there's nothing worse than . . . stupidity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am

BLACK Grape, those madcap funsters who rose like a ragged phoenix from the chemical-soaked ashes of the Happy Mondays, have just released an album that captures the Zeitgeist perfectly as we wade through the viscous dregs of the 20th century. Its title: Stupid Stupid Stupid.

I believe these asinine times will be regarded hence as the Age of Idiocy. Archaeologists will unearth artefacts that will make us a source of rib-tickling, thigh-slapping mirth for our children's children's children. As the tears run down their faces and their bellies bounce and wobble, they will ponder how their forebears could have been such a bunch of plebs, yobs, whackos and imbeciles.

And we won't be able to blame them, for it will be impossible to reach any conclusion other than that ours was a society stricken by toxic levels of stupidity when they gaze upon the dumbed-down labelling of our common products.

According to a study compiled by New Scientist magazine, companies spooked by the spectre of litigation are increasingly plastering mindless instructions on even the most benign or banal products. Here is a sample of the advice given by manufacturers to cretinous customers, on: cigarette lighters which say 'should not be lit next to face'; Swedish chainsaws which advise 'do not try and stop chain with hands'; packets of peanuts which state 'contains nuts' and 'Instructions: Open packet, eat contents'; insecticide which claims it will 'kill all insects' and adds 'Warning - harmful to bees'; Infant cough syrup which warns its pre-literate consumers to 'avoid driving, operating machinery and drinking alcohol'; on pudding packaging, which warns 'product will be hot after heating'; and on an iron, whose manufacturer suggests, 'ironing your clothes while wearing them is not recommended'.

Perhaps such flights of foolishness are symptomatic of the dawn of a new era which will supplant the Age of Idiocy: the Age of the Nanny. George Orwell got it wrong. We have less to fear from some sinister Big Brother than from being suffocated in saccharine and terminally mollycoddled by the Nanny State.

While Hong Kong remains largely content to let the invisible hand of the market shape our lives, the Nanny's shadow falls long across other lands. In the US, consumers cannot buy meat without encountering warnings to, 'keep meats refrigerated before cooking' and to, 'cook thoroughly'. Too bad if you want your meat medium-rare.

Nanny's bony fingers are grasping Britain too: the Government is researching how to build a 'smart car' which will refuse to break the speed limit.

In response, US scientists Susan Hewitt and Edward Subitzky have devised some all-purpose admonitions that will make you think twice about, well, anything: 'HANDLE WITH CARE: this product contains minute, electrically charged particles moving at velocities in excess of 500 million miles per hour'; 'READ THIS BEFORE OPENING: According to certain versions of the unified field theory, the primary particles constituting this product may decay to nothingness within the next 400 million years'; and my favourite, 'PUBLIC NOTICE: Any use of this product will increase the amount of disorder in the universe. Although no liability is implied herein, consumers are warned this will ultimately lead to the heat death of the universe'.

Consider yourselves warned.