What was it that persuaded YouTube’s algorithm that I would be interested in reviews of military rations? What facet of my personality did it glimpse when it offered me recordings of German Ice Football matches? And how did it know that I would have limitless capacity to view forensic analyses of the pros and cons of laptop backpacks?
Whatever YouTube learned of me during the last few years since I started signing into the app with my Google account – flirtatiously offering me a cornucopia of delights for me to select or reject, the algorithm observing all the while – all this seems to have been in preparation for the lockdown. For in a time when my offline world has become monochrome, the signs and wonders of the online world seem all the more delightful.
I spent the first two weeks in lockdown separated from my wife. We had agreed that the first one to get sick would stay in our bedroom and the healthy one would retreat to the spare room. She beat me by a matter of a few hours and so I found myself living through what was almost certainly The Virus in a space I normally never enter; a space removed from the rest of the house, with an infuriating radiator that seems only to blast hot or doesn’t work at all. Shivering with mild chills, in my family Siberia, I turned to my tablet. The routine for the next few days was swiftly established: 5 episodes of Breaking Bad (watching for the second time), interspersed with extended wanderings on YouTube.
These were not aimless meanderings. Over time, they took shape, acquired a direction, a goal. Or rather, multiple goals.
The most urgent concerned Basque pelota, the sport that defines this proto-nation, but is also played outside its fractured Spanish-French homeland. I knew that pelota came in multiple variants but which variant did I prefer? What would be my pelota were I to be reborn in Donostia with a sturdy Basque body?
At first, the decision seemed easy enough. Forms of pelota in which the ball is struck by hand look too painful and those in which it is struck by wooden bats and rackets look old-fashioned. That left the pelota styles that are better known to non-Basques, played with a wooden basket strapped to the end of the arm.
Some may have heard of Jai alai (it is a betting sport in the US) as the fastest ballgame on earth. However, jai alai, which is also known as zesta punta, is actually only one of three styles that involve the basket – there is also remonte and joko garbi. The problem with zesta punta is that the basket is so deep that there is a minor delay between receipt of the ball and hurling it at the wall. The problem with remonte is the opposite – the ball is simply hit. But joko garbi is the best of all worlds; swift, athletic, without the uncouth hitting of remonte or the cumbersome hurling of zesta punta.
Who knows how many videos I scrolled through while making my choice? Recordings of matches with commentary in French, Spanish and Basque. Matches in the local village fronton watched by a lone spectator with a camera phone, and televised international matches in front of raucous crowds. All were for my benefit, grist to my feverish mental mill as, from my isolated spare room, a centuries-old sport became my obsession.
Or at least it was an obsession until the algorithm tempted me with something else. YouTube serves up things you like, but never wants you to reach a cul-de-sac. There is no end point. Every decoding leads to another encoding.
My YouTube reveries seemed to take place outside of time. They could never end; they could only be temporarily suspended through viral exhaustion. And they have persisted as my health has improved and I have returned to a world in lockdown. However, over time they seem to have morphed.
I’d been fascinated by reviews of military rations (also known as MREs – Meals Ready to Eat) long before the virus hit. At first, my fascination was with the subculture of reviewers, and its stars such as Gundog and Steve1989. Now, though, I seem to have drilled down into its sensual bedrock. I am no longer as interested in understanding this world as I am in mining it for its vicarious pleasures. It is the sound of MRE unboxing that beguiles me most: the slicing-open of the packaging, the probing of retort pouches, the extraction of cellophane-wrapped crackers.
Similarly, I care less about the detailed intricacies of Basque pelota now. It is the tone of ball-hitting-wall that I yearn for, leading me to other sports in search of the perfect sonic collision. (Gaelic handball is a delight, Eton Fives a disappointment.)
Everywhere, the algorithm leads provides fodder for my dulled senses. GoPro videos of trips down waterslides offer an aching memory of fun in summers past; their inevitable climactic immersion producing the evocative sounds of bubbles and splashes. Coronation Street clips from the early 1980s bring forth the taste of childhood dinners in front of the TV – cod in parsley sauce. Swedish death metal videos summon up the taste of black bread and Kalles Kaviar that I lived off while conducting PhD fieldwork in Stockholm and Gothenburg in 1998.
Reveries of discovery, of nostalgia, of sensual pleasure: these almost substitute for the world that is now locked down. Almost.
But maybe YouTube functions for me like a photo of a loved one, tacked to the instrument panel of a Lancaster bomber; a reminder of what we are sacrificing ourselves for. This endless world of triviality, of sharp sensations encased in the mundane, of manifold human obsession… this is the prize.