Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Small Tableau

A few days ago, my rather upset wife told me about an upsetting incident she had observed at the local post office.
An elderly lady was becoming increasingly distressed and upset by her inability to operate some kind of chip and pin technology at the counter. While she was being assisted by the counterstaff, it was completely overwhelming her - her husband was behaving in the way some elderly Glaswegian men do, venting his frustration at the difficulties his wife was suffering on his wife. A short spell in Abu Ghraib c. 2003, sans false teeth and Rangers season ticket, would have done him good.
There is absolutely no need for an old lady to be forced to use a new technology in this way. For what reason was it introduced? To prevent her being mugged for her pension book? If that was the reason, then the recent savage murder of Jolanta Bledaite should serve as a reproach to all those who worship security technology for its own sake; if a robber is determined to get your money, they won't mug you in the street - they'll just torture you for your PIN numbers.
Technology is an alternative god, to the extent that some people seem to worship it. The technology the old lady was being forced to use was not making her safer. It was not improving the quality of her life. It was not making her wealthier. She was having to use it because a politician in thrall to novelty for its own sake and with nothing better to do signed a contract with a manufacturer that made the manufacturer richer. That's it. In recent years, the British government has wasted billions upon billions of pounds upon computer systems which, if delivered at all, appear late and don't seem to work. That money is wasted upon systems that make an old lady's life difficult, when she might not be able to get drugs she needs on the National Health as a result, is a perversion of public policy.
One of the great difficulties of having political systems rooted in ideology is that very often the technology advances at a rate with which the ideology cannot possibly keep up. The whining of Stephen Glover might be a reaction to the fact that literate and interested people no longer hang on every word uttered by people like him - the Internet has enabled a spontaneous mass expansion of the commentariat, a true free trade in ideas. This great expansion has also happened at the same time that government has become more authoritarian; a threat to itself with which government will eventually deal - and when it does happen, the likes of Paul Staines will be cast off a whole lot of Christmas card lists.
As an aside, I am coming round to the idea that this new authoritarianism is not the result of any particular desire to oppress, but out of fear. When the Berlin Wall fell, the neoliberals really did think that everyone would get with the program. When the anti-globalisation movements in the Global South took off, they realised that was a non-starter, so decided to protect themselves and their interests. The historians of the future might one day look back and consider 1994 to have been as significant a date in history as those of my generattion thought '1984' might be.
The old Glaswegian lady struggling with both her pin number and the old oaf she married is the victim of a perpetual human conceit; that we can improve our world on our own. We can't. A piece of technology intended to improve lives is making the lives of those it was believed it would improve miserable. Get rid of it, and bring back the pension book.

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