A Warning To The Incurious

It was Christmas, and so naturally my thoughts turned to the ghostly and the dread-fuelled. To M.R. James, to be precise. The BBC's second shot at 'Oh, Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad' led to a marathon re-watching of the Beeb's 1970s Christmas Ghost Story productions, which in turn, led to the source – the short stories themselves (as an aside, the Kindle/Project Gutenberg nexus is so perfect it makes me want to shake someone warmly by the hand and congratulate their parents on a job well done).

The formula is unerringly simple. Someone, usually a deeply hubristic academic, winds up in all sorts of trouble by poking among the dusty codices and grimoires of this middle-European library or that Barsetshire Cathedral. Something is read which ought not to have been read, or some word is uttered that ought not to have been uttered. This single act, usually advised against by an anxious local, brings about hideous and terrifying contact with supernatural forces, leaving the protagonist either dead or sorely chastened. James even went to the trouble of encapsulating his formula in the title of one of his collections: A Warning To The Curious.

Anyone who has been watching Charlie Brooker's new series: How TV Ruined Your Life, will have enjoyed a whistle-stop (M.R. Jamesian pun intended) exploration of the unique capacity of the human brain to process and reconfigure itself around fear-inducing stimuli after only brief repetition. While in Brooker's analysis, TV is a confidence shattering conveyor belt of scares producing witless and compliant peons, James's stories attempt, in a gentle, pretension-mocking way, to caution against nothing more sinister than excess curiosity and the vanities of the intellect. Each skeletal hand and black cat is a riposte to the arrogance that sees knowledge as something that can be owned, and mysteries as truths merely waiting to be disclosed.

James might have been provost of King's College and of Eton, but he presumably bore little or no responsibility for analysing those institutions' websites.

Modern web analytics tools are practically Borgesian labyrinths already. There's normally two or more ways to liberate a particular piece of data, and with the rate at which new feature and UI tweaks are added, the route you took to a number yesterday might have shifted beyond recognition overnight, leaving you staring blankly at a set of menus as knitted over and impenetrable as the wall of the Pied Piper's cavern. The only way to proceed, to succeed, is to ignore the protests of caution and to venture in unaided. A map is a fine way to start, and by all means check the cardinal points on a daily basis – measure bounce, check whether pageviews per session are trending up or down, watch your basket size with a gimlet eye. But stray off the edge of the page from time to time. Wander without a destination in mind. It's really the only way you'll ever navigate a route home.

Because ghosts don't really exist. The pale figure rising up from the next bed is just a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato, or your own fear of stepping off the path.

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