Craving homemade cake... with double decaf mochaccino

October 31, 2003

Locked within David Boyle's Authenticity is an authentically original hypothesis seeking verification. It is as though his great namesake Robert Boyle had said: "I am sure there is a law that relates the pressures and volumes of gases, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is." Authenticity similarly concerns two inter-related phenomena. Boyle argues that in countless ways - from convenience foods to corporate philosophies, from politics to pop music - the world around us is becoming more synthetic - as he would put it, more fake. Consequently many people yearn for things that are more genuine, more authentic. But even though they deplore the synthetic products and processes, they take advantage of them, constantly. They may not like, or approve of, the idea of pre-prepared convenience foods, but the probability is that they use them - and often enjoy them, come to that.

For Boyle, the archetypal emblem of this paradox is the internet. He clearly sees the internet's benefits, but simultaneously believes it disseminates a false reality. Many of us sit glued to our keyboards and screens, emailing, chatting in chat rooms, visiting websites, obtaining helpful and important data at the click of a mouse - yet simultaneously sensing that all this removes us from real humanity and spontaneity. Boyle provides files full of internet activities that are poor surrogates for reality but are used incessantly by all "net heads".

From the start, Boyle bravely admits he finds it difficult to define exactly what he means by authentic, and it is a problem he never resolves.

But he provides many unambiguous examples of those aspects of modern life that have an artificial, unwholesome feel to them; and many more of others that seem altogether more wholesome and honest.

Unfortunately at this point Boyle begins to get his handwoven underwear in a tumble-dried twist. To clarify people's self-contradictory attitudes to things that are unauthentic he invents a series of sub-categories to which he gives names such as Fake Real, and Virtual Real, and Virtual/Fake. Here, his inability to determine exactly what authentic means begins to dog him.

Subdividing a somewhat nebulous concept into several even more nebulous concepts leaves the reader more than a mite muddled.

This is a pity, because Boyle is probably on to something important. As our economies grow more affluent, many people feel themselves increasingly distanced from nature and natural behaviour, and they do not like it.

Numerous studies have now shown that societies do not grow happier as they grow wealthier. As Boyle reports, in the US about half of all executives - by light years the wealthiest executives in history - say their lives are empty and meaningless. On the other hand, they gleefully reap the benefits of economic prosperity and have no intention of relinquishing them.

If economic growth continues at its present rate, with gross domestic products of western countries doubling every 25 years or so, in just 100 years the average person will be 16 times richer than today. As we progress towards this almost unimaginable material wealth, the overflowing cornucopia of goods and services available will, for many people, make their lives seem increasingly unnatural, increasingly ersatz.

It is against this background that Boyle has identified a yearning for traditional things and traditional values combined with an acceptance - nay, an enjoyment - of all the sophisticated benefits of modern life. His attempt to disentangle these contradictory strands does not quite come off.

But it is an authentic, and worthwhile, try.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Royal Institution.

Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life

Author - David Boyle
Publisher - Flamingo
Pages - 315
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 00 714016 9

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