put behind your ear. It is tougher than diamond; it is 200 times stronger than steel; it stretches like rubber but, it is claimed, a sheet of graphene as thin as clingfilm could support the weight of an elephant.

I wonder what military implications this has. A tank built of graphene using the new stealth technology design which merges it invisibly, chameleon-like, into the background? – The realisation of an ‘invisibility cloak’ on an impenetrable vehicle harder than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel?

But it is not too far-fetched to imagine a 3D printer which could print out a new computer, mobile phone or TV set in your living room. Or a new umbrella or hammer or self-assembly coffee table.

The knock-on effect would be startling.

There would be little need for the transportation of parts to factories.

A car could be assembled by a car maker by printing out the parts sent over the internet by the designers of the parts. Indeed, there would be no need to ‘assemble’ a car. You could print it out in a factory on a large machine from a single design file held on a computer anywhere in the world.

The need for road haulage would be decimated – indeed, vast swathes of air, rail and sea transportation would become unnecessary.

And, ultimately, most shops would become unnecessary. If you can transmit inanimate objects and print them out at home, you do not need to transport and retail the items in shops.

People would presumably still require food stores, but not stationers, bookshops (which are already out-dated), DIY stores, electrical shops, toy shops, most shops. Perhaps even clothes stores might become outdated because, in time, it would be possible to print out fabric clothes at home (and adjust the sizes to perfectly fit you).

Yes, there is a problem about homes having machines of a large enough size and storing materials with which to print large objects but, in the 1960s, computers filled entire rooms and had to be tended by many technicians. Now we hold them in the palm of our hand. And they talk to you.

I remember a time before iPhones could speak to you.

Nothing is safe from the future.

And no-one.

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