Rant: Extracting life’s spontaneity? There's an app for that
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Rant: Extracting life’s spontaneity? There's an app for that

I spent one Friday evening last month getting merrily drunk at a beer festival. Dozens of hastily-assembled temporary bars, lots of kegs, a plethora of beards and a suffusion of wonderful taste-related adjectives. After a hard week spent slaving over a hot keyboard, it was a great place to relax and wind down.

I was keen to jump in and start sampling the wares, but my two companions advised a more strategic approach. At first I thought this was a minor personality difference. I'm the type of person who rarely looks before he leaps, or indeed after, so it's not hard to be more careful than I am.

But it soon dawned that this wasn't just caution on their part. It was fear of, or at least aversion to, the unknown. Our first few beers were only selected after 10 minutes spent analysing online reviews and scores via numerous beer-related smartphone apps. In the name of friendship I submitted to this comprehensive research process.

My first drink looked like a camel had relieved itself after a long walk through the desert, only cloudier. It tasted as good as it looked, but my companions were satisfied with their choice.

(Tap tap tap, pause, read, scroll, swipe). "Ah yes, I can really taste the smoke in this one. Can you taste it too?"

"Erm... well... yes," I lied politely, then poured my glass into a large plant pot while they were looking the other way. It wasn't a healthy looking plant, so I felt no guilt.

Later on I spotted a two-keg operation proclaiming its wares, including a beer with a Carry On-style innuendo name that could only appeal to drunk people and idiots. A winning marketing move on the part of that brewery this, since by then I was in both categories.

"Shall we try that one? It's got a great name and there are lemons in it. Or maybe melons." I suggested, leaning against a large concrete pillar to prevent it falling over as the room softly tilted.

"No, wait a minute, let's check the reviews," came the reply. "Oh, it's only got four stars out of five and is 'a bit hoppy'. Let's try this other one that's got five stars instead."

No degree of freedom was permitted. We moved unsteadily from one small bar to another, sampling half-glasses of all manner of orangey-brown brew, but nothing below a 4.8 as judged by numbers on my companions' screens. Numbers that came from who knows who, where or what, but numbers that must be obeyed. They spent more time tapping away at their oversized phones than drinking.

Oh yes, sorry… the point. Where's the surprise? Where's the spontaneity? Where's the luck, good and bad?

Gone is the discovery of that random gem of a drink, overlooked by everyone else but satisfying your own unique taste buds perfectly.

Gone is the pleasure of finding a friendly little B&B hidden away in the hills just as night falls after a long day's drive.

Gone is the surprising thrill of buying a best-selling novel by an award-winning modern author and finding it's not pretentious, florid, navel-gazing rubbish.

Gone is the amusement value (admittedly only after a few years have gone by) of telling the story of that awful meal you had in Belgium, where the 'vegetarian option' meant the chef emerging from the kitchen to scoop the pieces of chicken out of your soup with his fingers before shrugging and walking away.

Gone is the pleasure of dining on the beach with the family who owned the little taverna, and were about to close until you came along but your kids were nice to them so they stayed open a bit longer just for you, and kept bringing out drinks that they refused to let you pay for.

What chance do any of us have today of doing anything or going anywhere that someone hasn't gone or done before, and performed the equivalent of cocking their leg against a wall while scrawling "3 out of 5, a disappointment" in fat marker pen?

Is this the new pioneering spirit? First person to reach the North Pole or climb Everest? Pah, that's nothing. Who will be the first to write a sneering online review of that new tapas place on the high street?

I don't want to only do what other people tell me is good. I don't necessarily want to avoid what other people tell me is bad. That just narrows my choices, all of our choices, until eventually we're all reading the same books, eating the same food and going to the same places.

Reviews are subjective, whether for beer, hotels, service, people, anything. When I ran an IT reviews website I made sure that that was part of the Ts&Cs: a review is an opinion, nothing more. It can guide you, but don't let it rule your decisions.

Out of sheer rebellion, and not at all because I'd forgotten where and who I was, at the end of the beer festival I sampled the melony/lemony beer with the puerile name anyway. It was foul.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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