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In our push-button world of instant results and comfort, lack of control is the bogeyman
05-05-2009, 04:58 AM,
In our push-button world of instant results and comfort, lack of control is the bogeyman

In our push-button world of instant results and comfort, lack of control is the bogeyman

* Charlie Brooker

I can still remember the precise moment when I finally realised what a chronic control freak I am. It was a Wednesday, and I was calmly designing the uniforms for my proposed global Reich on a computer, but the mouse wouldn't work properly, so I stood up and repeatedly smacked it against the wall like a tiny plastic coconut, screaming insults at God, decrying his intolerable insubordination and telling him he was fired. And a shard of shattered mouse hit me in the eye and set me blinking uncontrollably. I didn't like that. I don't like "uncontrollably".

Lack of control is the core unifying characteristic of all the things I'm afraid of. Air travel spooks me. Why?

Because I'm not in control of the aircraft. Yes, cars are more dangerous, but if I imagine a car crash, at the back of my mind I can also picture myself opening the passenger door and leaping out, or grabbing the wheel at the last minute. It may be unrealistic, but it's not entirely outside the realms of possibility. What can I do on a stalling plane? Wish all the atoms in the ground away?

My long-standing phobias stem from a lack of control. My jitter-inducing emetophobia - fear of vomiting, thanks - stems from a terror of the stomach suddenly going freelance and ejecting its contents while I'm trying to impress someone over dinner. Arachnophobia - well, spiders run in crazy patterns, don't they? Often towards you. And you can't tell what they're thinking because their faces are so small. Thus they're unpredictable. Thus, to my mind, dangerous.

I have a niggling fear of heights, or more specifically, a niggling fear of hurling myself off one. A paranoid voice whispers that, hey, you might inexplicably go crazy and lob yourself over the ledge for a short-lived maniacal chuckle. Lack of control, once again, is the bogeyman.

Recently I've been away from this column because my arm started doing things beyond my control. It ached. Then it hurt. It grew weak. It tingled up and down, as though de-materialising in an old episode of Star Trek. Some of its fingers went numb. Naturally I Googled these symptoms and discovered that, as far as Doctor Internet was concerned, I was nine seconds from death. I grew dizzy with fear. No control over my fate, see. Turns out it's a herniated disc in my neck pressing against a nerve. It'll heal slowly but surely. And if it gets worse, well, there's stuff they can do. The continual discomfort is infuriating, but not the end of the world.

Anyway, as part of the diagnostic process, I underwent several exotic tests - partly to rule out more sinister conditions, but mainly to gather more info on what was happening. One was a nerve conduction study, which basically involves passing an electric current through sections of your arm, hands, and wrist to measure what happens. It doesn't hurt, but it's super-creepy, because your fingers start doing things beyond your control. As a sort of finale, the doctor made my entire arm jump around of its own accord, like a wet fish flapping on a deck. No pain at all, but boy did it give me an existential shudder. Because I, like every one of us, in this push-button, automated world of instant results and comfort, have grown accustomed to the illusion of total control. And here was that control stripped clean away from me.

Sadly, our magic controllable world is an illusion bearing little relation to the one we actually inhabit, where bad things sometimes occur for no reason. But rather than come to terms with it, we stubbornly refuse to accept the entire concept of risk, hence our neurotic hunt for the nearest scapegoat the moment anything goes wrong - or even looks as if it might.

Having just finished a TV series that spent most of its time debunking news broadcasts, I've been swamped with emails and Tweets saying, "Ha ha - the news is really overdoing it on this whole swine flu thing, eh?" There's a slightly hopeful tone to the queries, as though I'm going to tell them everything's going to be OK. But it's not that simple. Yes, we've seen bold headlines and chest-thumping graphics, but pandemic flu could turn out to be a serious threat, even if the symptoms seem mild at the time of writing. Sars and bird flu may have failed (so far) to become pandemics, but only because health professionals took the threat seriously. This here swine flu might mutate. It might grow fangs for all I know. It's beyond our control. Hence the fear.

Blind fear is counter-productive, but so is blind denial. As with anything potentially risky, it's best to know what to do in advance, in case swine flu turns nasty - just as it's prudent to memorise the number 999 in case someone breaks into your house in the dead of night. There are aspects of any outbreak we can influence, if not entirely control. Chortle about growing trotters and a curly tail all you like, Captain Irony, but it might be a good idea to, y'know, actually follow the medical advice by carrying tissues and developing a fairly studious hand-washing routine.

Oh, and that's proper 20-second hot-water-and-soap hand-washing, not that feeble imitation 99% of people in public toilets perform, where they run a tap and waggle their hands vaguely near it for three seconds. You can catch this virus by touching, say, an infected doorhandle, then absent-mindedly wiping your eye five minutes later. Did you get the puking bug last year? That's probably how you caught that too. An inch more vigilance wouldn't hurt, Bobby Chuckles.

That's all for today. Now wash your hands.

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