I love it when two ideas come together. At lunchtime, I was talking about Roger Taylor’s new book on open data, public policy and how to grab back some little part of our human agency from the maw of big data. Last night, already three hours delayed by that corporate gaslighter Ryanair, I was shuffling through the endemically slow passport queue at Stansted, soon to brave even further delayed luggage, and wondering why an airport that has just had millions spent on it is so utterly crap.
This morning, as I stood in a District/Circle line caterpillar train– the ones whose lack of carriage dividers always makes me guesstimate the unimpeded range of a bomb blast (I’m cheerful, that way) – it came to me. Facebook/Google/WhatsApp are bad for consumers in just the same way Stansted is.
Bear with me.
I wanted to go to Girona, a city in Catalunya, to spend a few days with a group of women brought together by an old army-wife friend to do running, cycling and general fitness. All good. The only way to get there from London was with Ryanair. So already, I felt a bit let down by capitalism. Where was all the market choice and innovation to translate my myriad human desires into a competitive range of options for me to choose from and pay for? Then it turned out that Ryanair would only leave from Stansted, which I dislike, so I had to satisfice like some too-lazy-to-compare consumer or a half-arsed social democrat.
So that’s the first similarity. Any colour as long as it’s black. Any social media, search or advertising platform as long as it’s Google or Facebook. (Before anyone starts, I use DuckDuckGo for search, subscribe to an actual hard copy newspaper as an alternative business model to PPC advertising, and have been on Ello for two years, making it just under two years since I’ve interacted with anyone on Ello.)
By now we all know the saying, ‘if you’re not the customer, you’re the product’. If you are a passenger in Stansted Airport, you are most definitely the product. It is said the RAF calls soldiers ‘self-loading freight’. Well, I’ve been in Brize Norton and it’s a lot nicer and better run than Stansted.
Passengers in Stansted are not people who have paid for a service (except of course they have paid for it, but in a disintermediated way that means the service provider doesn’t give a stuff about them). They are not even freight that needs efficient through-put. If you delay them, they will spend money, topping up those useless five euro vouchers only good for MacDonalds. What you want to do, if you run Stansted Airport, is extract every further penny you can from them. This is why once you stagger out of security with your shoes half-tied and your still belt in your hand, you have to run the gauntlet of a curving shopping mall hard-selling perfume, booze, sweets and cigarettes.
Airport passengers don’t move smoothly and efficiently through an environment designed to get them where they are going. They are parried and drained at every step, softened up by shouting security people and aggressively mis-sold crap they neither want nor need. (I wrote about this years ago on CT; the main thing I wanted from a major transit hub is a shower and a clean pair of knickers. Impossible to find in most. Happily for me, my environment-destroying 1K status is long since lapsed.) But Stansted (and Cork Airport, and Gatwick), if I want celebrity-endorsed scent, I’ll walk into the shop that sells it and spritz some on for free all by myself. I do not want to be forced through a narrow, twisty pathway along with hundreds of other frazzled people inhaling gallons of parabens and parfum and whatnot other eczema and asthma-inducing substances.
But because Stansted Airport has no direct relationship with me, and I have no real choice about where I fly from, I have no choice but to be shoved through a winding shopping mall before I can sprint to my gate. Sound familiar?
As Tom Slee has written so perfectly, No One Makes You Shop At Walmart. No, and the illusion of choice is just that.
What other similarities are there between the tech giants and Stansted Airport? Public services are under-funded, but the organisations extracting the revenues and whose business depends on them flick the costs of both provision and under-provision onto the users (or tax-payers, as they are also called.). The security line at Stansted, now moved to a nicer part of the building, is just as shouty and dysfunctional as before. Airports have to provide the technical minimum of security, or security theatre as Bruce Schneier describes its signalling aspects. But they don’t have to be either quick or efficient about it. This is why the Stansted reviews are full of missed flights caused by security delays, and people moved close to tears of useless rage by the contradictory orders barked at them by security staff (themselves on low wages and insecure contracts, because if we’ve learnt anything about the combination of Taylorism, big data and the securocracy, it’s to suck the agency and intelligence out of as many jobs as possible so those who fill them are entirely interchangeable and, let’s face it, miserable.).
Finally, both Stansted and surveillance capitalism share a zealous and sometimes unfounded faith in technology. I wonder if anyone has written about the organizational psychology behind our preference for investing in technology and systems, rather than people? I think about it a lot. From firing soldiers while you’re at war but clinging on to unproven weapons systems or aircraft carriers you won’t be able to man, to retail big data’s drive to refractive surveillance and downgraded jobs, something drives large organisations to prefer concentrating capital in systems and not humans, even when it’s less effective. Answers on a postcard.
But back to Stansted; if a single UK Border Agency employee failed to do her job as often as the passport-checking machines do, she would be fired for gross incompetence. Typically, a quarter of the passport machines seem out of service. And of the dozen or so working ones, a person is sent every minute to the human passport check. It took ALL the willpower I could muster to not just duck straight into that line when the opportunity suddenly presented itself. I’ve got a one in three hit-rate of the machines working for me, and yes, my passport is fully machine-readable and no, I’m apparently not on any watch-lists. (Though there is something nice about the non-EU people, especially those I’d put money on being from ‘difficult’ countries, going right into the short line for once.) Checking the Stansted reviews, it seems a thirty-minute wait in an abbatoir-does-Disney line is the norm. Gone are the days when someone who knew what they were doing took two glances to satisfy the yes/no questions of ‘does your passport look dodgy?’ and ‘do you have the legal right to enter the country?’. Data drives only the appetite for more data, so now we can’t just be let do what we are permitted to do, but must be tracked constantly while doing it, albeit by systems that are, in the wonderful British expression, ‘not fit for purpose’.
So there you have it. Stansted will stay just as crap because it was designed not for passengers but for those who extract revenues from passengers. The public services attached to it will remain crap because they are under-funded, and since when have states cared about petty and inefficient citizen-borne externalities? And we will continue to whinge about the iniquities, sure in the knowledge that doing so serves a purely expressive and not instrumental purpose.
There are no buttons to press – no, not even the cute happy/sad face one after security in Gatwick, which is as placebo a button as that at any pedestrian crossing in central London. There are no levers to pull; contractual, regulatory or otherwise. In the modern world of surveillance capitalism, we pick neither exit nor voice nor loyalty. They’re already picked for us.
Mind you, I had a cracking time in Catalunya, for which ‘Thanks, Stansted’ and ‘Thanks, Ryanair’, too.