As Smiling Jack put it in Jim Dodge's novel Stone Junction, “Outlaws only do wrong when they feel it's right; criminals only feel right when they're doing wrong.” With that in mind, I suppose anyone seen as attempting to resist the growing catalogue of morally and politically pernicious influences attacking our every personal whim, can and probably will be considered an outlaw. If you drive a car, smoke, do your own tax returns, or are foolish enough to carry a table leg down the street in the presence of armed police, chances are you're probably an outlaw already. And even if you're not, you can bet you will be soon.
With the prevailing view that the universe is a machine rather than a thought, plausible deniability and a plethora of mitigating circumstances increasingly manage to allow real criminals to beat around the Bush with impunity. What used to be morally dismissed as a feeble excuse now passes without question as a legitimate defence. Rice is no longer nice and the Blair witch trials are visibly looming on the horizon. For example, even though medical studies have now admitted that air pollution and car emissions contribute to cardiovascular problems and cancer in a similar fashion to smoking, there doesn't seem to be any interest in banning cars by 2007. The discovery of a ‘god gene' that, it is said, makes some people more susceptible to religious fervour and spiritual belief, now offers an interesting mitigating circumstance for both moral certitude and fanaticism. Similarly, the recently identified gene that reportedly makes women more likely then men to have affairs offers another great alibi to a well-stocked arsenal that already considers PMT a legitimate excuse for just about anything. So, if you want to play, you better keep up.
Some years ago I knew a professional actor who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, worked his way up through rep, and did all the usual things that the profession used to require. He was never a great success, but he was a dedicated craftsman who took his profession seriously. One of the things that used to really wind him up was the attitude of a lot of people who took themselves too seriously in amateur dramatics. Why, he posited, did, say, a doctor think it was perfectly OK to get up on stage and pretend to be an actor, with no real training or skill, when the same doctor would have been totally appalled if an actor walked into his surgery one day and decided he wanted to play doctor for a while? I used to get particularly annoyed with those adverts you see in newspapers and magazines screaming “Be a writer… earn extra cash in your spare time!”. The implication is simply that certain creative talents and professions aren't as important and legitimate as others and that anyone can dabble in them at will and be perfectly successful. Even my father used to say that any idiot could write a book. But then again, considering the fact that I've written several and that Jeffrey Archer has made a fortune doing the same, perhaps he had a point.
Don't get me wrong – creativity on any level is to be encouraged. But degrees of expertise, craftsmanship and professionalism need to be respected and there needs to be an understanding of the difference between an anecdotal and informed position. Wanting to be famous for being famous isn't a legitimate defence for a true outlaw. And believing things like, say, “Pam Ayers and Wallace Stevens are both poets” is just plain criminal.
Apple is a computer company that evolved a bold position in the music industry with the iPod and iTunes through an informed position supported by craftsmanship, expertise, innovation and professionalism. While it may occasionally display outlaw tendencies, at no time, despite the name, has Apple seriously entertained the idea of selling fruit, produce, meat or groceries. However, Tesco, which has an established record as a skilled retailer of fruit, produce, meat and groceries, has decided that it's going to launch itself into the world of digital music with an online download service designed to take on and crush Apple's iTunes. And while, I'm sure in some twisted way, the powers down at Tesco central probably feel right, they've further established their criminal credentials by picking their technology from the evil empire in Redmond which means that owners of Apple's iPod will not be able to buy, download or listen to music from Tesco.com.
The flip-side of this means that the 13 digital-music players Tesco is selling through its Web site from companies such as iRivers and Creative will also be unable to download music from iTunes. Can we see a pattern here? Since Microsoft has always adhered to the VHS/Betamax principle, which proves that the best technology isn't always the most successful, you can bet Uncle Bill has more than just his shopping delivered from Tesco – and unquestionably feels right about it.
If we were talking about poetry, Tesco would definitely be going for the Pam Ayers market. It's selling devices that are cheaper than the iPods and it claims, as one might expect, to be digitizing music at a higher standard than some of the competing services. Offering shoppers a choice of more than 500,000 tracks at a flat rate of 79p each, its pitching directly at iTunes. And its network remembers what individual customers have bought in the past and can provide a free download of their catalogue if they lose their it.
Choice is a funny thing. It works properly only if it's informed. While there are dozens of reasons why music lovers should choose an iPod and iTunes over Tesco's offering, the only words that come to mind at the moment are ‘horse' and ‘water'. In a world where everyone wants to be a winner and feel good about themselves whether they know who or what that self is, it's hard to get the message across that some things are simply better than others… despite plausible excuses and defence. Recognizing the difference between outlaws and criminals is an important skill and for the moment I'm convinced that the rumours that Apple is planning to open a chain of greengrocers and pie-shops is totally unfounded. But then again, as Smiling Jack also said, “Even the bold get nervous”. MW