Once again technology seems to be the spirit of the age. While The Daily Telegraph warns of another looming financial Armageddon the TechMARK index stands at its highest level ever. Big Data, cloud computing and smartphones are just the thin end of the wedge. Artificial Intelligence is now what its about. The creation of a fully automated “global world” (ugh!).
It seems to me that a lot of this new technology is not driven by human want or need but by massive corporations with massive amounts of cash and nowhere to put it. The world economy is shafted and they can’t make money from existing industries so they’re inventing new markets. For the economy this could be a good thing but for humanity, I’m not so sure.
Take driverless cars for example. For decades there has been no great demand for this. In 2014 there were 1,775 road deaths in the UK. A lot admittedly and arguably the media should be more upset about this than the handful of deaths caused by terrorism but as a society we are inured to road deaths. The government, the car industry and the population have agreed to turn a blind eye to road casualties probably for two reasons: First driving is so bloody useful and secondly because it’s great fun.
However, driverless cars are the now the thing and it can’t be long before Brad Pitt emerges from a driverless car at the Oscars. As technology improves and stats emerge that driverless cars are safer than cars driven by people expect to face a barage of stories to frighten us into allowing laws banning human piloted automobiles. All in the interests of road safety you understand. (Ka-Ching!).
Of course driverless cars will be safer but they’ll also means a further step in the absolute pacification of mankind. While we’re driven to work in our air conditioned personal transport pods – lights flashing and the voice of Stephen Hawking announcing “Attention, vehicle in motion” – we’ll need something to entertain at us.
We’ll need to “consume” more shit films or TV programs about cake. We’ll watch music videos of some blond millionaire twenty something from Los Angeles telling us how she’s had it tough but is sticking it to the man and we can all be like her by paying for her music. We’ll play Grand Theft Auto and pretend we’re speeding around Los Santos in a Porsche rather than trundling along at a constant 30 miles per hour in a creaking plastic box from a dormitory housing estate near Chelmsford to a job at a factory office near Stratford.
Technology peaked in the 1940s with the introduction of the home freezer, everything that followed has been efficiency gains, keeping up with the Jones’ or, as Herman Hesse would have it: “…no more service to man than as an escape from himself and his true aims, and a means of surrounding himself with an ever closer mesh of distractions and useless activities”.
Hesse didn’t understand the half of it. In the 21st century, we are busy constructing the dystopia that previous generations only read about.
Years ago I ran the computers for a eurobond trading company in the City. Minicomputers, a few PCs, a lot of communications equipment and specialised terminals on the desks of traders. We were market makers so it was a frenetic place and IT was critical even in then.
As today, much of the work was sitting in front of a screen working on technical stuff but we also had to get under floors to run cables and physically handle hardware. Most days I would make sure I took a good look around the machine room and I’d walk the trading floors. I’d mentally note things. Those screens were a bit tatty and could do with replacing. The print out were faded so I needed to tell the operators to change ribbons more frequently. It was also an occasion to engage with the dealers. They’d gripe about various stuff which wasn’t critical but needed fixing. The keys on my keyboard keeps sticking down. The bloody print outs were late this morning. The damn system is too slow. Mostly this was terse and forthright but friendly. Sometimes it would lead to brief and hostile exchange. It was part of the job. These guys relied on the systems and my task was to make sure they got what they wanted. Visibility meant little, if any, appreciation when things went right and taking the flak when things went wrong.
I often thought of my job as analogous to the captain of a ship. The systems were running and sometimes there was no need to actively DO anything. But there was a need to ensure I had an understanding of the state of the systems as a whole so that when problems arose we were able to cope. I would stand at the end of the trading desks and just look down them and make sure I was content.
HOWEVER! Sometime around the 1990s along came a lot of men in sharp suits and sharper business practices. Modern management methods and business process reengineering were the order of the day. Everyone must be a professional. Everyone must be taught their craft by someone who didn’t do it. Everyone must pay for certifications from the companies which made the equipment. Every task must be broken into its constituent processes and these must be reorganised to achieve maximum efficiency. Their question was why a comparatively senior technical manager spends his time walking around trading floors and checking equipment rooms. All this could be broken into tasks which could be scheduled and delegated.
The upshot of all this bollocks is that modern managers now hide in their offices, only emerging to attend meetings. Ask a manager what he has to do today and he will tell you he has meetings all day. Such people are TALKING BOLLOCKS!
The task of anyone, let alone a manager, is NOT to have meetings anymore than it is to make telephone calls. The meetings and the telephone calls are the MEANS by which the tasks are accomplished. In my case, the task was not to walk the trading floors or inspect the computer room. The task was to ensure I had a feel for the state of the systems. To ensure that I was on the fucking ball.
And now I come to an annual reunion of IT staff which I attend each year in London. I rarely use the railways these days but when I do invariably there are problems. And so arriving at London Bridge station last night I found that there were no trains home. I would have to go to East Croydon and change trains. This has happened so many times over the last 15 years that I am inured to the ghastliness of the train system. Along with many others, and anaesthetised by a nights drinking, I crammed onto the East Croydon train. On arrival we all flocked off the train and listened to the tannoy tell us that the Brighton train would leave in 4 minutes from Platform One. The obvious question then being: “Which F*CKING platform am I on now”.
But the platform number signs had been removed. Other passengers were equally confused and so we milled around wasting our precious 4 minutes until we found a railway guy then ran like hell and just caught the train home.
Now, to be fair to the station staff, on the way up to London I had encountered the same problem on a different platform and had bene told by a railway operative that the signs had been removed during “improvement work”. In the meantime he and his mates had printed out platform signs on what looked like A4 paper using font size 48, laminated these and stuck them up only on his platform. A brave initiative but, sadly, amongst the plethora of others signs at any large London station, these were, in practical terms, invisible.
My question is: WHERE THE HELL WAS THE MANAGER?! Why had the manager not realised the absurdity of running a 6 platform station without signs? Why had he or she not thrown a wobbler and organised temporary signs immediately? Why had he not jumped in a cab and driven to the local sign shop? Why had he not paid them whatever it took to work over night to create large obvious signs and had them up on the platform the next morning?
I have scoured the Internet for the name of the manager of East Croydon station but without success. I have emailed Southern Rail and asked for his name and address so that I can write to him but I suspect that they will not give me his name. I suspect there is no single individual in charge. I suspect that the responsibility for platform signage falls somewhere between a Passenger Liaison Manager, a Station Facilities Manager and a Southern Rail Communications Manager. I suspect that these, so called, “managers” see their task as wearing nice suits, sitting in offices and having meetings.
I suspect that these offices are in a block 2 miles from the station. I suspect that if they hear about this at all, it will be item 11 on a list of “issues” in a project progress meeting sometime in January.
More broadly I wonder if modern management methods have become so formalised that they erode personal pride in one’s work and along with the pride they detach direct responsibility and accountability. Pride along with initiative and imagination are boiled out of corporate staff in an effort to standardise everything.
Watching episodes of Dad’s Army we now ridicule Captain Mannering as a pompous, overzealous old buffoon. Perhaps. But he would not have been so lax as to leave a major London station operating without platform signs.
Alan Oakley, the designer of the iconic Chopper bicycle, has kicked the bucket aged 85. As for all English men of my age, the chopper was an important part of my life. It seemed years when everyone else had one and I didn’t and then, one birthday, I did.
Choppers were amazing. They were a joy to ride but they weren’t faster, lighter or easier to ride than conventional bikes. They were just fantastic! My fondest memories are of cycling down country lanes in the summers (which were, of course, long and hot).
Bikes of today are far too serious. They are crammed with stuff. Bora Ultra carbon aero cranksets, Alloy Brake Levers and Hydraulic Disc Brakes. Disc breaks! On a bike! Who the hell is going so fast on a bike that they need disk bakes? In the 21st century we seem to take ourselves far too seriously. Accountancy clerks spend their Saturday riding a bike and then wear a T-shirt to work proclaiming that they LIVE LIFE ON THE EDGE. No mate, you don’t. You are a hobby cyclist. That Lucozade your drinking used to be sold to grandmother’s as a health drink until a bunch of marketing men bamboozled you into thinking that it makes you cycle faster.
Rather than getting on our bike to look for work we don layers of spandex and ridiculous hats and board contraptions built to the tolerance of a space capsule only to ride around the streets shouting at cars. I remember a TV sketch referring to motorbikes but which I will adjust for push bikes. The son puts on his spandex leggings, his florescent top, his, frankly, weird shaped hat and crazy sunglasses and prepares to leave the house to ride his bike. His dad shouts “Are you going out on that thing again? It’s too dangerous, you’ll get yourself killed!”. The son replies “but dad, I have all he safety clothing”. The old dad yells back “You little idiot! That’s what I’m talking about, you look so stupid that someone is bound to beat the shit out of you!”.
Cyclists don’t need those all that clobber, they just need a pair of bicycle clips and a flat cap to keep the rain off. And they also need MUDGUARDS! What’s this bollocks that people are so macho they can’t have mudguards? In England! Where if doesn’t rain for three days in a row we declare a drought!
The Chopper is a symbol of another age. An age when efficiency and precision were secondary to fun. Bring back the chopper, I say, and while we’re about it we should start wearing flared trousers again.
When they revamped London Bridge station some years back they took down the excellent big board full of departure information and replaced it with giant advertsiing displays. The departure informaiton was then displayed on little screens at awkward angles. The effect was absolutely appauling. I was a commuter at the time and had to scurry into the station and then weave my way through the seething mob to see one of these screens.
I was up there on Saturday night and they have renovated yet again. It seems that this time practicality has trumped advertsiing. They have cleared the whole area in front of the trains from platform 8 up and installed a massive bank of turnstyles. They have also installed the monitors displaying departure information back above the turnstyles.
Up at Heathrow airdrome early this week and, after parking the ground car, I looked around for transportation to terminal 5. No bus but what appeared to be a fairground ride. This turned out to be “The Pod”. Some kind of personal rapid transit system known as ULTra (Urban Light Transit). These days I am a cynical old curmudgeon but I have to say that I was impressed. I used a touch screen outside the car to select my destination and the doors opened to reveal a something which was half dodgen and half roller coaster car. I think it would take 4 very comfortably but you could get six in it easily. You couldn’t stand up but you could put your bags in the middle.
Well made and with leather seats it ran very quietly. What fun! Looking at this youtube vid it appears that the thing is not on rails. Guided by bloody computers I expect. As I left the car park I saw other little pods pootling by in the other direction. A little like that scene on mars out of Blade Runner.
So it seems that the future has arrived. It is here at Heathrow.
Of course when I returned the next day I found a sign by the lifts telling me that the Pod was not running and I should use the bus at stand 22. At stand 22 there was a sign saying that I should use the pod. Hey ho. That’s Britain for you. We are quite capable of creating wonders of science but we can’t be arsed to make sure they work properly.
Spent most of the flight watching the American version of The Office which is pretty good. Once you get over the fact that it is not merely a copy of the British program. About 4am BST I started watching Family guy and drifted off to sleep.
Stepping off the aircraft in Hong Kong in the brief transition between aircraft and walkway a feint but palpable waft of warm humid air hit me. With the smell of mildew in my nostrils and bright sunshine outside it felt very good to be back in the tropics. I and headed straight for the vast plate glass window and looked out onto the big glaring sky. A flat blue sea stretched away from the runway and islands lay scattered around. I was not in Heathrow anymore.
After a quick visit to the washroom to change my shirt and brush my teeth I wandered around the shops. Cleaner, more spacious and more orderly than The UK but to be fair Chek Lap Kok is a new airport. Even so it compares favourably with Heathrow Terminal 5. They let a lot of light in and don’t insist that every square inch of space be used for advertising.
Tablet computers seem to be big news here and Apple do not appear to have the prominence that they do in Europe or the America. I noticed tablet computers by the French company Archos which is interesting as, though these are pretty good products, they do not have much prominence in the UK. The book shop was stuffed with books on the new China in both Chinese and English. With China industrialising now seems to be a good time to write books about the rise of China and the decline of The West. A bit fo a bandwagon if you ask me. One book, in Chinese, had a picture of President Hu surrounded by images of 5 women. What could this be? I Emailed a Chinese friend who translated the title as: “Hu Jintao’s Five Golden Flowers Female Best Friends”. From the title alone, my friend suggested that this could be “one of those romance novels about President Hu”. Ah yes, one of those. I see (he said, but he didn’t really). Perhaps democracy is not such a bad thing if it spares us creepy romance novels about politicians.
Upstairs I looked around the food halls which were similar to those you find all over the far east. Shops selling food and shared seating areas. I had no currency. Should I change money to get a soda? – There I slipped into American again. 10 hours out of the UK, the whiff of the tropics and this Englishman has started to come alive again.
Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, 4pm, Friday, 24th June 2011
At Heathrow airport, after passing through security, I am disgorged directly into an alcohol and perfume shop. Naturally. What else? As I continue through this shopping mall I am faced with a fork in the path. Turn left and hit expensive perfume and then on to the relatively up market Sushi bar or turn right and be confronted with chocolates and WH Smiths. Even at the airport England is a class ridden society. The areas closer to the departure gates are the Mayfair of Heathrow for the upper class. Champagne and salmon. Shirts by Pink and bags by Mulberry; there is even a fucking Harrods! Farthest from the gates are the shops selling last minute “I’ve been to London” memorabilia. But British airports are a great leveller for whatever one’s class, religion or ethnicity we are all temporary captives of the airport marketing machine.
The idiotic Bridge Bar is one of a very few places to get a real meal but is always packed and has no waiter service yet one must have a table to order a meal. If you are lucky enough find a vacant table you must go to the bar to order and inevitably join a queue. Inevitably, again, by the time you have ordered you have lost your table.
The ludicrously named Cafe Italia uses a little seating area with an almost Soviet canteen feel to it. I am tempted to say that at least this place has waiters but to call the voiceless delivery men waiters is going too far. I sit by the trolley laden with dirty dishes and eat an expensive but tasty Lasagne.
The air conditioning is not able to cope with the number of people and the environment has become muggy, humid and filled with the wreak of discarded food. The shop assistants resort to fans but the public are left to fester.
“This a security announcement. All persons are reminded that…” – Other than public announcements when else do we refer to people as persons? I think that the British lack self confidence and this manifests itself in pomposity in public announcements. Along with moronic violence at football matches of course.
The romance has been surgically extracted from the modern British airport. Gone is the aviation themed decor, there is no view of the runway, there are not even pictures of aeroplanes. In fact once inside there is no indication that we are in an airport at all. We may as well be sitting in the shopping mall of any mid size British town. Gone are the days of the large boards where people could sit in peace and wait for their gate to appear. Now we are forced to trudge around to find a little display board. This enforced perambulation is probably a ploy by British Airport Authority (BAA) to push us past the shops and encourage us to buy yet more crap. In the old days there would have been a large clock visible by everyone but no longer. I suspect that the absence of a clock is to accentuate our feeling of detachment. We are suspended in time and space. Our here and now is controlled by BAA and our raison d’etre is shopping.
No natural light enters and after an hour or so we lose track of the time. Is it early morning, mid afternoon or the middle of the night? We have no way of knowing. We have jet lag before we have left the ground. Like termites we scurry around in our mound unaware that just few feet away lies another world. The world of the support staff where people go about their normal lives. Drivers, technicians, cooks. Thousands of people working away to support this artificial environment of transitory morons.
I sit gormlessly staring at a departure board. Adverts are beamed into my subconscious. Smartphone – Italy – Must use Smartphone in Italy.
Eventually the gate opens and we are told that first class and business class may board through gate B . Frequent Flyer Gold and Platinum may board through gate A. Disabled and various other concessionaires may board at any time. And me? What about me? I must board last Good, for as ghastly as the airport is at least I have some leg room.