Today, I experienced the most inappropriate and falsely aimed attempt to Stick It To The Man that I’ve ever seen.
I was working in Manchester Central Library. At one point in the late afternoon, someone started playing Elton John’s ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ very loudly on one of the library computers. People were tutting and looking around to see who it was. I think everyone was assuming it was an unruly teenager.
A librarian shouted out to tell whoever it was to stop, but it continued. Eventually the librarian came over and tracked down the source of the music: an elderly lady, who at first appeared oblivious to the fact that the music was even coming from her computer. The librarian showed her how to turn the music down, and left.
About a minute later, ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ was playing at full volume again. The librarian returned, thinking the dotty old crone was a bit confused and had accidentally repeated her error. But this time, rather than apologising and turning it off again, the old woman kicked off, cantankerously arguing with the librarian, calling her a ‘small-minded council bureaucrat’ and insisting on her right to play Elton John as loudly as she liked (on the computer facilities provided to her by small-minded council bureaucrats).
Then, she looked around at everyone else in the room, as if expecting us all to be right behind her in her crusade against petty officialdom. We weren’t. We all wanted her to stop playing Elton John as well.
As soon as the Coalition Government started cutting the flood defence budget in 2010, it was as predictable as the water cycle what would happen next: within no more than a few years and probably within the lifetime of the government which made the cuts, there would be heavy rainfall, resulting in massive floods, and a backtrack on the cuts – emergency spending if not a change to the planned budget – either way, a tacit admission of failure.
This sort of thing seems crashingly inevitable to me. There’s an obvious trajectory, of reduced budgets, reduced regulation or reduced oversight, followed by conspicuous calamity, followed by attempts to mop up the mess which generally involve reimplementing whatever system had originally been in place to prevent the calamity.
I’m not here to congratulate myself on uselessly predicting the flooding crisis (also, because I never went on record predicting it, so there’s no proof I ever did). I want to teach you how to predict similar balls-ups in the future, because the depressing thing is, it’s not that difficult.
If someone lets you use their computer, and it needs some updates installing – assuming the owner isn’t there to ask – should you do it?
On the one hand, it’s none of your business. It’s their computer, their responsibility to update it. Just say “no” to the pop-ups and continue checking your email. Maybe they know what they’re doing, and have actively chosen not to run the updates: they prefer the version of the program they’re currently running, for example, and are holding off from upgrading to the latest one.
On the other hand, perhaps like most computer users they’re just hopelessly technologically illiterate and don’t realise they’re supposed to say “OK” to all some of the pop-ups that appear every time they boot up. And what if some of the updates are urgent security patches? Without them, the machine could be hacked, infected, recruited into a botnet and used to attack other systems. Like a child without a measles vaccination, increasing the risk of epidemic in the wider population, every second this computer isn’t updated puts every other computer in the world at greater risk. It’s not just acceptable, it’s your duty to update.
I’ve always been opposed to brand “loyalty” card schemes, like Nectar and Tesco’s Clubcard, and I’ve never signed up for any. We all know that they’re used to track customer shopping behaviour, and I don’t want to be tracked in that way. But it was only recently that I was struck by the fundamental dishonesty involved.
The story promoted by companies running the schemes is something like this: each time you shop with us, we’ll give you a tiny discount, but it’s only redeemable in discreet chunks, and we think this will give you an incentive to continue shopping with us instead of our competitors. In other words: we’ll trade you a non-binding increase in the probability that you’ll choose us for future shopping, which we think is worth two or three pence in every pound, in exchange for rewards equivalent to, say, one pence per pound.
The flaw in this story is that carrying a “loyalty” card doesn’t increase a customer’s chance of using the same shop on any future occasion. As far as I can tell, there are two types of people: those who don’t use any “loyalty” schemes (like me), and those who use every “loyalty” scheme going, and carry around a purse stuffed with cards so that they can get points and discounts wherever they happen to shop.
Describing the Mughal system of revenue collection on page 179 of The Cambridge Economic History of India – Volume 1, c1200-1750, Tapan Raychaudhuri calls it:
“a vicious circle of coercion helping to maintain a machinery of coercion.”
Never mind the Mughals; this is as succinct and clear a description of statehood itself as I’ve ever seen. And more accurate every day as the machinery of coercion improves in sophistication and reach.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot from newspapers and the like about the growing menace of “internet trolls”: nasty, ignorant cyber-bullies who hide behind the safety of their computer screens and hurl abuse and harassment at politicians, celebrities and ordinary innocent people unfortunate enough to step into their sights.