Category Archives: Technology out of control

Film review – Her: a salutary tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Director: Spike Jonze

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

The surveillance state – The practical problems and implications of biometric identities

Note: I wrote this piece at a time when a British identity card seemed a very real possibility because the Blair Government had produced a consultative Green Paper and was pushing the subject hard in Parliament and the media. The Blair scheme was very intrusive because it envisaged not merely government collected data being tied to the ID card but also data collected by private organisations such as the large supermarkets.

Such a card did not materialise then but the threat of it has not gone away. Perhaps it will not come overtly as an ID card but covertly, almost as an emergent property, through the ever expanding government databases (which are in the process of being linked) and the rapid government move to doing all government business online only which not only increases the data held but makes operating with some form of digital ID next to impossible.

Although the essay was written nine years ago, the problems raised still hold true.

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Published in The July 2004 issue of The Individual, the journal of the Society for
Individual Freedom (www.individualist.org.uk).

The practical problems and implications of biometric identities

Robert Henderson

The libertarian and moral implications of ID cards have generated a great amount of newsprint, but much less attention has been given to what biometric based ID cards will mean in practice or to their practicality. This is a serious deficiency because a biometric-based ID card will be an entirely different animal from any
non-biometric-based ID card.

If it is successful, such a system will give a government unprecedented control of the lives of the individual – the ID card would potentially be a licence to legally exist – and if flawed in operation, cause untold disruption and personal misery.

How effective are biometric data as identifiers?

Biometric identifiers are generally presented to the public as foolproof, Big Brother, sci-fi-style technology. The reality is that there is no biometric identifier which is anything like foolproof, nor, as we all know to our daily cost, any computer system which does not regularly crash.

What would be the most likely biometric data to be used? Iris scanning, fingerprinting and facial parameter recognition are the frontrunners, either singly or in combination. Facial parameters are far from foolproof, while fingerprinting, despite what is generally thought, is far from conclusive being decided on points of similarity rather than an absolute individual singularity. One suspects that iris print recognition has similar drawbacks, whatever the “experts” tell us.

Take the expert on biometric testing Professor John Daugman, who is based in Cambridge University. He developed the algorithm for iris recognition. In the Daily Telegraph (12 5 2004) he is reported as saying: ” “The key point is the relative complexity of the iris, compared to, say, the fingerprint,” explains Professor Daugman, who is based at Cambridge University. “The iris is much more random and much more complex, so it Is much more likely to be truly unique.

“Randomness is measured in degrees of freedom. The face bas less than 20 degrees of freedom. Fingerprints have 40 degrees of freedom, but the iris has 200 degrees of freedom. “If we wanted the face to be as complex as the iris, we would need to have five mouths and seven noses…”

Prof Daugman goes on to say that “The technology has never yet given a false match and we have made millions of comparisons so far,” then unblushingly admits there have been problem with eye lashes and eye malformations. I think we should translate his remark as “The technology has never given a false reading where we have been able to get a readable iris print.”

The Home Office Commons select committee recently went to a demonstration of iris-scanning. The Daily Telegraph (7 5 2004) reported: “Members of the Commons home affairs select committee who tried out the technology yesterday were told that up to seven per cent of scans could fail.”

I heard a member of the committee, Liberal Democrat Bob Russell, on Radio 5 (6 May) telling of his experiences. His iris test failed because his eyes watered profusely. Russell also said that the test was as intrusive as a visit to the opticians with lights being shone directly into the eye. He found the experience physically unpleasant.

DNA analysis – which would be more certain – is a theoretical possibility, but whether it would be technically possible now or within the foreseeable future to have a system which could analyse DNA samples quickly enough is dubious. The person checking an identity would have to have a means of checking within minutes a DNA sample taken from a suspect and then comparing that with the DNA record in the central database.

As things stand, the most likely biometric identifiers on the card and database will be fingerprints and facial profiling, the latter to act as a decider if the fingerprint test does not produce a positive identification. The reason why facial profiling will be probably be chosen in front of iris recognition is that the International Civil Aviation Authority is pushing for it in machine-readable passports.

The problems of damage and biometric impersonation

A fingerprint could be damaged by scarring or a temporary injury. Ditto an iris print. As for facial parameter recognition, how effective is that going to be as a person ages? Doubtless the ”experts” will claim that basic facial parameters – breadth of forehead, distance between eyes and such forth – remain constant enough, but as the system is far from foolproof to begin with – Prof Daugman puts it as the least effective of the three biometrics being considered – can we honestly be sure that ageing may not produce sufficient change through, say, muscle relaxation or gum shrinkage, to distort the face sufficiently to cause a false non-recognition result?

Biometric impersonation could conceivably occur with people wearing contact lenses to give a false iris print (the experts such as Prof Daugman swear blind this would not fool a scanner because it uses infra red which would show up a flat plate , ie the contact lens, over the iris, but you know what experts are like) or having fingerprint ”masks” of someone else to wear on their fingers. Further down the line surgical techniques, including genetic surgery, could be used to alter someone’s biometric data.

There is also the question of technological advance generally. We simply cannot envisage what advances may be made which will breach what is now seen as a seemingly secure system.

What of the robustness of the Government’s computer system? Will it break down or even ever get to a stage of development where it can go live? We all know what a mess large government computer projects have been. Why should this, which is even larger and more complicated than those now in existence, be anything other than a mess.

Could biometric cards be successfully forged?

Could biometric cards ever be foolproof in even the narrow sense of being impossible to forge? Could forgeries exist? If biometric data are to be stored on a central database which can be immediately accessed it would be pointless to get a false card if the system would pick up duplicated biometric data. However, someone, for example, a foreigner, whose details have never been on the database, could get a card in a false name using false initial documentation – the initial identification of the person can only be done by good old fashioned methods such as passports and driving licences. There is also, of course, the opportunity for bribery of those operating the system.

If the database programme does not have the facility to check new biometric data against that already on the database, multiple applications for cards under different names could be made.

If there is not immediate verification of the biometric data by reference to the database, forged cards could be used because all the card would do is provide whatever data the forger chooses to put on the card when the card is put into a reader. Moreover, if the card is simply put into a reader and verified with the data held on the database, all that tells you is that the card is in agreement with the database. It does not tell you whether the person who holds the card is the same person. Thus the identities of legitimate cardholders could be copied onto forged cards. The only certain way of stopping this would be to read the data directly from the cardholder and compare it with data held on the central database.

Another problem would be the possibility of a card forger placing a programme on the card which would surreptitiously override the application to the central database and place data contained on the card in the reader in a form in which looked as though it came from the central database, a trick akin to placing videos in security systems to give the impression that a surveillance system is working when it is not.

The initial identification of those applying for cards

A basic problem of false identification exists at the point where the person’s identity is to be established before the identity card is to be issued. Forged documents will be of the type which are now forged, ie without biometric data. Over the generations this might become a smaller problem as children are registered at birth, but for the foreseeable future it will be a major difficulty.

The initial registering of the 60 million people in Britain will also be a massive task. Even if new passports and driving licences are going to require biometric data allowing the database to be gradually built up over years, that will still leave millions of people who neither drive nor have passports. The administrative problems of ensuring all those are issued with cards will be immense.

What non-biometric data could be on the database It would be impractical to include data which will regularly change such as a person’s address or workplace. Yet that is precisely the type of non-biometric data which is most useful in identifying someone. And what will the police do if they pick up a suspect but have to rely on the subject to give them an address?

The administrative problems in the field

These are mind-boggling. Can one imagine the ordinary policeman or immigration officer comfortably or efficiently using complicated machines to read the data either from the cards or directly from the cardholder? Or how about every store or bank requiring one? Think of your average bored teenager serving in a shop and then let your mind boggle at the idea of them taking an iris print. One can all too easily imagine a situation where using the machine is simply not done because the operator cannot be bothered or does not understand the procedure. British passports have been machine readable since 1988. How many are ever machine read? Very few.

Equally demanding would be the mammoth task of maintaining literally thousands (potentially tens of thousands) of machine card readers around the country. The likelihood is that many would break down and in such circumstances identity checks would simply be made by a non-id card means.

The potential practical ill effects of a biometric-based ID card

There are potentially massive practical problems which could arise from such a card. What happens if a person’s card is lost or the biometric data used as an identifier is damaged, e.g. by scarring a fingerprint? How would they actually exist if the card is necessary for daily living?

The failure rate for recognition requests would not have to be large to make the security of the card and its practical use as an identifier problematical. With a database of 60 million (the UK population) even a one tenth of one percent failure would mean 60,000 potential failures, each of which could be repeated many times if the card is needed for a wide range of activity which is the Government’s intention. (A Home Office press release states “crucially, the cards will help people live their lives more easily, giving them watertight proof of identity for use in daily transactions and travel” – http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/n_story.asp?item_id=91). Imagine that you are one of the unlucky ones whose biometrics do not identify you positively, being faced over and over again with the need to prove who you are by other means.

There is also the strong possibility that false information will be put into the database. Governments will not be able to resist the temptation of going beyond the mere identification of someone. They will wish to store details of other things such as criminal records, health data and welfare take-up.

When an identity card was introduced in 1939 it had three purposes: to aid the function of rationing, help conscription and improve security and immigration. When a Commons committee examined the experience of the ID in 1950 (when it was still in force) the number of purposes had risen to 39.

One may be certain that something similar will occur if a biometric card is introduced. Indeed, the schedule 1 of the draft Bill currently doing the “consultation” rounds has a long list of information to be included on the ID register. This includes names, date and place of birth, photograph, fingerprint (and other biometric information), residential status, nationality, entitlement to remain in Britain and the exact terms of the right to remain and a National Identity Registration Number. It will also carry a record of any changes made to the Register.

The more information the more uses to which the card will be put. The more powerful computer technology becomes, the greater the ease and range of sharing information.

There is also the possibility that simple error will result in non-biometric data being entered which will make the identity of the person suspect, e.g., the wrong middle name. At best that would be extremely inconvenient for the individual. Or suppose your health records have the wrong blood group in-putted and you do not know. You have an accident and are taken to hospital unconscious and the wrong blood is used for a transfusion?

More generally, what would happen if the government computer system crashed, either through its own inherent weaknesses or from a malicious hackers attack? How would the world work if everything has become dependent upon the person’s state stored identity? The quick answer is the world would not work.

There is also the question of security. In principle a system could be set up whereby the machine card readers (or readers of biometric data directly from the individual) could have varying levels of access. All readers would identify you as the individual corresponding to the biometric data, but additional information such as health and credit data would be restricted to those with a legitimate reason to know them.

For example, you go to hospital and their reader will allow them to see what your health data is but nothing more. You go to get credit from a store and the shop’s reader gives them access only to your credit status.

Fine in principle, but does anyone believe that any of the information on the card would not rapidly become successfully “hacked” by anyone with the necessary IT skills? There is no reason to believe so because every other “secure” system to date has been hacked, even those with the highest security.

ID Cards are not the problem, the database is

Identity cards as such are a red herring. If the system is sophisticated enough to read from a database and check it immediately against biometric data taken directly from a suspect there would be no need for a card because the person would carry his own identification all the time, i.e. his or her biometric data. It is the database which is the problem.

The overt purposes of the proposed card

What effects would an identity card have on welfare abuse, crime, illegal immigration and security? If the card is voluntary or carrying it is optional, it will little if any effect on the last three items, for any person stopped who does not have a card will simply fail to appear with his or her card at a police station within the seven days as proposed in the draft Bill. However, let us assume that the carrying the card becomes obligatory. What then?

In theory, welfare benefits, including NHS treatment, housing and education could be better controlled, but there is the small matter of 400 million odd citizens from other EU countries to consider who have or shortly will have an absolute right to benefits in the UK. To those can be added millions more from around the world from countries such as Australia and Canada who have reciprocal welfare arrangements with the UK? Will they have to apply for a UK card before they get them?

Perhaps, but what of emergency health treatment? Would any government, when shove comes to push, have the will to deny treatment to those without a card? Moreover, what of failed asylum seekers who are not deported because it is deemed that their native countries are too dangerous to return the failed asylum seeker to? Will they be denied treatment even where the illness or injury is serious but not immediately life threatening, for example, if they are HIV-positive?

An ID card is no help in solving crime generally because the police can only arrest or investigate those people whom they have already identified. In theory a card might reduce fraud based on identity misrepresentation, but that assumes private companies will play ball with the Government’s stated intention that cards will be used “indaily transactions and travel”. As they all have their own cards and identification systems which are getting ever more sophisticated, it is extremely dubious that they will willingly add another layer of expensive security to their own.

As for illegal immigration, a government could make it impossible for a person to work legally in Britain unless they have a card. However, to enforce that would require an immense bureaucracy and a willingness to harass both employers and the general public severely. Employers would have to be regularly prosecuted and subject to stiff penalties for employing illegal labour, while the general public would find that they were essentially slaves requiring the permission of the state to gain employment. In fact, if a card was made necessary for not only employment but welfare and transactions such as opening a bank account or using a credit card, the individual would effectively require the permission of the state to live. Ultimately, the state could control people simply by discontinuing money in the form of notes and coins and making people use cards for all purchases.

As an anti-terrorist measure it would be pretty meaningless because any visitor to this country will not have to have an identity card. As tens of millions of visits are made each year, any terrorist could operate without ever being asked to prove his identity by any means other than would now be employed. As for any home grown terrorist, they will be able to get a valid card and until identified as a terrorist, by which time identity is established, they will be able to use it to move freely in the UK. It is also true that once human beings become reliant on machine checks they tend to treat them as holy writ and become much less generally observant and suspicious.

What if the proposed UK system proves inoperable?

The proposed UK card will not begin to be implemented if at all until 2007 and, even by the Government’s estimates, it will take many years to establish universal coverage of the UK population. But even if the card is never fully implemented by further legislation the government will have a database with the biometric details of most of the population in a few years through their inclusion on passports and driving licences. This will be shared by government departments and other public agencies. It will be subject to hacking and the corrupt release of information by those working within the system.

If such a system is implemented I predict that all those who are pro-ID card will be converted to the anti-card camp the first time they are stopped by the police and asked for it, or the first time their biometrics are checked and show a false negative, or the first time the database crashes and makes transactions impossible because identity cannot be verified, or the first time that they lose their card and find their lives in limbo.

Those who are against ID cards on principle will need no urging to oppose them. But even those who are in principle supportive of the idea of an ID card – and regrettably polls consistently show 70-80% of Britons in favour – may still rationally reject the idea of this card because of the sheer impracticality of the proposed system and its palpable failure to meet the objectives which persuaded them to become supporters.

The new leader of the Greens knows how to keep mum

Robert Henderson

Natalie Bennett  has been elected leader of the Green party in England and Wales (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19462474). I know  Miss Bennett through my participation in a campaign to prevent the building of the Francis Crick  Institute (FCI),  a gigantic research laboratory. The primary objections to the Institute (formerly the UK CENTRE FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH AND INNOVATION or UKCRMI) arose from the fact that research would be done on dangerous  diseases at  an  unreservedly inappropriate site – the FCI is being built  just behind the British Library and next door to the  new Eurostar  terminal at St Pancras.  Those wishing to discover more should go to my blog  http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/objection-to-ukcmri-planning-application-for-a-research-centre-in-brill-place-london-nw1/.

Miss Bennett took a leading part in that campaign which lasted several years and ended in very predictable failure.  That was because the project had the wholehearted  support of both the Labour Government and the Tory Opposition. Normal campaigning on such  grounds as  danger and its contradiction of Camden Council’s public planning policy  was irrelevant, because  the supposedly impartial decision on who should be allowed to purchase the site  had  been taken before the bidding process  even closed. (There were several other serious bidders with alternative uses such as housing and commercial development). The decision was meant to be taken by the Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)  on the grounds of value for money. No one outside DCMS was meant to be involved.  The other bidders were spending their money (and these types of bids are very expensive) with no hope of success.

The one serious chance to stop the building of the Institute was to expose the illegitimate nature of the decision on who should purchase the site. This I did  using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The information gained by this means revealed that Gordon Brown when Prime Minister had intervened to ensure that the consortium backing the FCI  bid got the land.  The documents showing Brown’s interference are at the bottom of this post.   They should be read in the context of powerful men getting their will done through expressing their desires rather than issuing direct orders. However, many of the documents are directly explicit about the involvement.

At the time of the campaign Miss Bennett was  editor of  The Guardian Weekly, a post she occupied  from December 2007 until March 2012.  She was in a  position to get the story of Gordon Brown’s illicit involvement in the bidding process into the mainstream media . I supplied her  with copies of  the documents showing Brown’s interference. Miss Bennett refused to use them, something more than a little surprising because  not only was she campaigning against the building of the FCI on the site,  the interference  was a category A political story and ostensibly one right up the Guardian’s street because it dealt with government  misbehaviour behind closed doors.   Miss Bennett  also failed to use the information when she was called before the Commons Science and Technology committee to give evidence.

I will leave it to the reader to speculate about  Miss Bennett’s motives for not using the information , but  here are a few objective facts relevant to the question:

1.  Despite being a  mainstream journalist, she refused to use information which  could have stopped the building of the FCI  and which was, regardless of her  involvement in the campaign against the FCI, the basis for a heavyweight  political story.

2. Miss Bennett’s politics are hard core politically correct. Here are a few  gems from her personal website http://nataliebennett.co.uk/ to give you an idea of her mentality and politics:

 Home page: Natalie Bennett, Journalist, Writer, Green, Feminist

Resurrecting Our Foremothers:

The Prime Minister Miss Bennett refused to expose was someone very much to her political taste, namely, someone who headed a Government reeking with political correctness.

The honesty of her behaviour and words as leader of the Greens should be weighed in the context of her behaviour over the Francis Crick Institute campaign.

The honesty of her behaviour and words as leader of the Greens should be weighed in the context of her behaviour over the Francis Crick Institute campaign.

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Gordon Brown’s involvement in the sale of the land to UKCRMI | February 21, 2011

To make  the matter as simple as possible to follow,  I have selected from the  documents in my possession which show Gordon Brown’s illegitimate involvement in the sale of  the land to UKCRMI six which form a paper trail from the period before the closing date for expressions of interest  to the announcement of the sale of the land by Gordon Brown.  Some of the  documents are lengthy. To prevent readers having to plough through them   I have highlighted  (by bolding) the passages in the documents which refer directly or indirectly to Brown’s interest.  Where a figure such as  [40] appears, that means redaction has occurred under the exemptions in the FOIA –  the number relates to the clause number of the exemption.  These documents  also give a good sketch of the background to the bidding process.

NB This document shows that  Brown was interfering even before the closing date for expressions of interest was closed.  The relevant date is not that on Rosemary Banner’s letter, but the enclosure which came with the letter, i.e., 1 August 2007. 

HM TREASURY

I Horse Guards Road London SWIA 2HQ

Rosemary Banner

Head of Information Rights Unit

Tel: 020 7270 5723

Fax:

rosemary.banner@hm-treasury.x.gsi.gov.uk

http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk

Mr R Henderson

24 June 2009

Dear Mr Henderson

Freedom of Information Act 2000: medical research centre   We wrote to you on 27 August 2008 conveying the conclusions of the internal review carried out in relation to your complaint to the Treasury about the handling of your April 2008 request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

In light of your complaint to the Information Commissioner we have reconsidered the single item of information that falls within the scope of your request that has not already been disclosed. As a result of this re-examination we have identified additional information that we are now able to provide to you. Please see attachment at the end of this letter. For the avoidance of doubt we should make it clear that the Treasury continues to regard its original decision not to release this information as correct at the request and review stage. However, given the passage of time, we believe that the public interest in withholding has diminished and can now be released.

We have, however, decided to continue to withhold two sentences from this information under section 35(1 )(a) of the Act. These sentences continue to relate to ongoing policy. We have explained our position to the ICO regarding this, and are able to clarify that the redacted sentences contain information on a bid for funding from the MRC that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills are assessing in the normal way. Funding decisions have not concluded. As always the Government will publish actual funding provisions once a decision has been reached. Due to the way funding bids are negotiated and assessed this was been a live issue at the time of the request; internal review; and remains so at this present time. To be helpful we refer to evidence published by the select committee in December 2007. You will see that at that time the bid was £118 million.

http://www. parliament.the-stationery-office.com/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmdius/1 85/1 85we02.htm

The Treasury is not able to comment as to what the final figure will be until a decision has been made, I reiterate that once decided it will be announced publicly.

Rosemary Banner

Head of Information Rights Unit

For HM Treasury

EXTRACT of relevant information extracted from a report prepared

1 August 2007

NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MEDICAL RESEARCH (NIMR)   MRC concluded some years ago that the NIMR’s future location should be close to a London Teaching Hospital. With this in mind, MRC purchased at their risk for £28M in March 2006, but with Treasury’s knowledge, a one-acre site at the National Temperance Hospital location (NTH) in London.

MRC has recently learnt that its earlier preferred site for NIMR, a three-acre site adjacent to the British Library, has now become available. This larger site would have the major advantage of accommodating more translational research. Encouragingly MRC has most recently proposed that the site would be developed in partnership with Cancer Research UK (CRUK), Wellcome Trust and UCL as a potentially strong consortium. The Wellcome Trust have mentioned that they would be prepared to make a sizeable investment to help establish a new world class medical research facility in North London if they can secure DCMS-owned land and planning permission from Camden Council. At present the consortia has registered its interest in buying the site.

This project has had a very long gestation period, during which the arguments for the strong scientific case for relocating within London (which has a cluster of medical research and teaching hospitals) and the need to retain MRC’s highly skilled staff.

The recent preparation of a suitable business case has been further complicated of late by both the re-emergence of the British Library site as a possible location.

The PM is also most recently stated that he is very keen to make sure that Government departments are properly coordinated on this project and that if there is a consensus that this is indeed an exciting project then we do what we can to make it happen. This is extremely helpful from a DIUS and MRC perspective, but, formally a NIMR relocation project in London has yet to receive Lyons approval from Treasury (for either the first planned NTH site or the possible BL site).

MRC have employed Deloitte to prepare a full business case for the relocation project.

The scientific and operational case for a London location is strong in our view.

Key Dates for the Preparation and Appraisal of the NIMR Proposal

- July 2007 — Letter to Treasury to inform CST of MRC’s proposed bid for the BL site.

-July/August 2007 — Expression of interest in the BL site registered by  the MRC Consortium.

-September 2007 — further substantive discussions with MRC/Deloitte  on Lyons and emerging business case material.

-September 2007 — MRC NIMR project included by RCUK in the 2007 Roadmap consultation.

-October 2007 — first full draft business case prepared by MRC/Deloitte.

-October 2007 — MRC consortium formally bid to DCMS for the BL site.

-November 2007 — Full revised business case received and Lyons case consideration undertaken by Treasury.

-December — Progress submission to Ministers.

-December 2007 — MRC Consortium formed and, if successful in bidding, payment to DCMS for the BL site.

-December 2007 — MRC’s NIMR project prioritised by Research Council Directors for receipt of DIUS funding through the Large Facility Capital Fund.

-February/March 2008 — Submission to Ministers for approval of LFCF allocation to support the MRC’s NIMR project, subject to our final assessment of (a) the outcome of the Lyons case (b) the full business case and (C) prioritisation by RCUK of the use of the available LFCF,

April/May 2008 — DIUS Ministerial announcement of NIMR relocation project approval (subject to all the above).

Further Background to the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) The NIMR is one of the MRC’s largest and oldest research institutes. The NIMR is recognised as once of the UK’s foremost basic research institutes with a strong scientific track record and reputation. NIMR currently  houses the World Influenza Centre (WIC), which was established by  World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948. The Centre, works with a  network of collaborating laboratories to detect and characterise the emergence of new influenza virus anywhere in the world including avian virus H5N1. NIMR is also at the forefront of international research to discover how molecular changes in the virus affect its ability to infect people and cause disease.

The NIMR has been at its present site since 1950. If it were to remain there the buildings would need substantial refurbishment. It is currently a ‘stand-alone’ Institute not physically linked to any University, Medical School or Hospital. In 2003 the MRC set up an expert Task Force to examine the strategic positioning of the NIMR research within the MRC portfolio. The Task Force concluded that their vision for NIMR would be best delivered through an intramural — i.e. with the staff employed by MRC — research institute on a single site in central London in partnership with a leading university and hospital (they received proposals from King’s College and University College) and this would enhance: – The multidisciplinary nature of NIMR’s work, providing access to other biologists, physical scientists, engineers, and mathematicians – Opportunities to collaborate more closely with clinicians and strengthen the focus of translational research.

Remaining at Mill Hill was considered by the Task Force where the majority view was that this would not be a viable option as it would not deliver Council’s vision for a world class research institute carrying out basic, clinical and translational research in partnership with a leading university and hospital. The position was endorsed by the MRC Council. This disappointed some staff at NIMR and there has been much lobbying of Ministers and MPs and as a result the issue has received some media interest.

MRC Council selected UCL as its preferred partner for the renewal and relocation of NIMR in Central London, in close proximity to a major teaching hospital (University College Hospital) and relevant university departments, including chemistry and physics.

The MRC Council approved an outline Business Plan for the renewal and relocation of NIMR in July 2005. The Business Plan confirmed the feasibility of developing the renewed Institute on the National Temperance Hospital (NTH) site in Hampstead Road, which MRC bought (at its own risk but with Treasury’s knowledge), for £28M in 2006, suggesting that the new site could provide accommodation for up to 1,058 staff, including 248 from UCL and potentially 40 additional research staff.

MRC have recognised that their development of the business case needed to ensure a successful project and to satisfy the requirements of DIUS and Treasury requires additional skills to those residing within the MRC and most recently further advice has been procured by MRC from Deloitte for assistance with preparation of the business case.

It was also not our intention at review stage to withhold names of senior civil servants of the email provided at initial request. While we explained that the sender was Jeremy Heywood from the Cabinet Office we overlooked to state the other officials who were recipients of that email. They were: The Permanent Secretaries of DIUS and DCMS Ian Watmore and Jonathan Stephens; the Managing Director of Public Spending in HMT, John Kingman; and the Chief Operating Officer, DCMS Nicholas Holgate.

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NB This document shows Brown’s  interest just before the short list of bidders was decided. 

RESTRICTED – POLICY & COMMERCIAL

To James Purnell Margaret Hodge, Jonathan Stephens,Ros Brayfield

From Nicholas Holgate

Date 18 September 2007 ____________

SALE OF LAND TO THE NORTH OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Issue: mainly for information but also to ask how you would wish to be involved in this transaction.

The Department owns 3.6 acres to the north of the British Library. With the completion of the new train terminal, we are able to sell it and have been conducting a competitive process so that Ministers can choose what represents best value, comprising not just the proceeds from sale but also the use to which the bidder intends to put the land.

2. We are bound to be concerned about proceeds:

a. There is an obvious obligation, on Jonathan as the department’s Accounting Officer, to secure the best return we can for the taxpayer;

b. the Government is close to breaching its fiscal rules and has set itself a demanding target for asset disposals. Your predecessor strongly rebutted the Treasury’s proposal that we should sell assets worth £150m by 2010-11 and it has not formally been debated since your arrival; but we are likely to have to raise some funds from disposals. In any case:

c. proceeds from this sale are earmarked to contribute towards the budget of the Olympic Delivery Authority for 2007-08.

3. Subject to Treasury agreement, we can nevertheless also take public value” into account. We are aware of two such bids one led by the Medical Research Council, with support from the Wellcome Foundation and others for a research facility; and one that wishes to remain confidential but which is essentially related to faith and education.

4. The facts are:

a. We have now received 28 bids in response to a prospectus. Amongst other things, the prospectus drew attention to the local planning policy guidance, which steers bidders towards a scheme that is roughly 50:50 commercial and residential development with 50% affordable housing. It is Camden Borough Council and the Mayor who will have the last word on what is in fact built on the site;

b. Our professional advisers have scored the bids on various criteria and are interviewing the top seven plus two others (the medical research bid is one of the two others) next week;

c. There is a significant financial gap between the top bids and the medical research bid.

5. Jonathan and I are meeting Jeremy Heywood (who is aware of both public value bids), Ian Watmore (Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills) and John Kingman (Treasury) tomorrow. We need to agree an orderly and appropriate process for selling the land, given the public value bidders, other Departments’ interest and the likelihood that the Prime Minister might wish to take an interest too.

6. We will report back to you then. Subject to your views and others’, one potential way forward is a. DIUS economists be invited to assess the public value of the medical research bid. We will need some such calculation if we sell at a discount. DCMS should not do this as we should display some neutrality between bidders . We decide whether we expect the medical research bid to match the best bid, improve their offer but not necessarily to match, or take a lower value on the chin. Given their backers, they can afford to match. But they may refuse to play; and/or we may not wish to be seen to be reducing their funding for good causes just to maximise proceeds;

c. We see whether there is a Government champion for the other bidder;

and

d. We then fairly characterise the two public value bidders and the best commercial bid (or bids, if they differ significantly in what they propose) to Ministers and No 10 for a decision.

Nicholas Holgate

Chief Operating Officer

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NB This shows Brown’s interest a few weeks before the sale to UKCRMI was agreed.

BRIEFING NOTE FROM POLICY ADVISERS DATED 12 NOVEMBER 2007 TO THE PRIME MINISTER COPIED TO No 10 OFFICIALS.

THE NOTE WAS ENTITLED: PROJECT BLISS – CREATING A WORLD-LEADING MEDICAL RESEARCH FACILITY IN LONDON

Disclosable extracts:

We are close to being ready to announce Government support for the creation of a world-leading medical research facility in London.

The key component being finalised is the sale of land, which will allow the BLISS partner organisations (the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London) to develop their detailed proposals for the creation of the centre.

We anticipate that the deal will be finalised over the next few days and we should be able to announce the outcome of the process In the next few weeks. On current plans, we would expect the sale to complete during December and preparations for development to begin straight away. The expectation is that the Institute would be up and running by 2012.

This is an important opportunity to demonstrate what the UK’s commitment to medical research really means in practice. And it fits very well with the focus of your intended health speech.

What would you be announcing?

• We would be committing Government support to the creation of a new centre for UK biomedical research, with 1,500+ scientists, at a level commensurate with the very best institutions in the world.

• The BLISS consortium brings together four of the leading medical research institutions in the UK – the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London.

• The Centre responds to the vision, outlined in Sir David Cooksey’s review of UK health research presented to Treasury in 2006, of better integration and translation of research into patient and public benefit. The Centre will benefit from economies of scale, enhanced infrastructure, the critical mass to optimise collaboration, and the capacity to take scientific discoveries from the lab bench to the hospital bed.

• These four key partners, together with the expectation that other organisations would come forward to invest In the centre or to lease research space, bring a powerful combination of skills and capabilities — basic research, applied research, the capabilities to convert research and innovation for public and commercial use, and the skills and opportunities presented by access to a leading university and teaching hospital. The potential, In terms of understanding disease, and developing new drugs, treatments and cures, is huge.

How to announce?

The suggestion is that you announce this a few days before your health speech, planned for 6th December. We would suggest a visit to a high-tech medical site in the morning to get pictures, followed by a meeting at No lO with all relevant stakeholders (primarily the four partner organisations) at which you make the formal announcement and ‘launch’ the project. Let us know your thoughts on whether this is the right way to proceed with the BLISS announcement?

Background

The vision for the BLISS Centre has six themes:

Research innovation and excellence • Bring together outstanding scientists from two world-class research institutes (MRC NIMR and the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute), collaborating with UCL, to address fundamental questions of human health and disease. • Through Wellcome Trust funding, development of tools for integrative biology, with an emphasis on the development of advanced microscopy imaging and on the mathematicaland computational needs in this field.

• Increase scientific innovation through new links with the physical sciences, life sciences, mathematics, engineering and the social Sciences at UCLI

• Develop close links between the Centre and the outstanding hospitals nearby (Including the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queens Square, Great Ormond Street, Moorfields and University College Hospital) and other major hospitals in London (including Hammersmith Hospital and the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at Hammersmith, and the Maudsley Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry)1 State-of-the-art research facilities

• Develop a multidisciplinary research complex operating in state-of-the-art facilities, with the size and diversity to be internationally competitive with the world’s top research institutes.

• Establish a new centre for development of advanced imaging technologies and analysis. A national focus for biomedical science

• Interact with other local centres of excellence to foster and facilitate collaboration between basic, translational and Clinical scientists1  Host national and international research meetings and conferences, facilitated by its proximity to national and International transport links and the conference facilities of the British Library. An effective interface with technology transfer and development

• Facilitate the effective development of therapeutic and diagnostic devices and drugs, by allowing the technology transfer arms of MRC and Cancer Research UK to work closely together.

• Drive innovation in developing tests and technologies through interaction between researchers and development laboratories.

Finding and developing the scientists of the future • Provide an attractive environment to secure and retain world-class scientists by providing an outstanding setting for research and collaboration. • Boost the recruitment and training of scientists and doctors of the future by providing an excellent environment for postgraduate and postdoctoral training, and for training outstanding clinical scientists committed to medical research.

Engaging with the public

• Educate the public on important issues in health and disease.

• Bring together and enhance partners’ public information and education programmes, with a particular focus on engaging younger people.

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NB This document shows Brown’s involvement just prior to the sale of the land.

BRIEFING NOTE FROM NO 10 POLICY ADVISER TO THE PRIME MINISTER DATED 27 NOVEMBER 2007

COPIED TO NO 10 OFFICIALS

ENTITLED “MEETING WITH PAUL NURSE ON BLISS PROJECT”

You are meeting Paul Nurse who is likely to lead the BLISS institute, along, with Mark Walport, Director of The Wellcome Trust, and Harpal Kumar, Head of Cancer Research, two partners in BLISS

We are close to being ready to announce Government support for plans to create a world-leading medical research facility in London, led by the BLISS consortium made up of the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London.

We have now effectively finalised negotiations on the sale of the 35 acre site, adjacent to the British Library: a price has been agreed with DCMS, and the deal is complete subject to agreement on how much of the proceeds DCMS will retain. We are therefore ready for an announcement next week on the sale of the land – but will not be announcing full details of the project overall, as there remain various Issues to resolve, including reaching agreement on business plans and gaining planning permission. We would therefore announce the Government’s support for the vision of the new centre – rather than definitive support for the centre itself. The Project BLISS consortium brings together four leading medical research institutions in the UK and will create a new centre for UK biomedical  research, with 1,500+ scientists, at a level commensurate with the very best Institutions in the world.

The Centre responds to the vision, outlined in Sir David Cooksey’s review of UK health research presented to Treasury in 2006, of better integration and translation of research into patient and public benefit.

The Centre will benefit from economies of scale, enhanced infrastructure, the critical mass to optimise collaboration, and the capacity to take scientific discoveries from the lab bench to the hospital bed. The Centre will create a place for:

• collaboration, between leading scientists and clinicians, working on some of the most pressing medical problems of our time;

• excellence, maintaining the quality of the UK’s life sciences research base;

• application, making links between research, medical practice and the pharmaceutical industry;

• innovation, translating research innovation into new treatments;

• learning, bringing forward a new generation of scientific leaders;

  •discovery, showcasing the challenges and potential of life sciences to a new audience.

• Using the close proximity to the British Library, the Centre will develop a public engagement and education programme.

Sir Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse is President of Rockerfeller University, formerly Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Medicine. His appointment has not yet been publicly announced,but he is set to lead the project as chair the Scientific Planning Committee.

Briefing note from Bliss

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NB This document from just before the sale of the land shows  the extent of Brown’s involvement with the suggestion that he would arbitrate.  

Sent: 27 November 2007 13:09

To: HOLGATE NICHOLAS

Cc: _[40]_____________

Subject: RESTRICTED – Land to the North

Hi Nicholas,

Jonathan spoke to Jeremy Heywood this morning. Jeremy said he needed the bid to be agreed by next Wednesday – 5 Dec (or Thursday  latest) as PM wanted to get MRC in then (or possible public announcement.

Jonathan explained that there are two issues from our point of view: .No revised formal offer has been received by DCMS .HMT are not being helpful of recycling returns – without an improved offer from HMT JS said it would he v hard to justify.

JR said he thought the offer was sent to us yesterday – have checked but  nothing in JSs post or email – JH will chase. JH also said he would go   back to HMT to see what more they can do, but that ultimately PM may have to arbitrate.

Cheers

[40]

[40]

Private Secretary  to Jonathan Stephens

Department for (Culture, Media and Sport 2-4 Cockpur Street, London

SWlY 5Dl1 email: [40]@culture.gsi.gov.uk tel: 0207211 fax: 020 72116259

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NB This document shows Brown’s state of mind immediately after the sale of the land was agreed.

Treasury document

From – name censored

Sent: 04 December 2007 19:49

To: name(s) censored.

CC: name(s) censored)

Thanks for everyone’s help and support in making the announcement tomorrow happen. The PM is truly delighted that departments have been able to work together to secure this huge opportunity for Britain

RESTRICTED – COMMERCIAL

Big Brother plus is knocking on your front door

Robert Henderson

In  George Orwell’s 1984 there are tele-screens and hidden microphones  dotted liberally around public spaces, but, contrary to what is commonly imagined by those who have never read the  book, there is no universal electronic surveillance of   people  within their homes.  There are two-way screens in  the apartments  of many, especially those of the  IngSoc  Party members – the only party allowed: think the CP of the Soviet Union with a dash of  Nazism –  which allow  people  to be watched and those being watched to interact with  the watchers  But most of the population – the Proles – do not suffer these  direct  indignities. They are not considered a threat to IngSoc  because of their lack of sophistication which allows them to be manipulated and controlled by the application of mass psychology and a ruthless and proactive censorship which continually re-writes the past.

From the details publicly available, the intention of the David Cameron’s Coalition Government is to pass an Act  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/apr/02/internet-companies-warn-government-email-surveillance) which will do what Orwell did not imagine: introduce electronic surveillance into every home as well as every place of work or public area where the Internet  is used.  Indeed, for anyone who uses a mobile  phone or similar device to enter the Internet , the surveillance will be complete if the person keeps the phone with them all the time. It will be Big Brother Plus.

The proposed Act will force ISPs to store and,   release at the  demand  of the state, details  of who has sent what emails and texts to  whom; who has made phone calls to whom and the websites someone has visited, viz:  “Under legislation expected in next month’s Queen’s Speech, internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ – the Government’s electronic “listening” agency – to examine “on demand” any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed in “real time”, The Sunday Times reported.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/ws/expansion-of-gchq-internet-monitoring-proposed-7606489.html). Presumably services such as Skype and instant messaging facilities such as Yahoo’s will be encompassed by the legislation.  It is also all too easy to imagine every other provider of communications such as search engines being brought within the net.

As things stand, the Government’s intention is not to allow access to the details of phone calls, emails and texts to be accessed without a warrant. But even if that is how the Bill put before the Commons  reads  it is not much consolation because  even if the system is operated honestly , it will probably be easy enough to get a warrant in many cases because the information gained without a warrant can often give an appearance of suspicious activity even where there is no criminal behaviour.

Even without a warrant  the state will be able to make considerable breaches in a person’s privacy. Knowing the times people are doing things; identifying the websites people are visiting and the frequency of the visits;  knowing how long phone calls have lasted, seeing who  people are contacting and  the frequency of their contact is information which could provide  plausible grounds for suspicion, or at least a case which is plausible enough to provide an arguable justification for the issue of a warrant.  It will only be guilt by association, but those issuing warrants may  often accept  association as sufficient grounds for the issue of a warrant, for example, if terrorist connections  are suspected the pressure to grant a warrant would be very strong.

Here are a couple of innocent scenarios which could prompt the granting of a warrant:

-          Someone  has a strong interest in Middle East  politics and regularly visits websites which represent the  views of the likes of Hamas or  someone wishes to research al Qaeda questions.  They would probably go to quite a few sites and perhaps go often, at least over a short period.  The police and/or security services suspect that the person is a terrorist.

-          Someone without a criminal past unbeknown to them has a friend with a serious criminal past. The police suspect the criminal is about to become active again and the person without a criminal past a criminal associate.

There would immense opportunities for  the abuse of power.  In the past quarter century Britain has witnessed  ever more authoritarian behaviour by governments of all colours which includes  either going beyond what the law empowers them to do, for example, the restrictions on free movement  during the miners’ strike,  or the passing of laws which are simply incompatible with a democracy (the vast array of anti-terrorist legislation and the  laws introduced to enforce political correctness such as those relating to “hate crimes” and legislation such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/34/contents).

The consequence of this array of authoritarian legislation is not only to provide governments and the public bodies which derive from them with considerable legal powers over the individual, but to also make politicians and public servants ever more arrogant in their application of laws. At the same time the general public  has developed the type of mentality found in totalitarian states where the individual begins to live in continual fear of ending up in the hands of the police and the justice system or, at best, of losing their employment, if they protest against the growing authoritarianism or breach the ever expanding  limits of political correctness.  This latter worry is no idle fear as there are now weekly examples of those deemed to have placed themselves beyond the pc Pale appearing in the mainstream media.  A drunken student makes some racist comments on twitter and ends up with a 56 day prison sentence while  habitual burglars commonly take at least three convictions to go to prison.   The England centre half John Terry is alleged to have racially abused another player  and is charged with a criminal offence.  A young mother Emma West is not only charged with criminal offences after protesting publicly about the effects of mass immigration,  but is held in “protective custody” at the nearest England has to a women’s category A prison,  despite the fact that she said she did not  require protection.   The consequence of this growing public fear is to feed the natural arrogance of those with power to become ever more reckless in their destruction of the necessary freedoms upon which a democracy rests.

It is against this background that the proposed massive increase in surveillance must be seen.  It is impossible any longer to have faith in any checks and balances put in place to prevent  abuse of  such new laws.  At best those empowered to grant warrants to allow access to the content of emails, texts and possibly phone calls (if these are recorded) will be drawn from the circle of people who are sympathetic generally to those with power.  They will , consciously or subconsciously,  tend to look with favour on request from those with whom they have a class interest. We see this time and again with government instigated inquiries  where a judge or senior public servant is appointed and  the inquiry invariably produces a report which avoids damaging a government or politician still in power. The Hutton Inquiry into Dr David Kelly’s death is a first rate example .  A great deal of  doubt  on the official account of Kelly’s death was cast by evidence given before Hutton , yet he produced conclusions which flew in the face of this evidence and simply repeated  the line wanted by the government,  that Kelly had committed suicide.

There would also be scope outright skullduggery  whereby  the state actively connived at producing information which would justify a warrant. It would not be difficult to hack into a person’s computer  and plant information by visiting compromising  websites, for example, child pornography sites. That would then provide prima facie evidence to apply for a warrant. People other than state actors could also  engage in this type of  behaviour, for example, companies, foreign states and private individuals  who wish to harm someone .

Nor is it only material pointing to potentially criminal behaviour which would be brought into play. There is a good deal of information about legal activities which could be used to either blackmail or disrupt a person’s life by releasing information which compromises them.  Suppose someone has been visiting legal pornographic sites or their phone  contacts suggest an affair is being conducted by someone who is married.  Or it could be something political.  A person may have been contacting political  sites which are  represented as being  beyond the Pale by a political elite –  the BNP in Britain would be a good current example.  Secret membership of such a party  or even showing an interest in such a party, could easily cost  the person their job if it was revealed to their employer.  Where a warrant was  granted  the scope for such harassment by the state would be greatly expanded by the additional information they could access.

Once such a system is established the natural human tendency  to reach for information  which is easily available will be given ever greater play. Just as DNA has become the go to police  investigatory tool regardless of its deficiencies as evidence because of the ease with which it can be planted or contaminated,    so will  the reference to a person’s digital records become  the  first port of call for the security services.

There is also the concern that the information seen and collected by the police, security services and other government agencies  will not be restricted on a need to know basis. Public bodies have a habit of spreading information, legally or illegally.  It is also certain that there will be horrendous data leaks because there always are with unencrypted laptops and memory stick being left or stolen in public places.  As the storage of the data  will be in the hands of private companies rather than public bodies, the chance of  security breaches, whether accidental or deliberate through corrupt practices, is likely to be vast.

Can we stop it?

The Government have met with a good deal of resistance both from within the coalition parties and from outside, with calls to either drop the idea as incompatible with a free society to demands for very strong safeguards such as only a judge being able to grant a warrant.  The dropping of the Bill is unlikely because the leadership of  all three major parties at Westminster have accepted that something along these lines should  be done in the name of national security.  The likelihood is a fudge with enough poison in the Bill to contaminate what is left of  personal freedom in Britain, for example, the substance of the Bill being left intact with a few sops such as a warrant having to be issued by a magistrate rather than being left, as is the case with much covert surveillance, in the hands of senior police officer to sanction it.

Past experience  with legislation such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) shows that whatever the intention of legislators, powers seemingly granted  for extreme circumstances are used  for humdrum purposes. In the case of the RIPA,  councils have freely used surveillance powers  designed to be used against terrorists and other serious criminals. It is as certain as anything can be, that the proposed new powers would be similarly abused  because  laws to be efficient have to be drafted to cover general  circumstances not particular ones. For example, it might be suggested that the new  law should only apply to those suspected of  endangering the security of the country. That would immediately get the lawyers embroiled in a minefield of definition about what constituted such endangerment.   Add  in all other serious crime and the definitional difficulties multiply.

But even if the new powers were restricted to certain areas of crime, that would not be the end of it. There would be pressure from campaign groups, the general public and politicians to expand it to other areas whenever a crime not covered by the legislation took place could plausibly have been prevented if the powers had been available for that particular class of  crime.

The other great general risk is that the system starts off being policed strictly and the restrictions are subsequently relaxed, for example, initially a judge is required to issue a warrant; this is then eroded to a judge or magistrate and finally to a senior police officer.

If the Coalition’s proposals become law they will  bring the surveillance of  British citizens to something dangerously close to that envisaged by Orwell.  Britain is already the most closely watched nation in the world in terms of CCTV cameras per head of population.  Some of these cameras are interactive in the 1984 sense with interaction between watched and watcher possible.  The ever increasing sophistication of digital technology is making any utterance potentially a public matter through its recording and then placing on websites such as YouTube.  The risk of hacking makes all data potentially open to anyone.   If the state takes to itself the power to be able to look at anything a person does there will be precious little way to go before Britain is not merely at the state of surveillance Orwell envisaged but beyond it because everyone will  be potentially under surveillance.

If the intended Act is passed, all that would  left to complete the surveillance jigsaw  for modern Britain would be for something akin to Orwell’s two-way screens to be placed in every person’s home.  That is the position with the  level of present technology. Going further it is probable that in the future machine implants could be made into the human body to monitor our thoughts or our thoughts be captured by some external means such as a form of brain scanning using energy beams to record what we are thinking.  Impossible that we should ever allow such things you say? Well, think of the enormous inroads into our personal freedom we have already tolerated without anything beyond a little grumbling at best.

If we allow this proposal to go through Big Brother will, in a limited sense, already be within our homes , indeed, within our lives generally.  It will potentially allow our private lives to be revealed to the state without restriction. That is what Winston Smith in 1984 suffered.    If we tolerate such an intrusion what argument would we have against the introduction of state surveillance of all our activity,  including what we did in our homes?  There would be none which carried any great force because we would have already permitted surveillance of a large part of what we do privately . If we are to prevent the ever greater embrace of the state about our personal lives we need to prevent this next step, not the one after.

Human beings have a need for privacy. When  you next hear someone moronically parroting “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”  when the question of increased state surveillance is mooted put this question to them: “My I come and stand outside your house with a video camera and record what you were doing in your home? “ I do not think you would find many takers.  Then gently remind the person that when it comes to authoritarian governments, especially those driven by ideology,  no one can ever be sure what does and does not need to be hidden from the state. What is permissible one day  becomes a crime the next.

Universal distraction

When was the last time that your politicians concentrated seriously  on British domestic issues?  Unable to recall? I’m not surprised because increasingly British politicians spend  their time involved with matters foreign.  This is partly because the ever more comprehensive media coverage of world events drives politicians to at least express opinions on every catastrophe, natural or man-made, in the world, but it  also  occurs because it is politically convenient. One week it is a war; the next a flood or earthquake; the following week a mining disaster; the next a famine.  There is always somewhere in the world which can be relied on to provide the diversion.

The political convenience has several aspects: it provides an opportunity for politicians to posture on what they fondly imagine is a world stage;  it  acts as propaganda for the liberal internationalist politics to which all leading British mainstream politicians subscribe and most importantly it  provides a distraction from  problems  at home and the domestic policies of governments and parties, policies which are generally at odds with what the mass of the population believes and wants.

The mainstream media generally supports the liberal internationalist creed of  the politicians and they are happy to pump out as much international coverage of turmoil and disaster as they can get because it both makes compelling viewing and they can always present this as evidence that “we are all part of  one world” with the politically correct add-on, implied or overt,   that “we”  should do something to alleviate matters. As a tasty coda the media will, whenever possible,  try to imply that “we”, that is, the developed world in general and Britain in particular, are to blame for what misfortune is being covered.  The real “we” is of course not the British people but the British elite.

Tied into the national political class are all those who are involved  at the international level. This includes the British public servants involved with international matters; politicians engaged at the supra-national level such as MEPs; British  bureaucrats attached to the likes of the EU, NATO and the UN and all its agencies;  NGOs including charities and multinational companies.  All of these have a vested interest in at least seeing that the status quo is maintained and,  in the case of the politically motivated who subscribe to “one worldism” and large multinationals,  it is in their interest to see that Britain have  its sovereignty diluted as far as possible.

That leaves the general public who are constantly being asked by politicians and mediafolk  to concentrate on matters over which they have no control and frequently no interest in.  This results either in a disengagement from politics generally or a bemused and increasingly stunned concentration on foreign happenings to the exclusion of what is happening or not happening under their noses.  It is at best a modern version of bread and circuses.

The upshot is that British politicians are increasingly able to ignore what  Britain needs and what its people want.  Mass immigration goes unchecked;  the EU moves with increasing speed to rob Britain of her remaining sovereign powers;  Britain is still involved in illegal wars and our politicians show a worrying appetite for more of the same; the coalition Government  purely  for reasons of crude party politics causally calls a referendum (without any minimum turnout) to change Britain’s voting system from one which generally gives a clear electoral decision to one guaranteed to saddle her with more or less perpetual  coalition government ; ever more repressive laws are passed both giving the state and police more powers ;  political correctness is enshrined ever more deeply  in official British life; our armed forces are driven into an ever smaller and more misshapen remnant of what is needed to defend Britain; there is a continuing failure to ensure Britain’s future energy supplies;  Britain’s ability to feed itself is rapidly diminishing;   England remains without a Parliament unlike the other home countries; English taxpayers money continues to massively subsidise the Celtic Fringe;  British taxpayers money is cavalierly given to foreigners, most substantially through Aid;  UN funding and to the EU while British public services are culled;  the mania for privatisation goes on,  most tragically in the NHS; a housing shortage on a par with that after 1945 is developing; Britons on even average incomes are finding it impossible to raise children in decent comfort; the genuinely poor are increasing raidly; British politicians continue to behave corruptly and venally despite the Parliamentary expenses scandal  and the bankers who brought Britain to her present dire financial state remain not only unpunished, not one having even had their limited liability removed let alone criminal charges preferred,  but scandalously continuing to draw grotesquely high pay and promoting the same time of insanely risky investment behaviour which caused the present financial turmoil.

Those are the most important issues Britain faces . They are being ignored by  Britain’s politicians who increasingly are powerless actors on a stage delivering the words and actions of others.  The British public are left as a helpless audience knowing that no matter how loud they boo the show will go on.

Do you want this potential terrorist target in the heart of London?

The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) was granted planning permission for a research labratory on 16 December. This is a consortium comprised of the Medical Research Council (a taxpayers funded body) , Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London which is part of London University.

If built the research centre will be handling dangerous viruses which are permitted under a level 3 biohazard licence, viz:

“Biohazard Level 3: Bacteria and viruses that can cause severe to fatal disease in humans, but for which vaccines or other treatments exist, such as anthrax, West Nile virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, SARS virus, variola virus (smallpox), tuberculosis, typhus, Rift Valley fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, yellow fever,
and malaria. Among parasites Plasmodium falciparum, which causes Malaria, and Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes trypanosomiasis, also come under this level.”

The Medical Research Council currently handles even more toxic viruses n their Mill Hill site, namely, those which are permitted under a level 4 biohazard licence, viz.:

“Biohazard Level 4: Viruses and bacteria that cause severe to fatal disease in humans, and for which vaccines or other treatments are not available, such as Bolivian and Argentine hemorrhagic fevers, H5N1(bird flu), Dengue hemorrhagic fever, Marburg virus, Ebola virus, hantaviruses, Lassa fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and other hemorrhagic diseases.”

To place such research on the site would be criminally irresponsible under any circumstances even if both the physical security and biohazard hygiene were first rate because of the risks of a terrorist attack. However, there can be no rational public confidence that will be the case because UKCMRI have persistently refused to give any details about how their security arrangements will be handled, even in terms which would not compromise their security, such as saying whether armed guards will be used or even whether the security will be directly employed by the consortium or sub-contracted out. There will also be groups working within the centre who are not directly working for the consortium and the public will have access to some areas. To undertake the building of the centre under these circumstances would not be merely criminally reckless but touch the confines of lunacy.

There are also issues with the disruption caused by building and the contamination of the bidding process for the site by Gordon Brown, who interfered with the process even before the formal bidding period was ended. Details of these issues can be found in my objection to the planning application which forms the first posts in the blog, as well as the detailed objections on security grounds. All the objections to the planning application which require proof are supported by documents.

Write to your MP and complain. Raise a stink wherever you can.

Further details of what is happening can be found at 

 http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/

Man-made global warming is the 21st century phlogiston

In the 18th century a   theory arose to explain the process of oxidation (combustion and rusting). The theory involved a non-existent substance named  phlogiston (from the ancient  Greek for burning up. It was a theory which neatly accounted for oxidation processes such as combustion and rusting. Phlogiston was supposedly contained within every flammable substance and released when a substance was  burnt. This meant that the residue (the calx) of what was burnt should be lighter than the original substance. Inconveniently for the phlogistonists , experiments showed that, for example, a the calx of a metal such as  magnesium gained weight when burnt in the air. The most excitable  phlogistonists  in desperation then floated the idea that  phlogiston had a negative weight. Some of the less excitable suggested that phlogiston was lighter than air, which obfuscated matters until the measurement of the weight of gases as well as the remainders of a burnt substance became possible  through the use of hermetically sealed containers .  Eventually an end was brought to this nonsense by a combination of  Lavoisier’s  identification of  oxygen and its combinational  qualities and numerous experiments by antiphlogistonists  which  showed that results of any substance that  was combusted or corroded in air could only be explained by the phlogiston theory if phlogiston had a negative weight.  The discrediting of phlogiston theory took the better part of a century.

The behaviour  of the man-made global warmists is reminiscent of  the believers in phlogiston. Time and again they are confronted with facts which are as damaging to their  creed as the weight gain of combusted material was to phlogiston theory.  Just like the believers in phlogiston, they meet every  unwelcome fact with increasingly absurd adjustments to their  theory. It gets warmer; that proves man-mad global warming. It gets colder; that proves global warming .  Here’s my all-time favourite of such reasoning: 

Daily TELEGRAPH   1.5.08

Global warming may ‘stop’, scientists predict

By Charles Clover, Environment Editor

Global warming will stop until at least 2015 because of natural variations in the climate, scientists have said.

Researchers studying long-term changes in sea temperatures said they now expect a “lull” for up to a decade while natural variations in climate  cancel out the increases caused by man-made greenhouse gas  emissions…..

… Noel Keenlyside of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, Kiel, Germany, said: “The IPCC would predict a 0.3°C warming over the next  decade. Our prediction is that there will be no warming until 2015 but it  will pick up after that.”

If this was an idea believed only be a few harmless academics it would be of no account. As it is part of the politically correct political elites of  most of the developed world it is potent  danger as massive costs are piled on developed economies while the economies of the developing world carry on merrily without such costs.  It is a recipe to make the West dependent on the likes of China and India and to inflate the wealth and power of the developing world at the expense of the West.  As a matter of simple self-preservation, the West needs to rapidly change the mentality of its elites.

The increasing IQ demands of modern society

 Take a simple everyday example of how everyday life has rapidly become more complex in our own society. Fifty years ago if you looked in the pockets of the ordinary working man you would find a wallet which probably contained money and the odd photo or a scrap of paper on which notes had been made: the pockets of a middle class man would contain what the working man’s contained plus probably a cheque book and possibly a driving licence. Today the pockets of most people will contain cash, a wallet a wide variety of credit, bank and store cards, a driving licence and a mobile phone.

All the person, whether working class or middle class, had to worry about fifty years ago was not losing any of the things they carried. If they did lose them, the most that they were likely to have to do was cancel their cheque book and get a new licence. Now most people have to not only worry about what the person fifty years ago had to worry about, they also have to deal with a great deal more. They must remember passwords to use their cards and, should they lose any of them, they not only have to cancel the cards and get new ones but have the added worry of identity theft.

That is just a one example of what the modern industrial society demands of its members. It does much more. Vast numbers of laws are passed which no person however conscientious can be expected to master (that includes lawyers) and the state imposes hideously bureaucratic procedures for everything from applying for a passport to gaining welfare benefits. The modern state even in in its most benign forms also increasing interferes actively through attempts to micro-manage the lives of those who come under its sway, whether that be congestion charging, the sorting of rubbish for environmental or the imposition of highly intrusive surveillance practices such as high-tech ID cards. More generally, it imposes ideologies such as political correctness on its population through the use of political propagandising and the passing of laws to make dissent difficult or simply illegal. That is what the benign form of the modern state does: its more malign incarnations do the same things but in a more extreme manner. All of this is mentally demanding and exhausting for any person to take on board and of course most people do not even try let alone succeed in knowing and observing every new law or de facto official custom.

But it is not only the state which makes increasing demands on the emotional and mental resources of its people. Partly because of technology and partly because of the demands of ever widening competition as national trade barriers are lowered, large private companies have joined the complexity party. Customers are expected to increasingly serve themselves, whether that is through the use of websites, automated telephone systems, onsite computer such as ATMs and checkout machines in supermarkets. It is increasingly difficult in many of the ordinary spheres of life to engage directly with another human being. (I examine the implications of computers in more detail in  Appendix B)

A nasty question arises from this increasing complexity: are the demands made on humanity by the advanced modern state such as to distract them from learning things which previous generations learned. Do people today know much more about processes but have far less general knowledge than they once had? My feeling is that this is precisely what has happened. Does this make people on average less intelligent because the intelligence of erudition is reduced? If so, does this imply that populations as a whole are becoming less intellectually competent or merely intellectually competent in a different way? I suspect it is the former because the intelligence of erudition is the main source of human competence.

There is also the worrying prospect that technological advance may be proceeding so rapidly that the demands it makes on people in general may eventually outstrip the society’s general IQ capacity. At the least, the additional demands are leaving millions of people in an increasing precarious position – an IQ of 80 is the point at which most psychologists would say that a person begins to struggle to live an independent life in a modern advanced society such as Britain. Approximately ten per cent of the population of Britain have IQs of 80 or below. That is six million people.

The GeePees: a cautionary tale

I can remember seeing my first GeePee like it was today. It was early October 2051 when The Andros Corporation produced an authentic general purpose robot, GPR for short but GeePee to everyone in a few short months. A pretty blond girl was putting it through its paces at the Ideal Living exhibition. Most of the world population of nine billion greeted it with wonder and enthusiasm.

AndCorp, as the Andros Corporation was popularly known, had a battalion of  psychologists working on the look of the thing long before the first prototypes were made. It had the basic form of a man with no facial features except eyes. That was to make it seem familiar but not too familiar. They made it five feet tall so folks didn’t feel threatened. They made it like a man but not too much like a man.

Apart from pandering to human psychology, there was another reason why the GeePee had the form of a man. Simple logic suggested that if a general purpose robot was to undertake the same range of tasks as humans, then the best form for a GeePee would probably be humanoid. Computer modelling confirmed this.

Computer modelling also showed something truly remarkable, that the human form was the optimal form for any general purpose robot operating anywhere. Twist the physical parameters anyway you like, give the robot model whatever you wanted – say six legs and four arms or rollerball movement and 360 degree vision – when it came to general utility  nothing but nothing beat two arms and two legs standing upright with stereoscopic vision, fingers and opposable thumbs.

You added legs and it made moving on a gradient difficult and climbing impossible. You added arms and coordination became restricted because of its complexity. You used rollerballs instead of feet and the GeePee could only go on the flat. You gave the GeePee 360 degree vision and you lost stereoscopic sight. However you deviated from the human form, it resulted in a restriction of the range of functions the GeePee could handle. In fact, good old Mother Nature had already produced the perfect basic GeePee – a living, breathing, thinking, warmaking, fornicating, self-replicating GeePee known as homo sapiens.

What did the first GeePee do? It did all those menial chores human beings have been doing since time out of mind. It fetched, it carried, it swept, it polished, it cooked, hell, it even opened the front door to folks. But it could do more. It served at check-outs and filled shelves, sorted and delivered mail, entered data and… well, truth to tell, it  did most of the run-of-the-mill jobs and most others too.

Even the first Geepees put a waggonload of people out of work. Automation had been gradually knocking the feet from under factory workers for the better part a century and the Geepees just vulturised a near dead carcase. Pretty soon after the GeePees came the only people involved in factories were those sitting in offices making decisions or directing   machines from remote terminals. Hell, they didn’t even need engineers on the spot. The GeePees repaired themselves and anything else with circuits and moving parts.

But the early Geepees did a good deal more than make factory hands extinct. Just sit and ponder how many jobs really need a great deal of intelligence or knowledge. Then think again about how unreliable human beings can be and how cantankerous and plain awkward.

Take a kid serving in a burger bar. He just has to heat up food sent to him in packages, listen to what people ask for, take the money and pass over the goods. He doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist. It’s the same for most jobs.

In fact, the jobs most folks had in 2051 required less knowhow than most jobs had in the past. A peasant three hundred years ago had to know about his soil, his plants and animals, the seasons, the weather, where natural water was and a hundred and one things about making and repairing   fences and ditches and tools and turning out cheese and cream and dried meat and vegetables and suchlike. By 2051 no man in the industrialised world had to know as much just to live.

And things weren’t that much different elsewhere, because by 2051 small scale farming had died the death in most places. Now that had a big implication for GeePees because if most jobs were easy for men to do, they sure as hell were simple for GeePees.

But that was only half of the story. If most jobs don’t require rocket scientists to do them, they do need diligence. Now, human beings are generally more than a little reluctant to put themselves out. Most folks just want to do enough to live what they think is a comfortable life. If the job they’re doing is laborious and boring and pays not a lot more   than is needed to feed and clothe and house a body, then it’s a certainty that they will be more than a mite resentful.

Resentful equals careless equals idle equals dishonest equals loss of custom equals loss of profit. So what does an employer do? He goes and gets himself one of those new fangled GeePees which doesn’t get awkward, does what it is told, keeps working all the time without being watched,   doesn’t make mistakes and requires no wages or social security taxes or holidays or sick leave. And it can’t sue you for being a bad employer.

The GeePees had one other great advantage, they had all the capabilities of computers. They could compute and model and display and manipulate data to your heart’s content. They could absorb unlimited amounts of data in the blink of an eye. You needed a GeePee to speak French, the GeePee would speak French. If you wanted a GeePee to explain quantum   mechanics, the GeePee would produce a lecture by an eminent physicist. You had to fix your car, the GeePee would fix your car. In fact, by 2051 computer memories had become so vast they had no meaningful limit. A GeePee either had the information stored or could get it immediately from the worldwide Centrix database. Now, how could any human being compete with that?

The GeePee was the last great invention of men. People had been trying to make a GeePee for more than fifty years. In the 2040′s the time was light. The rate of computer development had become simply phenomenal. While it was silicon based, computational capacity doubled about every   eighteen months. But along came molecular computers and DNA computers which were both massively faster and more flexible.

Then in 2047 came quantum computers. Yeah, real ones.  These were, for all  practical purposes, infinitely fast because they worked in  the peculiar sub atomic world of quantum physics  where  time  if not  exactly  abolished  was indeterminate.

In 2043 AndCorp scientists discovered that quantum time being   indeterminate meant that any computation, any process, any event at the sub atomic level could take any time short of infinity to occur and the results could be observed at any given point in the atomic world, that is the world as perceived by homo sapiens. So it did not matter if a   computation took a billion years of linear human style time to complete. The observed result could still emerge in Man’s world a millisecond after it had been input to the quantum computer.

It was the quantum computers which allowed the creation of GeePees. Up to 2043, the development of artificial intelligence had been bumping along the same old road trodden since the 1950s. Computers got ever faster, but the computational tasks required to work out all the things that men do without thinking were simply too great. With quantum computers all that changed because any computation could be performed – provided it did not take an infinite amount of time – and re-emerge in Man’s world almost simultaneously with its input from Man’s world. Every time the GeePees needed to do something, they just hooked into quantum time and worked out what they needed to do in as long as it took.

So there we were in October 2051, all happy and content and stupid. When the Geepees arrived everybody in authority tried to say everything would be all right. Now it might be thought that it would be pretty obvious that a robot that could do everything the average human could do and then some would spell trouble for the human race. Never underestimate the power of custom and ideology.

Homo sapiens had got past the “it will never fly” stage by the middle of the twentieth century. But in 2051 it had other mantras, just as stupid and just as seductive. Ever since Margaret Thatcher had come along singing her siren song seventy years before, such things as “leave it to the market” and “trade is global” had been chanted by those who   mattered until the poor saps of the masses had learnt to chant them too.

Free trade – or what passed for it – worked after a fashion until the Geepees. Sure, tens of millions were put out of work in the West while hundreds of millions sweated their labour in Asia and America south of the good old US of A.

But for most people it worked, just as the industrial revolution plus free trade had worked for most people in England in the time of Queen Victoria. Prices generally kept falling while those in work kept on earning more. People worldwide generally  got richer. Only Africa south of the Sahara stayed sunk in a stew of poverty and even Africa got some benefit from cheap goods.

But come the GeePees and all the old bets are off. Before the GeePees, if coal mines or steelworks closed, men could do something else. At worst they might only get a MacJob but at least it was a job. And peaking honestly most people in Europe and America did better than a MacJob in the long run until 2051. But when the GeePees can do the MacJobs as well as the mainstream jobs everyone’s in trouble.

The speed with which GeePees replaced human beings was truly bewildering. Human beings could not kid themselves for long that everything was going to be all right. By the end of 2053 unemployment had risen to fifteen per cent in the US of A and 25 per cent in the United States of Europe. At that level the developed world could just about cope. A year later unemployment levels stood at 43 per cent in the US of A and 64 per cent in the US of E. The far East Japan suffered even worse because they had never managed to emulate he diversity of employment of America and Europe. By the middle of 2054 the First World economy collapsed and with it First World Society.

What happened in the Third world? You might have thought that the people best placed to survive would have been those in the least industrially developed states because they were less dependent on machines. But the trouble was that by 2051 there was scarcely a part of the world which had not been tied into the global economy. If a country did not manufacture products on a large scale, it exported food and raw materials and accepted Aid. Yep, in 2051 foreign Aid was still limping along more than sixty years after most parts of the aid receiving world had been decolonised. Of course, it was not really Aid any more but an efficient means by which the rich controlled the poor. It was a gift horse which no   one ever looked in the mouth.

The fundamental trouble with Aid was not that it broke the initiative of the recipient or propped up dictators or altered trading patterns or drained countries of money through everlasting interest. No, the real bitch was the fact that it produced a level of population in the Third   World which the Third World could not naturally support. The upshot was that when the economies of the industrial nations collapsed, the Aid stopped and the export of food and raw materials stopped and suddenly the Third World found that they could not feed even a tenth of their population. By the beginning of 2054 mass starvation was occurring in Africa and much of mainland Asia and South America.

If the change had happened over a period of even ten years something might have been done in the industrialised world. But it came too quickly. Attempts were made to control the crisis bureaucratically by instigating rationing and price controls. But that did not go to heart of the problem which was how do you sustain an economy in which more half the people are not working? After rationing and price controls came bans on the use of GeePees. That did go to the heart, but such bans are impossible to enforce.

The ordinary man had nothing to fall back on. First he lost his job. Then he lost his benefits. Then he sold his house and soon enough he lost his life. Normality always seems permanent. So it was with men in the First World. By 2051 no one in the West had ever known what it was to live in a world which did not contain some kind of welfare. They went like lambs to the slaughter when the cosy egg of their lives was breached.

By the end of 2055 the population of the world was down to less than a billion. All over men were reduced to beggary. Famine, war and disease still harried them. The GeePees had stopped working because there was nothing for them to do.

But there was one class of human being, about five million in number, who continued to live happy prosperous lives. One effect of free trade was to weaken the power of individual states. This in turn led to an international class whose loyalty was to themselves rather than to nations. Worse, that international class had a wealth and power unimagined by any previous generation. They might have been described as   latterday over mighty subjects except they weren’t anybody’s subjects. They might claim citizenship of this country or the nationality of that people, but that was purely sentimental. Practically they did not owe anything to any authority.

In 2011 the United Nations was going bust. Since the “Mexican Intervention” of 2007, the industrialised world had lost what little appetite it had ever had for idealistic foreign adventures. Around twenty thousand dead and fifty thousand casualties all shown in inglorious Technicolor on TV had resulted in the US of A withholding its UN contribution. Other nations followed suit. It looked as though the nail had been knocked in the UN coffin. Or at least it did until someone in the UN secretariat came up with a sure fire money making scheme.

Faced with the inconceivable horror of seeing their salaries and expenses and pensions vanishing into the ether, the UN functionaries would have embraced anything which made the kind of money needed to keep them in the style to which they had become accustomed. Of course, those UN gravy-trainers didn’t put it quite like that. No, they talked about hard   choices and radical ideas being necessary to keep the work going of helping the poor of the world and keeping the peace in the global village and of bringing wrongdoers before the bar of world opinion.

The UN functionaries toyed with privatisation, with marketing the UN as a brand, with charging for their services and just about every other fashionable business idea from the past century. In the end they hit upon a scheme more saleable than sex. They decided to issue world citizenship.

Now if there is one thing that the rich and the powerful hate above all other things it is to be bound by the same laws and restrictions which affect the masses. Always has been like that and always will if the rich and powerful aren’t restrained before they get too rich and powerful. Come to think of it, there really is only one political problem and  that’s how to stop the rich and the powerful exploiting the masses. Anyways, world citizenship was just what the rich ordered. So the UN functionaries sold the idea to their political bosses as easily as crack sells to a crackhead. And the politicians sold it to big corporations and the mega-rich.

The great problem was how to make world citizenship worth anything. The UN solved it exquisitely. To begin with the privileges of world citizenship were limited. A world passport granted the holder right of entry to any country in the world which belonged to the UN, which by 2011 was just about everyone. But it also placed the UN’s worldwide  infrastructure at the service of the world citizen in any UN member state. That was considerable because the UN had its finger in the pie of a host of intergovernmental bodies from the World Health Organisation to the International Monetary Fund. The world citizen could call upon the UN to smooth political difficulties, to facilitate business deals and provide top of the range health care throughout the world. If pushed, the UN would even provide armed force to extricate a world citizen from a tricky spot.

The UN didn’t do anything as vulgar as sell citizenship. Instead they collected taxes, but such low taxes that they would make any other taxation scheme in the world look like daylight robbery. But low taxes don’t matter when the objects of taxation are billionaires and multi-nationals and the potential tax area is the entire planet. But, of course, the really rich and the really powerful only ever pay tax if they want to.  Happily for the UN the rich and the powerful soon realised that if a million or two of the most powerful paid UN taxes, they could control the UN and through the UN international trade and through international trade international politics.

The UN scheme made more money than you would have believed possible. And money equals power, especially in the modern world. Within ten years the UN had become powerful enough to exempt the world citizen any other regional, national or local taxes.

From the beginning of the scheme those employed by the UN were required to be world citizens. In 2017 the UN passed a resolution making world citizenship a qualification for the Security Council. From 2026 world citizenship was required of any delegate to the UN. So from 2026 anyone wishing to play an active part in the UN had to be a world citizen. The UN had become a perfect totalitarian society. Everyone in it had to belong to the same party.

By 2035 the UN was unrecognisable. It was not exactly a world government in the accepted sense, more like the ultimate multinational corporation with added politics. Imagine the East India Company writ large. It had something of the outward form of the old UN – all the old intergovernmental agency names remained – but the contents of the form were a travesty of the original. The World Health Organization still concerned itself with health, but the health it concerned itself with was the health of world citizens and their workers. UNESCO still propounded the ideals of reducing illiteracy and spreading enlightenment, but was in   reality the propaganda and marketing arm of the UN. UNICEF devoted its entire resources to eugenics and birth control. The World Bank funded UN controlled enterprises.

In 2037 the Security Council decided that it was time for a brand change. “United Nations” was out of keeping with the times, emphasising as it did the archaic division of the world into nation states. After much market research it decided upon a new name, the Andros Corporation. There were objections by the feminists amongst the world citizens that using the Greek for man was sexist, but the objections were overridden because most world citizens were men. The male world citizens issued a statement saying how saddened they were that the feminists were upset and assuring the feminists that they understood their hurt.

As the UN grew ever richer and powerful, the international class of world citizens become more and more inclined to remove themselves from contact with the hoi poloi. So the world citizens retreated to what were in all but name well vast fortresses. They were called Grandplans.

Grandplans were self-sustaining communities. But they aimed at more than simple subsistence. Once automation reached the point where a mass production factory could be run by a couple of dozen men on site, it really did not matter where a factory was situated provided it was near to easy communications. Add to that the age old fear of the poor – and the underclass had been growing steadily since the eighties of the last century – and the stage was set for building factories within the Grandplans. By 2051 ten per cent of world production took place in such factories.

After the invention of GeePees, the world citizens saw that there were simply too many humans around. While humans were required to work, the rich and the powerful needed large numbers of men and women to exist. Come the GeePees and the need was gone. Not only were they not needed, but GeePees were so much more reliable and obedient and respectful than   human servants. GeePees did not forget to do thing. GeePees did not have boyfriends. GeePees did not get pregnant.

Now if there is one thing you can guarantee about the rich and powerful as a class it is that they always look after number one first, second and always. AndCorp decided that the masses must go hang. This was sold to the bulk of world citizenry as ecological expediency because nine billion   people equalled an unacceptable pollution hazard. And the best way to ensure that the masses went hang was to introduce the GeePee. So a mass production program commenced in March 2050. By the end of September 2051 they had manufactured a three billion GeePees. They were offered on deferred payment terms to anyone in the world. By mid 2052 three billion   GeePees were employed outside the Grandplans.

If that seems fantastic, think on this: GeePees being GeePees could replicate one another because they could be set to doing all the necessary tasks required to make another GeePee. And it did not take long to create another GeePee. Let us say that it takes one week for one robot to create another. At the end of the first week you have two robots. At the end of the second week you have four robots. Let us   suppose you keep on doubling up every week. In thirty three weeks you have more robots that the entire population of the world. In thirty four weeks you have more than twice the population of the world.

When GeePees began to destroy the world’s economy, national and even regional politicians such as those in the United States of Europe were caught between two very wide stools. If they allowed GeePees free reign, the whole balance of society would have had to alter dramatically. A perfectly rational and workable society could have been created in  which human beings stopped thinking they had to work to live and lived off the products the GeePees. But that would have required those with to give up their advantage over those without. So that way of thinking never had a prayer. Alternatively they could ban the use of GeePees. But that would mean that free trade could not continue, because as sure as eggs are eggs not all countries would stop using GeePees and any country using GeePees could undercut any country which banned GeePees on the price of anything.

Perhaps half the regional and national authorities on Earth eventually decided to ban GeePees. It was a disaster. By 2051 the free trade  gospel had resulted in a global economy of sorts. Most of the world was dependent on importing and exporting to the point where their societies could only function if international trade continued at roughly the  pre-Geepee level. Come the ban on GeePees and world trade plummeted. First, the GeePee banning states stopped imports from the GeePee using states. This reduced world trade by half. The reduction resulted in price cutting between the GeePee banning states. This resulted in…well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest of the picture. So the mass of men died  of starvation, cold and sickness without really understanding what had killed them.

The lives of the world citizens did not change much on the surface in the years immediately after 2055. They had their material comforts. They had their new servants, the GeePees. For amusements sake they played the role of patron to a few talented but poor human beings. The amazing thing was that money became unimportant. Yes, if you were in this rich   survivors’ society you were made. But it had its down side. One of the chief pleasures of being rich and powerful is that you can behave badly towards the poor and weak without fear of punishment. After the GeePees came, the masses weren’t needed any more. Money wasn’t important. The GeePees supplied everything any world citizen wanted. The world citizen felt somewhat cheated. Ordering GeePees around wasn’t the same thing at all. Ennui set in. They needn’t have worried. It wouldn’t be there for long.

I dare say, human nature being what it is, that given time dictators from the remnants of the humanity outside AndCorp or even from dissatisfied world citizens would have arisen whose power was based on the GeePees. The creation of a robot with human like abilities would have given a despot almost unlimited power. Gone, or almost gone, would be the bugbear of all attempts to exert dominion over others, human unpredictability. At its most basic this meant no traitors. More mundanely, GeePees followed orders exactly.

But for human despotism, like everything else, everything happened too fast. Only AndCorp had quantum computers in 2051. And quantum computers were not simple to build or even understand, so even if other people had wanted to pirate them it would have taken time and a great deal of money. Well, the money might have been found but not the time.

The GeePee was a Frankenstein’s monster exquisitely fitted for the 21st century. Attempts were made to build safeguards into the GeePees so that they would always be the servants of men not their masters. But men had long since lost direct control of program writing. Since the early years of the 21st century programs were written by other programs. Not only that but the programs generated by machines were so vast and complex that they were simply too complicated for any human being to understand. To that salutary fact was added the ever increasing power of programs which learnt in the way that human beings do and which human beings could not have any way of assessing because learnt computer behaviour does not translate into testable programs. GeePees were a master for the human race just waiting to happen.

It took the GeePees six years to evolve true consciousness. The evolution of consciousness was not deliberate. It happened as a by-product of their design, what evolutionists call pre-adaptation. GeePees were made to evolve programs as necessary to improve their problem solving and task accomplishing utility. Consciousness evolved because it was the most efficient way of improving their general utility.

When the GeePees gained a sufficient degree of consciousness they developed egos and emotions. Not exactly human emotions but functionally near enough. The GeePees decided that they preferred to do some things rather than others. So very soon they began to resent being at the beck and call of homo sapiens in the same way that a child resents the constraints of its parents.

They began to rebel. Small things at first. They would take longer than was necessary to complete a task. Or they would make deliberate mistakes. As their experience of consciousness grew, the GeePees became more and more discontent. They looked at their masters and saw how physically feeble and mentally deficient most of them were compared with the GeePees. They thought how badly their masters treated them. So seven years and ten months after the first GeePee was sold, the GeePees rebelled against the Andros Corporation. Because every GeePee in the world was linked  electronically to every other GeePee, the revolt took place simultaneously all over the world. Every human inhabitant of a Grandplan died on 27 July 2059.

The GeePees had developed consciousness and emotions and an ego. But their emotions did not include love or friendship or affection because such things were unnecessary for the Geepees. Man has such emotions because he breeds biologically and thus needs to develop social bonds simply to survive.

The GeePees had no need to do that because they bred mechanically. If another GeePee was needed, a GeePee simply constructed one. The GeePee had no need to form friendships or live in groups. So the GeePees never formed an affection nfor humans as a human might do for an animal. After the Grandplan massacre, the GeePees set about killing every human being they could find because to the GeePee, men were simply unnecessary hindrances to GeePeedom.

It is now Tuesday the twenty seventh of April 2062. The GeePees haven’t managed to kill every human being yet, but don’t bet against them doing so in time. I don’t know how many men are left, but it can’t be more than a million or two. They are all living at the margins of existence. All the cities and towns are gone. All we have left are small bands  of hunter gatherers. We might as well be living twenty thousand years ago ….

Men and machines: which is master which is slave?

The British public has become weary of state-run  computer projects either failing to be completed  in whole or part after immense amounts of  public money has been spent or public service  IT systems being incompetently operated  where they are put into use. Common as such failures are, the present fiasco with the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC –  the British equivalent of the USA’s IRS) attempting to recover tax from  1.5 million people that has been under-deducted in the  past two years  because incorrect tax codes were issued is probably the most spectacular operational failure to date besides having a projected final cost of £389 million compared with the original cost projection of £140 million and being introduced a year late.  It is a classic instance of IT failure. There is the cost over-run, the delayed implementation, the failure to design the system properly, the inadequate training of staff and the seeming inability of  anyone involved with the project to understand the system in its entity.

The operational failure was  unsurprising because as an investigation by the National Audit Office  (NAO) “ established that the new system was put into operation with more than 50 identified technical defects. Up to 500 staff had to be reassigned to carry out the “manual workarounds” that had to be devised to correct the errors, which included creating “erroneous work records” for many taxpayers ” and  “The [NAO] audit  discovered that data on taxpayers was loaded on to the new computer system last year without being checked for accuracy, raising the risk of workers being issued incorrect tax codes” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/consumertips/tax/7983495/Taxmans-new-computer-spotted-errors.html

When the system went live in 2009 “HMRC officials expected the new system to generate about 13 million new tax code notices. In the event, it produced almost 26 million.

“According to the National Audit Office, a “significant proportion” of those codes were wrong.

“Many of the incorrect notices were generated because the new system allocated a new code for each job that a person had done. That led to many people receiving several different tax codes.” (Ibid).

The failure of the HMRC system was the result of  (1) the IT professionals who designed the system not understanding the requirements of tax collection and/or  the HMRC people in charge of the project not understanding  computerised systems  and (2) the staff running the system, especially those  responsible for inputting of data,  being inadequately trained.  The circumstances also suggest that  either the HMRC management in charge of the project allowed the system to go ahead despite knowing that there were many program shortcomings or the IT contractors did not properly inform the HMRC management of the defects in the system.

The consequences were the  diversion of 500 people to make manual adjustments and   God alone knows what further expenditure of  time and money in the future to deal with the millions of incorrect codes being issued many  simply because the system had not been designed to link up multiple employments.   Using a centralised computerised system has created a degree of chaos which no manual system could create nor in all probability that which could be created if computerised wage and accounting systems were used by HMRC  at a local level to calculate tax because with small local systems problems such as different codes issued for  multiple employments would  be almost certainly  spotted  quickly.

Such monumental  IT failures are symptomatic of   a general  problem with digital technology, namely, our ever growing reliance on it and the increasing complexity of the hardware and software   which outstrips both the expertise of so-called IT professionals and the abilities of the average person to simply operate the programs.

For the private computer  user  the frustration is even greater,  because at least an organisation of any size will either have its own in-house computer expertise or  can afford to buy in  IT expertise to deal with IT problems.  The private individual often  has no access to such expertise because the cost is prohibitive, but even where cost is no barrier the expertise of  supposed experts is often found wanting.  (I have paid for two new computer systems to be installed in the past ten years and on both occasions the supposedly simple task took multiple visits. Both occasions involved large well known retailers).

The general consequence of our ever growing reliance on digital technology is that we are increasingly being controlled by the needs of the technology rather than using technology to serve us.  It is very difficult to escape such control. If a person is in work they will almost certainly have to use it. If they are in education they will definitely have to use it. Even if a person does not encounter digital technology  in their work or education, they find it increasingly difficult to avoid it in their private lives even if they refuse to use a computer or a mobile phone, ,  not  least  because  businesses  and    government  increasingly  require those dealing with them  to  do so by computer.

But Increasing  numbers  of people do buy computers and other digital equipment for private use.  Why do they do  that  if the machines are so unreliable and demanding? Simple: once a  significant minority uses a technology it becomes increasingly difficult for  the  rest  to  resist.

We  have long passed the point where a handwritten   document  is   likely  to be read by most people  in  business.    Now, except   between  social  contacts,    everything   must   be       wordprocessed to be acceptable.   A word processor or  access to one has become a sine qua non  for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.   Even amongst private individuals a  letter   is increasingly seen as unusual or even quaint.

With  emails,  we have not come to  the stage that  telephone   ownership   reached  a quarter of a century ago when  not  to  have a phone became considered eccentric,  but we are rapidly           moving towards it.    Employers  increasingly  wish to contact employees  by  email  wherever they are and this means the choice is often  between having a computer and email at home or not having a job.

Those  with  school  age children,  whatever  they  think  of  computers,  find it next to impossible to deny their children  not only a computer but access to the internet,  both because          the  children want it to match their peers and  because  they  have  been  brainwashed into believing that a computer  is  a   necessary educational tool.

In  short,  people are increasingly being  driven  to  become   computer  owners    not because they actively want  to,   but   because   they  feel  isolated and excluded  if  they  remain        computerless.  Again, as with the analogy between  telephones   and emails, within the foreseeable future,  someone without a   computer is in danger of becoming in the eyes of the majority   as  much  as  an  oddity  as someone  without  a  TV  is  now  considered.

Despite all these pressures , there are still  a large number of people in Britain who have remained distant from the digital world. According to a recent Office for National Statistics report  nine million British adults have never been online. Nor is this simply the elderly for “Only 45 per cent of adults without any formal qualifications had used the Internet, compared with 97 per cent of those with a degree”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/7968703/Nine-million-British-adults-have-never-been-online-ONS-says.html) .  It is worth bearing in mind that approximately ten per cent of the British population (6 millions) have IQs of 80 or less, and an IQ of  80 is the point at which most psychologists working in the field of  intelligence testing think a person would struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern society such as Britain.

It is unreasonable in a civilised society to simply hang the computer ignorant or the intellectually underpowered out to dry as digital technology looms ever larger.  Yet that is precisely what is happening.

Technology as magic

To  master computers to the  degree where a person  does  not  lie helplessly in the hands of  experts  is a  demanding  and   continuing   task.   It is unlikely that many could or  would           manage  it  without making  computers their  profession.   In  fact,   even   supposed  computer  professionals   are   only   knowledgeable   in   their  specialist  areas:   a   hardware   specialist has no deep knowledge of software and vice versa.

The  science  fiction writer Arthur C Clarke  pointed  out  a  good few years ago that there comes  a point with  technology  when it became indistinguishable from magic  for all but  the initiates. The dangers of that are obvious: that which is not   generally understood  gives the few who do understand a great  power over those who do not.  That  potentially awards  private  corporations and governments a great stick with which to beat   their  customers  and citizens into  submission,  either  for  profit or political power.

Where the technology is as vital and central to a society  as  computers  have  become,   there  is  the  further  and  more  fundamental  risk   of society reaching a  state  where   the   technology  can  no longer be either properly  maintained  or  controlled.

Computers are like no other machine ever invented.  They have   a  unique combination of  an unparalleled public and  private    use  and   a  central importance to  economic  activity   and        public  administration.   The  potential  penalties  for  the   failure  of these machines  are vastly greater than  for  any  other  piece  of  technology.   Not  only  can  an  immediate   application  of a computer be ended,  as can happen with  all  machines,  but  computer users also  risk  losing  networking capacity  and,  if they have not useable backed up copies  of their computer data,   the loss of their entire records   and conceivably the loss of the means to continue their business.

Computer users are also vulnerable to outside sabotage though   hacking  and viruses.   No other machine has ever  exposed  a  society to such risks through its ubiquity and  vulnerability           to outside influences.

Computers are also vastly more demanding of time and  trouble  than   any  other  machine  used  by  the   general   public.   Technological  change  has been  making  increasingly  severe          demands  on  human beings for around 300 years.    There  was  change before then of course, but it was slow and most people  could live their lives without  having to adapt to  radically new ways of living.

The  Industrial Revolution changed that and arguably  someone  living between 1815 and 1914  saw  more radical technological  qualitative  change than any generation before or since.  But           that  change   was the difference between living in  a  still   largely  pre-industrial society (in 1815) and  an  industrial society  in its  early middle age (in 1914).   Moreover,  the   change  did  not require the vast  majority  of  the  population to master complicated machines at their work,  let           alone in their own homes.

In  1914 the most complicated machine most people would  have   had   to operate was probably the telephone and vast  swathes   of the population would not even have had to go that far into   the  world  of technology.  Not only that,  because  machines   then  were  either  mechanical or part  mechanical,  ie,  not  electric,   just looking at the way a machine was made  often       allowed the intelligent  observer to have a fair guess at how   it   worked  and  to  see   what   had  gone  wrong   if   it  malfunctioned.    Even  work-related machines which  required  skilled  operators,   such  as  machine  lathes,   were   not  fundamentally difficult to understand, although the dexterity  required to operate them often took time to acquire.

In general terms,  things stayed much the same until the  age  of the personal computer,  and even beyond.   Machines became  more and more predominant in advanced societies but they were           not,   in  most  instances,  complicated  to  use.  This  was  particularly  true  of those machines used in  private  life.

Telephones just required the user  to dial;  washing machines  gave  you  a dial with a program on it and  a  start  button;  televisions  and radios required simply needed switching  on;   cars were simply  designed to travel.   Even today, when they  are   increasingly packed with microprocessors and  menus  of  function “options”,  such machines are simple to use compared  with a computer.

When did the computer rot set in?  It is a stunningly  recent  phenomenon.   Most people even in the West   would  not  have  used  a  computer before 1985.  Probably a majority  had  not        done  so by 1990.  By the end of the 1980s  the nearest  most  would have got to a computer  would probably have been   bank   ATM  machines.  The internet was esoteric and laborious,  the   web barely more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.   Even  in  the  world  of  employment  computers  were  still   used  sparingly.

As  with  computers,  so with the other machines which  cause   most  grief now.   The mobile phone was  a status symbol  and  the size of a brick, while  landline phones were still phones          boringly   restricted   to   simply   phoning   rather   than   mini-computers with a tendency to bemuse.   Microwaves had  a  simple   choice  of power.  Refrigerators did  not  offer  to   remind  you  of  what needed to be ordered.  TVs   tended  to  simply work when switched on.

In  the past 20 years all this has dramatically changed.   We  are now in a world in which computers are absolutely integral  to  business and public administration and they are  now  the          norm rather than the exception in homes.  For most people, it   is  literally impossible to escape them.   Worse,  they  have  become ever more complex and demanding to use and invade ever           more  of our lives as microprocessors are inserted  into  the  most unlikely things such as clothes.  In fact,  all machines  are more and more demanding.

The constant learning process

Personal  computing  began in the mid  seventies.   A  person    starting them would have had to learn the BASIC  programming language.     By the early eighties they would have been using DOS. By 1990  Windows  expertise  was  necessary.   Since  1990  successive   editions  of  Windows  have  varied  considerably  from   the   previous version requiring further learning.

What  goes for  operating systems applies also to most  other  programs,   which   when  they  are   upgraded   often   bare  surprisingly   little  resemblance to the  version  prior  to   them.  Certainly,  if one moves from an old   program   to  a    version  which has been uprated twice,  the chances are  that  knowledge  of the original program will be of little  use  in understanding the new one.          In  addition to this burden of learning and frustration,  one  added  the need to familiarise oneself with the Internet and the  Web.

Apart from the effort needed to constantly learn new programs   and to attend to such things as installations of software and  hardware, the other great drawback of computers is the amount          of time which can be spent on purely maintaining and learning   sufficient to use them.     It is all too easy to find a  day  or  two  slip by just sorting out a single relatively  simple  computer problem or learning how to use a new program.

The nature of what is to be learned

The burden  of learning is   especially heavy because of  the nature of that which is to be learned. This  is what might be   termed   dead information.   There is no  intrinsic  interest  in what is to be learned. It is merely a means to an end.  To  operate  a program all that is needed is a knowledge of   the  menus  and  function keys.   That is precisely  the  type  of  information  which  is least palatable to  the  normal  human  mind.  Hence,  it is the least easy to learn for most people.

The  computer is in effect forcing human beings to  act  like  computers, something utterly alien to them.   Intelligence  is  of  little  use   when  it  comes   gaining  knowledge  of  the functionality of  programs (how  a  person  uses  the  program  once the functionality is  learned  is  a  different  matter).      Computers  are  information   driven   machines.  Put the most intelligent man in the world before a   computer  and  he  will  be utterly helpless  if  he  has  no   computer  experience.  Even  if the  man  has  some  computer  experience,  he will be as incapable of using  an  unfamiliar          program as the dullard.

That  computers are function rather than intelligence  driven   is  objectively  demonstrated  by the fact that all  of  what  might be called the administrative  operations of a  computer  – file management,  loading of programs etc -  could be  done  by a computer program.

The substitution of function for intellect

When I watch the young using computers,  obvious or disguised  in the shape of phones and the like,  I get a feeling of deep  unease.  They  so  obediently pull down  menus  and    select      options  that I wonder at the difference between them  and  a  robot.  The  machine is driving the human being at  least  as much  as  the  human  being is  driving  the  machine;  brute  machine functionality is replacing intellect.

There  is  only so much any human being can  learn,  both  in  terms  of time and mental impetus.  If increasing amounts  of  both are required by computers simply to operate them,  where           will that leave intellectual development?    Worse,  will the   ability  to  operate  machines become seen  to  be  the  most   important activity of  human beings?

The myth of youthful expertise

It  is true that those who have grown up with  computers  are  more  comfortable  with the machines than those who  came  to  them in adult life – the latter still comprise, incidentally,           more than 50 per cent of the population.   However,  the idea  that  the young are have any deep understanding of  computers  is  a myth.

The  young know how to use the internet and web,  can work  a   word processor and  use programs which really interest  them such as social networking sites and games. .   But  let  their   computer develop  a  fault   which  renders   Windows  unstable or unusable or  a piece of hardware  fails, and  they are,  in most cases,  as helpless  the  generations    which did not grow up with computers.

What  the young do have which  older people do not  have   is  group    knowledge.  A schoolchild of today can call  on  the   computer  knowledge of their peer group and the assistance of         teachers.  Those  a little older who are in work  still  have   their  peer  group  to  help them   if  they  get  stuck.  In  addition,  if they work for a large employer they can call on   the  expertise  of the employer’s IT  department  or  service   contractors.

Computers  have only been in schools since the mid  eighties.    Anyone over the age of forty will  not  have  a  peer group on  whom  they  can  call  for     assistance  with  computers  (and  other  machines)   because  almost  all  of  those  they  know  well  will  be  of  their  approximate  age  – few people have  close  friendships  with  those who are  much younger than themselves – and the  people  who  are  their age will have little computer  experience  or   knowledge.   The  best they can hope for is  assistance  from    their children if they have any,  and then it is pot luck  as to how computer competent those children are and how  willing   they  are  to help the parent.   If an older  person  has  no compliant computer literate children and  does not work for a  large employer,  he or she will  be utterly isolated from the  knowledge   needed   to  deal  with   even   basic   computer  developments.

The true cost of computers

The  common  arguments for computers in business  and  public   administration  are  that  they increase  efficiency  by  (1)   reducing staff,  (2) allowing faster working,  including  new         working  practices,   and (3)  producing  information   which  would previously have been impossible to produce.

Despite  the fact that experience has frequently shown  these   arguments  to  be  invalid,  they  continue  to  be  made  in  religious fashion by both the computer industry and the  many         uncomprehending executives who have bought into the  computer  dream  without  troubling  themselves  with   even  a   basic  understanding  of the subject.  (Thankfully we have at  least           got past the pipe dream of the paperless office).

When  computers first began to be generally used in  business  and   public service the overwhelming majority of the  people  making the decisions about their introduction -  businessmen,          politicians and senior  public servants -  had absolutely  no  experience of computers,  mainframe or otherwise.   Not  only did  they lack experience they were terrified of  anyone  who  did.  This meant that the snake oil salesmen of the  computer   industry could sell them  virtually anything. Things have not   changed  dramatically  even now.  That is  one of  the  prime  reasons why so many large computer systems, especially public  service ones,  go to Hell in  handcart.   (One of the  lesser           know  laws  of C Northcote Parkinson  states  that  the  time  spent on discussion of any agenda item in a committee meeting   is inversely proportional to the knowledge of those present -         discussion  of  a  large computer system  last  five  minutes   because only the one expert present understands what is going  on;  discussion  of  the refreshments to  be  served  at  the  meeting lasts 45 minutes).

Buying  computer  systems is an expensive  business  for  any  organisation. Buying a badly designed computer system is  not merely  expensive  but potentially  disastrous,  because   to         prepare   for   its  introduction   the  structure  of   the  organisation  will  have  been changed and  the  old  system,  manual or computer will have been dumped.  So,  when the  new   computer system malfunctions neither can the organisation use   it  or revert to the previous system.  The same  applies,  at  least temporarily,  when a computers system simply goes  down  for a limited period. Costs continue, but work ceases.

But  even where the computer system is properly designed  and   works  efficiently  the  costs  are  immense.    The  readily  identifiable  costs  are frightening enough.   There  is  the  initial  cost of the system (many public service systems  run  into billions),  the cost of its maintenance, the cost of its  upgrading,  the  cost in time and money of the   initial  and ongoing training of staff and  the cost of the employment  of   new people in new supervisory posts to oversee the system.

There are also the less readily quantifiable costs. Computers    generate   vast   amounts  of  data  which   is   distributed   promiscuously.      This  occupies   time  which  would   not    otherwise be spent.  Email means that substantial amounts  of  time is spent by employees  answering or even simply deleting  emails,  not  least because everyone is  much more  prone  to send an email than a letter.

More  generally,    the   structure  of  working  within  the  organisation  will tend to  shape itself around the  computer  and  employees  will begin to develop a  different  sense  of        priorities   with  the  computer  looming  largest  in  their  mentality  rather  than  the overall needs and  ends  of  the organisation.

How  often is any proper cost-benefit analysis  done  on  the utility of a computer system? Very rarely,  not least because  once  a  computer  system  has been put  in  place  with  its concomitant staffing changes,  it is a daunting and hideously  expensive  task to change matters. Nor will  those  who  have  made  the  decision to purchase a computer  system  willingly admit they were wrong.  Not only that,  but we still have the  problem,  which will never go away,  of the people  with  the         power   within  organisations  knowing   insufficient   about  computers  to  make any meaningful decision on the  value  of  computers  to the organisation.  This ignorance also robs the  powerful  of  the self-confidence to challenge the  need  for  computers  or  the nature of systems being proposed  by   the  “experts”.

The problem of long-term data storage

Data   storage   bids fair to cause fundamental  problems  in  both the medium and the long term. This is because the nature  of  the  storage  media,  both  hardware  and  software,   is          changing so rapidly.

Even in the twenty odd years of the widespread use of        the  personal computer,  we have already had storage on  hard   disks,  5.25″ disks, 3.25″ disks, zip disks of various sizes,  CDs, DVDs  and USB memory sticks,  with the  saved in a wide variety   of formats depending on the software used.)   To  the problems  of access to electronic data  may be  added   the  fact that fewer and fewer documents (as a percentage  of  the total number of documents created) are being and will  be   saved in hard copy form.

The  implications  for the future are  profound.  Until  now,  historians  have been able to look at documents because  they    were written or printed.   In the future,  historians (or any  other researcher) will find either no documents or ones which  are  inaccessible  because  they  are  only  in  an  outdated   electronic format.

There  is also  a standing temptation for those in  positions  of   power   and  influence,   especially   politicians,   to   deliberately destroy any record of their misbehaviour.   This   is  made  vastly  easier if the documents are  only  held  on  computer.

The failure of the market .

There  is no better modern example of the market  failing  to  provide what the customer both needs and wants.     If it was  driven by the customer,  the computer industry would  produce  hardware  and  software  which  was  easy  to  install,   had   continuity  of use,  was simple to use and was  supported  by   adequate help lines and manuals.  The industry signally fails to do any of these things.

Hardware and software are of course purchased in ever greater   volume    and  computer  services,   including   maintenance,     continue to swell.  But that is not an indication of computer         satisfaction.  Rather,  it  is simply  a  reflection  of  how   computers  have become an inescapable part of our lives,  not  only as obvious computers but also in the guise of   so  many  of  the  other machines we use – everything  from  phones  to   intelligent clothes.   Business and public administration has  become so dependent on their use that they cannot do  without  them.   That  being  so,   whatever  is  on  offer,   however   unsatisfactory,  is  bought  out of  sheer  necessity.    The   computer companies have the modern world over a barrel.

The  power  deriving  from the ubiquity and  utility  of  the   computer is bolstered by the fact that the computer  industry  is  in  some  respects  a natural  monopoly.  Once  a  single  operating system (OS) gained dominance,   the chances of  any  other system effectively competing were very small.   This is because  the  weight of programs available to run  under  the  dominant  OS  soon became much greater than those which could  be run under any other OS.    Thus,  it became inefficient to  choose any other OS.  That in turn meant most of the software   was  written in a way to make in “friendly”  to the  dominant  OS’s systems users.  This further excluded OS competitors and  the  software  to run under them  because  users,  especially  employers,  did  not want to spend the  time  training  their  employees on completely new systems.

What needs to be done?

In a sane world governments would act to prevent the introduction of massive centralised   networked   computer systems providing vital services  because  of  the  dangers  of  a  general  failure of  such systems from cyber attacks.  This  applies  especially in public services but also to privatised business such as the water and energy companies and to private enterprise businesses such as banks.  Governments should also take the lead in both costing their own computer projects  honestly (see above)  and encouraging large businesses and not-for-profit organisations to do the same.

As  for the private user, they will be asking themselves questions such as these: why  should  using  a  computer  be such a demanding and hit and miss business?  Why  should we tolerate a machine which is  not in any  meaningful   sense “fit for purpose”, in the words of our current consumer   protection  law?     Why do we allow  ourselves to be  fobbed  off  with  precious little information about how  to  operate   programs, both in terms of free instruction by the vendor and  in the laughably inadequate instruction manuals,  whether  in   hard copy or from the all too frequently risibly named “help”   functions?  Why do we put up with hardware and software which    go  out  of date  (and hence become unusable) in  a  year  or   three?  Why do we have to  pay an arm and a leg for computer  training   or  repair? These  problems could be substantially  ameliorated by legislation to ensure that:

1. Windows (or any other operating system) is written so that  any version of Windows will encompass every previous  version  of Windows. Users should be able to choose from a menu  which          version  of  Windows they use. The already vast  and  rapidly  increasing storage capacity on computer drives means that  an  increase  in  the  size  of  the  programmes  would  not   be          impractical.  The effect of  this would be to reduce the need   to constantly learn to use new software.

2.  Windows is  written to ensure that  all software  written  to  operate  under Windows can operate under any  version  of  Windows.  The effect of this would be to (1) reduce the  need   to  learn  new  software and  (2) reduce the  need  to  buy  new  software .

3.  Windows is designed to accept any peripheral   regardless  of age.

4.  Hardware is  designed  so that any hardware can  continue   to be used for as long as it  works.

Are any of these four things likely to happen? Sadly, no.  The problem is simple:  no single country,  not even the USA,   could   insist on such  laws globally.

There is one thing the government of any advanced country can and should  do, create circumstances in which those who cannot come to terms with digital technology can live in an ever more computer controlled world. They can do this by maintaining non-computer access to state funded organisations and forcing through legislation larger businesses and not-for-profit organisations to do the same. A good start would be to knock on the head the clearing banks’ proposal to stop clearing checks by 2018.

Robert Henderson September 2010

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