Me and Michel Chapter Ten

‘In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.’

Yun-men, 9th century Chinese Chan master


There is no doubt any longer.

As I ride, the smell of smoke is quite distinct in the air, the result of the recent fires, particularly around Hostens, an area only fifty kilometres east of where I am today, en route for Biscarrosse Plage.

I thought maybe I could see the fires on the solemn faces of those people shopping in Mimizan this morning, but it was probably my imagination.

I stopped in the town soon after setting off from my campsite on the coast, after spending the night lying on the hard ground, and having firmly decided that I could not do another night without a mattress of some kind, not if I want to survive this trip. Ironically enough, as I arrived, it began to rain, giving the atmosphere a wet smokiness like the day after a bonfire. There was a shower the other day, gone almost as soon as it had arrived, but today is proper rain, mizzle some call it, a sea fret that has come inland to make its presence felt, and for me at least, it is welcome to stay all day.

The town has plenty of shops of all kinds, from supermarkets to tourist outlets, but not a camping store per se. Which means my choice is limited. I can buy an inflatable ‘lilo’ – the kind one sees in swimming pools, playthings for children and adults alike that double up under any weight and would not last a night on the forest floor unless I was to buy a yoga mat, or something similar, to go beneath.

The alternative is a single mattress of the kind one might keep about the house and use as a spare bed when visitors come to stay. I found it in a hardware store after looking up the word in French – matalas d’air. I was fortunate that the assistant in the hardware store only needed the French words I’d rehearsed on the way in to lead me straight to a boxed, deep blue mattress for thirty euros and automatically assumes I will need a pump to go with it. I took both, and made my way back to the bike to try and figure how I would fit this bulky new item in the fancy trailer. After much rearranging, I managed, and felt an enormous sense of relief that when I reach my destination this evening, I can look forward to my first good night’s sleep in forty-eight hours.


The challenge today is ambitious, for me at least; around forty-five kilometres, and the cooler air under overcast skies with the ground and vegetation wet only helps. Any regular cyclist worth their salt would scoff at my rate of progress. But I am not a regular cyclist, and as I keep reminding myself, this is not a race and even if it were, I am competing only with myself.

Besides the copy of Montaigne’s selected Essais, I have a ring bound guidebook that can be folded back on itself to reveal the route of La Velodysée in handy stages, just the right size to slide beneath the plastic map holder atop my handlebar bag, and so easily visible as I ride. Yesterday evening, I took it with me to the campsite restaurant, where I was forced by my budget to eat the cheapest thing on the menu, yet another pizza, though I let caution go hang with a full carafe of cheap white wine, intended as a sleeping draft. As I studied the next stage of my journey, I noticed that the route no longer hugged the coast, but veered east to go around an inland lake marked on the map as Hydrobase de Biscarosse.

There was nothing in my book to explain why I would be making a substantial detour to go around the lake and not follow the coast as I have done until now. I wondered if I was mistaking a road for the cycle path, so I got out the large scale Michelin map I’d brought with me to double check. Even with more detail, to the west of the lake, where the Atlantic lies, the map showed absolutely nothing; just a large patch of green, with beaches but without roads, and as far as I could tell, without cycle paths either. La Velodysée n’existait pas dans cette région, I said out loud, just to test my accent whlst I was safely alone.

I was confused, and I couldn’t resist a quick Internet trawl to find out why I was being forced to deviate, particularly as I had a clear goal in mind for the next day requiring a long ride. There, I came across this heading: DGA Essais de Missiles. The very same word Montaigne’s Essais had coined for the nation here had the literal meaning of ‘tries’ or ‘attempts’, only in this case, the French state had more disturbingly reserved the land to provide a test site to launch strategic and tactical missiles, some with nuclear capability. I read that the authorities had originally closed the region to the public in the nineteen-sixties and it remained closed today, forcing me, and I suppose others, to go around – a minor inconvenience – but one that had an oddly debilitating effect on my mood. Maybe I’m just short of sleep, but with the smell of smoke drifting from the east, and the silent menace of nuclear rockets lurking to the west, my route was taking on the quality of a metaphor for our human capacity to destroy the planet and ourselves. With only a narrow cycle path between, I wanted to register some kind of protest, but there was nothing to do but put my head down and peddle on through the twin threats of this modern day Scylla and Charybdis.


It’s my own fault. I had promised myself a tech break on this trip, and instead I was giving in to the lure of accessing information just because it was so easy. I wish I was stronger. Like the ancient Greek gods, our modern day tech gods – we know their names all to well, and their casual attire masking ruthless ambition – tease us and promise the earth, only to render us increasingly dependent on them. They do so, not to help mankind –whatever the mantras of ‘connectivity’, for which read data harvesting – but to make money and to amuse themselves in the boredom of ‘it can be done, so let’s do it’. With a phone, you are never alone, but you are never with anyone else. With a phone, you may stand in a different part of the world, but you are not travelling, or seeing where you are. You sit in cafés or on trains or planes ignoring the living beings around you, regarding them as strangers with whom you have nothing in common and nothing to learn, whilst the avatars and off the shelf emojis take on the mantel of what’s real and meaningful. The gods don’t care. The gods love to see us chase our tails in search of what we already have. Each other.

Odysseus had his own gods in Zeus and Poseidon and the caprices of Circe or Calypso, but our own version is not so different – the tech wizards who so clearly believe their own bullshit that sending rockets into space, buying land in New Zealand and Alaska to create enclaves that will allow them to survive Armageddon, and signing up for cryogenic preservation, seem to them reasonable and even sensible strategies in pursuit of becoming immortals themselves. There truly is no limit to human vanity and stupidity.

I should also have cited human hypocrisy; to whit a man travelling ‘unplugged,’ aloof from it all, when in my pocket I carry a whole pantheon of these latter day gods of the Internet. Though let me be clear. Tim Berners-Lee is a good god and a modest man who knows the Internet should belong to all. His ‘invention’ is a gift to the whole human race. What a pity it belongs instead to unbridled commerce. And yes, I think ‘Likes’ are juvenile and tweeting is puerile, and don’t get me started on our sanitised lives as seen through Facebook and Instagram, but then I’m old and grumpy. But it feels like we are becoming part of the machine, processing nodes, receiving and sending a never-ending stream of data that threatens to drown us in its white noise. And all we can do to preserve ourselves is to dig deeper channels to divert the flood, build sandbag walls of box sets and computer games to keep our heads above water and feel some control over our lives.

If I sound Luddite, I wear the badge with pride. Led by the mythical ‘King Ludd,’ the nineteenth century movement of skilled textile workers eschewed violence against the person and took out their legitimate frustrations with being made redundant on the machinery replacing them. They were protesting not the machines themselves, but ‘the fraudulent and deceitful manner’ in which the mill owners used mechanisation to drive down wages and produce inferior goods. In response, the owners and the authorities shot and killed the protestors, executed some, and transported others to the colonies. If ever the human race becomes redundant, or the tech billionaires no longer feel the need to farm us like so many sheep, it may well be grey tigers, those of us born to a less technological age, leading the revolution against the march of the machines…should we live that long, naturally.

Epicurus scandalised Greek society when he said there was no need for gods, and that if indeed they existed at all, they were irrelevant to our lives and irrelevant to our fates. Would that he could tell our tech billionaires the same. Would we be scandalised if he did? Did these guys invent themselves and their algorithms, or did we invent them so we could absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own lives? Odysseus knew better than to trust the gods. We should follow his lead. And whilst I’m on a roll, even if it were the case that immortality was an option, any attraction it may have held for me has been eradicated by the thought that I’d have either the tech crowd or the squabbling Greek gods for company.

But hold on, we oldies should be very cautious in claiming things were better, ‘way back when’. We are hardly the first generation to feel nostalgic for a golden past.

Michel looked back to the ancients, we have our own visions – mine is the nineteen-fifties, a time even I am to young to remember, a time I picture with district nurses and local doctors who knew your family history, with public libraries and mutual building societies, with unions and pensions, and a national health service free at the point of delivery for all. It was also a time just a few years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time of rigid class structures and conformity, a time without foreign holidays, unless you were wealthy, and a time when spaghetti and avocados were exotic. Do I romanticise a period I have no direct experience of? I do. Do I regret the passing of an era when a whole range of tacit skills were passed between generations, from baking to sewing, a time when cars could be fixed by their owners and bicycles were everywhere because they made sense? I do. I shouldn’t, but I do. I imagine a life when things were more local, less global, and maybe, just maybe, people were kinder and more connected to each other, in the old sense of caring what happens to your neighbour.

It’s easy to feel a profound sense of loss as the world races onward and us grey tigers are growling less and prowling with a limp. But we should be wary of taking things too personally. Even with the threats of war and pandemic and climate change, we must remember that we are hardly the first generation with reasons to fear Armageddon. Michel had the same apprehensions in the face of the plague and the religious wars, though I doubt the idea that man could actually destroy the planet occurred even to him.

All of which makes me wonder what Michel would make of the doomsday scenario – a future with no need for us at all – that now makes up part of the controversy swirling around AI. If I know him at all, I think it’s likely he wouldn’t panic so much as point out some pretty obvious shortcomings in the technology, like the ability to be funny.

Because AI does not tell jokes, and if ever it does try – they’re working on it right now by all reports – the jokes will not be funny. AI is po-faced, with a tendency to take itself all too seriously, and if I see human beings tempted to follow suit, which I do, more fool us. AI does not think like us, and I’m sure Michel would counsel us to be wary of thinking like a machine. We are not artificial and our intelligence is gathered through our senses, through being alive. You need a body for that, not a network.

He might cite a reference – he loves his references – and choose Stanley Kubrick’s prescient masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He might say that the nearest AI has got to being funny is Hal, the fictional artificial intelligence with a malevolent streak and one big eye, like the Cyclops in The Odyssey. He might remind us that it’s a joke that allows Odysseus to escape the monster’s clutches. When asked his name, Odysseus replies, ‘I am nobody,’ and when the Cyclops calls out for help and his mates come running to ask who is causing him such pain, what can he say but ‘nobody’?

He would almost certainly put the debate in context, because the challenges we face are not new. The world’s history is littered with versions of Armageddon and salvation. He’d probably point out that the threat of AI to our future wellbeing is less a malevolent Hal, or a lethal cyborg like Arnie, and more human ‘bad actors’ manipulating the machines and weaponising our dependence on them. He might say we have choices, but to choose well we must learn to think well. In a word, we must strive to be wise. And where would he suggest we go to find that wisdom?

Bring on another reference, ironically from the title of a sci-fi movie. We could think about going back to the future, because the answer may lie in remembering all we once knew but have forgotten, all the tacit knowledge that once passed down through generations, like my grandfather showing me how to repair a puncture. We could engage by doing, and so reconnect with the physical world. We could learn, or relearn, to accept failure, and not knowing as an essential part of our being. We could trust our intuition, as traditional cultures did as a matter of course, using their whole intelligence and their awareness of the natural world to understand complex issues beyond rational thought.

And being Michel, he would want to put the counterargument. He might say that if we can get humanity to think well, we can get AI to do the same and so ameliorate the very real dangers that lie ahead. We may even find significant positives are part of the deal. Climate change is so intractable a problem we may need AI to help manage the world.

And who knows, in the future there may well be more time for leisure, and perhaps we’ll learn to use that time well, to go slow, to pay attention, to reconnect in communities, to contemplate and celebrate the miracle of being fully human, just as our ancestors once did. Perhaps it’s time to value our illogical, creative, intuitive minds, and our ability to put together disparate ideas and unconnected frames of reference, things that just happen to be the building blocks of a good joke.

D’accord Michel?