Lily Cole's notebook: My digital dream

Plus: Hanging out with Christo, Tim Berners-Lee and Kevin Spacey

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

I’m in London to work on, the social network I have been developing for two years. Impossible is a place where people can post things they want (from work experience to world peace), and things they’re prepared to give (from Mandarin lessons to website design). The idea is to use a social network to try to encourage a culture of giving and receiving. I’m doing it because I believe people are naturally generous, and that’s the kind of world I want to be in more often. I don’t know whether it’s a great or a ridiculous idea, but I have decided to invest in optimism. You just have to go off ‘faith, the fumes of faith, sometimes terrified’ to do something new, my friend Jony Ive says at a talk I go to — since all the data will tell you it’s not going to work. The next day I take a taxi to Paddington to catch the Heathrow Express. My driver is called Faith.

I fly to Abu Dhabi where I am met by the artist Christo. To a soundtrack of Koran readings and beneath a moon that hangs low in the sky, we drive out into the desert where Christo is trying to get permission to build a 450ft mastaba (a flat-roofed, rectangular structure) out of oil barrels. If it goes ahead, it will be the world’s largest permanent sculpture. At our hotel — a castle in the desert — a man is employed to wipe guests’ sunglasses. How brilliantly, guiltily absurd. The landscape is so beautiful I don’t know what to do with it. Its beauty provokes a positive existential crisis of sorts, and I find myself watching the wind paint the sand for half an hour. Art — as I’ve heard Christo scream in a lecture hall with fanatical excitement — needs no purpose. One afternoon a bird sweeps across this image and speaks very directly to me. ‘Shut up, stop thinking, get off your computer, and just look up at the view’ is what I hear. It reminds me of Faust, who broke his contract with the devil when he paused and said to the world: ‘Linger! But you are so beautiful!’

A drawing for the Abu Dhabi Mastaba (Picture: Christo)

A drawing for the Abu Dhabi mastaba (Picture: Christo)

To New York, where I am asked to do a last-minute shoot with the photographer Peter Beard. I pose opposite a large photo of an elephant skeleton. ‘Rest in Peace’ is scratched onto the surface of the image. ‘It died of starvation,’ Peter says, of the elephant, passing me a cigarette for the shot and an iced Coca-Cola. ‘Don’t inhale,’ he says. I curl on my back, pull a drag on the cigarette and exhale, then: Pop! The giant polaroid is ready.

Back in London we begin our public launch of impossible. I am asked to join Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales and Bright Simons for the launch of the 2013 Web Index: the world’s first measure of the global impact of the web. I feel a bit like an impostor right up until one of the journalists suggests I am, at which point I bridle. Sir Tim is an extraordinary man full of endearing enthusiasm. Over a carrot juice, he tells me with bright eyes about the Web Index, and his vision of a decentralised network run by meritocracies. Things people have tried and failed to do for centuries are now, perhaps, possible. But the internet can also be used by top-down systems to reinforce their power. As users of the internet, we all have a role to play in defining what we want it to be. ‘This is not a tech issue,’ someone says, ‘this is a political issue.’ We take the train to Cambridge and hang out with the computer lab students as they undertake a long hackathon, and attempt to build our impossible android app — in answer to another user’s ‘impossible’ wish. Such wicked guys. Their code names are Black Magic and Divine Intervention.

I head to the Old Vic theatre with a leek, a cigar and a balaclava in my bag. I’m participating in the tenth anniversary of Kevin Spacey’s fundraising initiative for the Old Vic where actors, directors and writers create and perform a play in 24 hours. There are cameos from the other actors in our play centred around Nick Moran playing Nick Moran. We accuse him of breaking everyone’s hearts. Catherine Tate marches out angrily in front of me as I read a ‘text message’ from her. I improvise my final words then fall in love with Nick as he plays the ukulele.

Finally, the launch evening at the Apple Store. ‘Meet the developer’ reads the sign. The moderator jokes: ‘What if I were to wish to be in a Star Wars movie?’ An hour later he is cast as a ‘walk-by’ in Avengers II. After the evening, feeling high, I take a taxi home. And the driver gets angry at me for going upstairs to get cash to pay him. ‘Some people only think about themselves,’ he says, closing the window on me with mean pointed eyes. Maybe he is right. Maybe all this is just talk about giving and I’ll discover myself to be a hypocrite. Life is shining a light through a magnifying glass on me, looking for me to stumble. I think that’s my biggest fear. Oh well, I work for life’s lovers.

Visit to register or download the impossible app from the Apple App Store.

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Show comments
  • Simon M

    By the looks of that last paragraph, doesn’t look like you will be stumbling any time soon!

  • vadata1940


  • Zimbalist

    A “450ft mastaba….”

    My, that’s a big one.

  • Thomas

    Utterly beyond parody

    • Mr Creosote

      This is self-evident based on the stunned silence from the specie readership

  • The Red Bladder

    Oh come on, be fair it does do one thing very well – it makes Pippa Middleton seem readable!

  • Will Honeycomb

    Allan Massie. Spot on.