James May

James May

James May on: the digital age

In the future, there may not be such a thing as privacy. The digital age will see to that.

In the past - my past, in fact - acquiring and distributing information was a laborious and slow business, to the extent that we generally couldn't be bothered unless it was something that particularly consumed us.

But now, the merest whim can be indulged very quickly and effortlessly. So you might investigate an unusually exotic strain of pornography or, as I was earlier, some photographs of British outline diesel/electric locomotives of the Fifties. Or flower arranging or performance-enhancing drugs; anything, really. It's all out there somewhere, and most six-year-olds can find it for you.

Stuff, the acquisition of which might once have required you to take the risk of joining an unsavoury or downright embarrassing organisation of some sort - I'm thinking of the locomotives again - is now freely available in the home. So it's probably worth a look.

Trouble is, Google and governments - allegedly - know what you're looking at, know everything you've ever looked at, and can build up a pretty good picture of what you might look at in the future. They could also reveal it, because the same technology that made everything so accessible is the same one that will leave you well and truly busted. You don't get owt for nowt.

But does that matter? We all know that we're all at it, and the revelation that my neighbour goes on maidenandthedonkey.com would hardly shock me. So there needn't be any privacy in the future, because there can be no shame. Which is probably a good thing.

We all contribute to the eradication of shame. Being published was once an ambition, but now it's an idle pastime. If you took a picture when I was a teenager, it could only be passed onto other people physically and that would involve printing it in some way. Now you can give it to the world in a few minutes, from anywhere in the world, and what's true of that snapshot of the Class 55 Deltic is also true of a crafty snap of an heir to the throne's exposed vegetables.

Scandalous letters once took years to emerge, but now they're emails, and literally everyone on the planet can have a copy of the pompous one to a prospective daughter-in-law about table manners

It's the same thing with correspondence. Scandalous letters once took years to emerge, but now they're emails, and literally everyone on the planet can have a copy of the pompous one to a prospective daughter-in-law about table manners. Even if you hand-write it on vellum with a quill, it's but a few minutes' work to scan it and attach it to a tweet. Everyone is equipped to add to the burden of history, and it's quite good fun.

Where does this leave Top Gear? This is what actually concerns me. These days, it's quite difficult to surprise you on the telly, because everything we do in any vaguely public place is immediately filmed, photographed or noted and then exposed on Twitbook and FaceTube.

And, in some ways, this is very good for us. YouTube ‘spoilers' are generally scrappy bits of raw footage, and merely go to show how much art and industry goes into turning our artless tomfoolery into a vaguely watchable TV programme. The ‘magic' of Top Gear - something we're asked about a lot - is largely down to the directors, cameramen, sound recordists, editors, producers and everyone else in the vast, unacknowledged army of experts who slave thanklessly to put three morons on the screen.

But for how long? The digital empowerment of The People is a very new thing, and there is much to learn. But it will be learned. Look at the car itself: in its early years, maintaining and driving one was a job in itself, for a professional, and people imagined the spread of the car would ultimately be limited by the availability of chauffeurs. Pretty soon, everyone was at it, and now running a car is no more remarkable than owning your own pen. That transition took only 50 years or so.

So I see a future where we don't need to film and edit Top Gear. You will do it for us. We will arrange to drive some £500 cars to France (where the producers have come up with a series of challenges), and you will pool your footage to make an item. Several versions of the same item, maybe.

Strange. For years, people have been talking about the decline of the professional TV presenter, and I've bought into the argument. But now I reckon it's the poor old film crews who are under threat.

It won't happen for a while yet, but there will come a day when we merely do Top Gear. It'll be up to you lot to make it.

James May, Column

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