NSFW: Playing catch-up… Or ceci n'est pas une column

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When I was at school, I almost never took sick days. This wasn’t because I enjoyed going to school – I really, really didn’t. Rather it was because I knew exactly what would happen if I dared to skip even a day of classes.

A duck would somehow get into the school dining hall.

Or an explosion would destroy the chemistry lab.

Or two of my teachers would be caught having sex.

Or someone would die.

The specific incident isn’t important; the point is that I could guarantee that the one day I decided to skip school would be the day that something extraordinary would happen. Something that all of my friends would be talking about for the rest of the year while I was left to sit and sulk at having missed out.

It’s a curse that has followed me through life: I could go to parties six days a week and you can be sure that the seventh is the one where the knife fight happens. The conference I skip is the only one where the wifi doesn’t suck ass. The episode of Quantum Leap I miss is the one where Sam Beckett briefly makes it back home. And so apparently it is with my gig at TechCrunch.

Regular readers may have noticed that I didn’t file a column last week. This was because for the past ten days or so I’ve been completely out of circulation: racing to finally submit the very, very delayed manuscript for my new book. I finally dragged myself over the finish line on Tuesday and since then I’ve basically been recovering: catching up on things like sleeping, eating and experiencing daylight. During that time I’ve barely glanced at the Internet – or at least not at any technology news. All hell could have broken loose in the past few days and I wouldn’t have had a clue.

And so, of course, it did. Knowing that I was out of action for a few days, the tech world took the opportunity to go absolutely ape-shit mental.

It’s as if every kooky, ridiculous or hilarious story – the stuff of which columnists’ wet dreams are made – waited until I closed Techmeme for the last time ten days ago before it broke. The last piece of news I saw before I disconnected was the launch of Google Buzz. “Meh,” I thought, “if that the best this week has to offer, I can definitely take some time off.”

I mean, at a push, I might have been able to churn out a column about how desperate Google’s new product launches have started to look. How they have started to look like an over-keen salesman at a Turkish Bazaar. “You don’t like Wave? Ok, ok, wait Sir, I have this.. you like Buzz? I do you good price.”

But the precise moment I shut down my browser, the whole thing went to shit: it turned out that, unless you chose otherwise, Buzz would automatically display the names of the people you emailed most frequently.

I mean – come on. This is Google – a company that sparked an international incident recently when it accused China of hacking its Gmail service to identify dissidents – and now it’s actively doing the spies’ work for them? 1300 words would have flowed like water as I speculated whether Google is trying to prove to China that anything communism can do, capitalism can do better. You want to expose a few dissidents? Fuck that – we’ll expose all of them.

And why stop there? You only wanted us to remove photos of tanks in Tienanmen Square from image search. Pah! We’re going to remove all pictures of tanks, and all squares. In fact we’re going to delete anything that’s even in the shape of a square. See you later, Spongebob! Take that, Commies!

A few days later, Apple took up the ‘you have got to be kidding me’ mantle by banning thousands of apps which contained even mild sexual content. Had I written a column about that, I’d probably have taken the controversial position that, actually, I agree with Apple: sexy apps should have been banned a long time ago. Not for their sexual content, you understand, but because they’re all really, really crappy.

I mean, seriously, who would pay a dollar for a few photos of women in bikinis when you could just open Safari and have access to billions of photos of women without bikinis – for free! Hell, I could have fallen back on the old columnist’s standby of quoting Bill Hicks on how easily sex sells in America…

“Will there be titties?’
‘Uh… sure?’
BOOM! A check falls in my lap.
‘What are these titties gonna do?’
‘Uh… jiggle?’
BOOM! Another check falls in my lap.
‘Jiggling titties! Who’d have thunk it! You’ve answered our prayers out here in Hollywoooood. We can’t write enough checks for you, boy!’

But wait! It gets better. The story of Apple’s new found prudishness broke on the exact same day that we discovered that the Sex.com domain name was being auctioned off and that YouTube announced plans to livestream Tiger Woods’ press conference in which he would promise never, ever to have sex with anyone ever again.

Once again, the column writes itself: clearly we’re seeing the start of an online war against sex. In fact we’re seeing the dawn of Web 3.0: the Puritan Web. Say goodbye to sex.com and say hello to chasteglances.org. Forget Viagra spam and look forward to thousands of emails promising to help you “drive her wild with your extra-long… engagement.”

I finally resurfaced late last night, fired up my laptop and started catching up with everything I’d missed. As I paged through all these stories – Google’s epic privacy failures, the war on sex – I cursed my bad luck. Any one of them would have made a great column – but all falling together? It was like Christmas.

And yet of course, in my absence, my esteemed TC colleagues had jumped on them all – like Tiger Woods on a roomful of cocktail waitresses – leaving me with nothing fresh to add. I felt like an obituary writer who decided to go on vacation during that week in 1997 when Princess Diana and Mother Theresa both died.

But then, just when I was about to give up, I noticed one last story. One that knocked all of the others into a cocked hat but that, as far as I could see, hadn’t been covered by anyone else on TechCrunch…

On Friday, a school in Philadelphia admitted using webcams built into students’ laptops to videotape and photograph them in their own bedrooms.

I mean, just think about that for a moment: teachers using webcams to watch children in their bedrooms. Which bit of that story isn’t incredible? That they installed that software in the first place? That kids and parents weren’t told about it? That it was actually used? That the teacher then admitted to a student that it had been used? Or that even now the school is framing this as an unfortunate overstepping of an otherwise perfectly acceptable technological mark? Then there’s the fourth amendment angle, the scary paedophilia angle, the Big Brother angle…. I mean, even a arthritic monkey with half a typewriter could make a column out of that stuff.

Unfortunately it was at this point – about five minutes ago – that I realised the time. I’ve spent so long catching up with everything I missed from the past week or so that six hours have passed. It’s dawn in San Francisco, a matter of minutes before my deadline, and I still haven’t written a word, let alone 1300. That’s the other annoying thing about skipping a week: it takes you another week just to catch up.

Ah well. I guess no column from me again this week.

Sorry everyone.

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