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2020:Hindsight 5

Life is a Cabaret

You know, I used to blame the Koreans, but now I just blame Liza Minelli.

I remember one drunken afternoon in a wine bar in the City. An even more stereotyped than usual trader was drinking Chablis, looking down the front of the barmaid’s Sydney Harbour T-shirt, trying to finagle someone else into paying the already ridiculous bill, and philosophising. I think he thought that I looked like a chip-in chump, but as I had almost no money, which he didn’t know, I wasn’t unduly worried. The bar-maid was vainly co-operating with him, in the hope of getting bigger tips, and I was jollying him along, trying to dig up some useful material. Traders loved to philosophise. I use the past tense here because I suspect very few of that particular sub-species will have survived. This one came up with some usefully insightful gibberish however, which I will now relate.

"You know," he said, "the economy is like religion. They both require absolute faith. Unquestioning belief. We must believe, always, that the system exists, has existed, must exist and will always continue to exist. Always and forever! We must accept that it is absolute! Quintessential! Ineffable! Well of course in fact it’s bloody ‘effable. ‘Cept I’m not allowed to say that, am I, because we must all keep the faith, eh? Faith in the continuity of the system is the only thing that enables the continuity of the system to er…. continue. And that’s why it’s like religion. Where would religion be without belief, eh? Where would religion be without faith, eh? Eh? Well I’ll tell you. It wouldn’t be bloody anywhere, because it just wouldn’t be. At all! End of story! Full stop!" He gazed indeterminately at the barmaid’s full stops, refocused and continued.

"Its like that old French guy said, you know, the guy who invented electricity. Whatsissname? You know …… Voltage,…. No!.. Voltaire. That’s it, Voltaire. Well, he said if God didn’t exist we would have needed to invent him. And we did, you know, we bloody did. And it’s the same with money. And stocks and shares and bonds and gilts and futures and all that stuff. We invented it because it had to exist. But….! But….!" He tapped his nose, more or less. "It only exists because we believe in it and we have faith in it and we worship it every day. Every bloody day. But I’ll tell you something else too. Now listen. Listen!"

He hugged me to his bosom like a bosom-buddy he’d never met before, and whispered raucously in my ear. "Religion has got God, see, and we’ve got Gold. See? See that, God… Gold, Gold… God. See? There’s only an L of a difference. ‘Ell of a difference, see. Well I’ve always thought that was interesting you know, because there is no difference really. Not really. Now!…. you may say that there is a lot of difference, because God is an airy-fairy hard to define mental concept and gold is a pretty-solid hard to lift metal concept. And you’d be right! But you’d be wrong as well. Because, you know…. there’s gold right? And there is. But if you think there’s enough gold to go around you must be a bloomin’ nutter mate. The problem is this, see? If everyone out there decided, ‘Hey! I’ve had enough of all this paper and electronic crap, I want real money. I want gold.’ Phht! it’s gone man. All of it. Over night. Just gone. Like, if everyone went to the bank tomorrow morning and said "I’d like all my money out in cash please, now, thank you very much." Well, the banks would be closed by ten, the City would be closed by eleven, Britain would be gone by lunch-time and the whole world would be shut down by tiffin, and we take tiffin pretty ‘durn early around here, partner. And that’s the problem. The whole system exists and works because we have faith in it and if we lose faith….Poof! it’s gone.

Say did you here that Faust was dyslexic? He actually sold his soul to Santa! Oh, You’ve heard it. Well never mind, another bottle of that Chablis, dear, but a cold one this time!"

That was the gist of it at least. At this distance in time and emotion I can’t quote him verbatim. But the sad bastard was nonetheless right. Things didn’t fall apart overnight, but they went bloody quick, and when the money was gone, all the little things that went wrong, stayed wrong, and got worse. We lost our faith and we lost our world and I can see no light at the end of the tunnel, mostly because the tunnel walls have collapsed and the ceiling has caved in. As Liza once sang, "Money makes the world go a-round." And so it did. And when the money stopped, the world just didn’t go a-round any more. Personally, I had little or no interest in the world of big business and high-finance. I got burned on the article I was thinking of writing when I had the conversation with the trader, and I didn’t look into it again for more than a decade. What I didn’t realise until I did look at it again in early ’99, was how important computers had got; in business and, from there, in everyone’s lives.

And I mean everyone. If you :

Had a bank account: Computers in the bank.
Used a Magic-money machine card: Computers in the wall.
Had a Driving License: Computers in Swansea.
Had a Phone: Computers in Martlesham Heath.
Paid Tax: Computers in East Kilbride

(Or Paris, or Dallas, or Ulan Bator.)

Had a Job: Computers in Social Security.
Didn’t have a job: Computers in Social Security.
Had a criminal record: Computers in London.
Didn’t have a criminal record: Computers in London.
Were Born: Computers, Computers, Computers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the little rascals. I miss them every-day. Especially now when I get a sore back and sore fingers and sore eyes from huddling in the draught below the high window, scribbling this sceptical scrawl; worrying about keeping it undepressing, undiscoverable and understandable. It’s just that I had no idea that computers had become so imbedded in every aspect of our existence. Here is an instance with which I have had hands on experience. Hands on, feet off, you might say, but still. Let’s talk about TESCO.

You walk into a pleasant and shiny superstore to do your shopping. You fill your trolley from their magnificent displays and walk up to the till, where the pleasant smiling lady helps you in every way possible, as she passes each of your purchases over, past or through a pretty, scintillating, and pretty scintillating, little laser scanning beam. (Listen, these are my rose-tinted Remember Rememberings. If yours aren’t as good, don’t blame me.)

Now what did that little cherry-beam do? Well it did only one thing, it read the code on the side of the product you bought. This simple action of course, enabled lots of other things. First of all it flashed the price up for you and added it to your bill and your receipt. In most places it even came up with friendly little messages like ‘Box-Jaffa Cks-400g’ or ‘Eggs-F/range-1/2 Doz’.

Ever wonder how it did that? Simple really. The bar-code on the packaging linked to information on the price, the product, the batch, the sell-by date and anything else the supermarkets wanted to put in there. This enabled the supermarket to know exactly what it had sold, down to the individual orange, can of Coke, or bottle of bleach. If you used your credit card or loyalty card, they even knew to whom they had sold what, so that they could say "Aah! Mrs. Jenkins at 52B is buying extra sausages and bog-roll again this week. Must have that no-good brother of hers around to stay again. Honestly that man can’t keep a job for two weeks at a time." Except of course they weren’t interested in Mrs. Jenkins and her brother, but in all the Mrs. Jenkins’s up and down the country. And all their brothers. Their age, their income, their spending patterns, their preferences, how much extra money they could be got to spend if the store changed their aisle decoration from blue to a subtle pinky-mauve, or changed the muzak, or made their special-offer labels bigger, or brighter, or orangier, and so on, and on, and on. And that was just the start.

Every till was a little computer all on its own. It could identify the product, determine the price, add it to the bill, flash it up on a screen, add everything up in the end, print out your bill, check your credit-card worthiness and the cleanliness of your underwear, and allow you out of the shop in the smug knowledge that it knew exactly what you had bought, and why.

(Actually this is extreme anthropomorphism. The computer knew nothing about you at all, it merely had some basic data that it could pass on to other, more sophisticated machines, which it duly did. Also, I lied about your underwear. But then, wouldn’t you?)

Each little computer’s most important task was to pass its data to another machine in the back of the shop. This somewhat more sophisticated machine would collate all the data into nice neat piles, and then contact its even bigger friend at head office. It could then hand the information up the line to this much grander machine, which would take all of these little piles of data and redistribute them out amongst its own friends for analysis and storage. The central, grand machine had the single most important job though. It handled stock and inventory control for all of that chain’s supermarkets. It contained all the information about what was in the warehouses; what was on the trucks and trains and ships and planes; what was in transit and what was expected from the suppliers, and when. It also knew about when things had actually come in, what their shelf-life was, what the spoilage rate was; and the pilferage rate, and the spillage rate. It knew about government regulations for the storage and distribution of meat products, and milk products, and fruit and veg. It knew about perishables and non-perishables, pharmaceuticals and batteries and panty liners and cream-cakes and condoms.

It also knew what all the Mrs. Jenkins’s had bought that day and that week, and could automatically decide what should be loaded on what lorry at what time so that it would arrive in time to keep the shelves full and the staff busy and Mrs. Jenkins happy. It knew which lorry driver should pick up which load, and what route he should take, and how much fuel he should use and when he should get back, and how much ketchup he could have on his bacon roll in that little transport café just outside Nottingham. It really did know an awful lot. And it could make decisions.

A store manager in Pontefract could easily find himself right out of Eccles cakes, but with a surfeit of Bath buns on special promotion. The Customer Services Manager in Newcastle could find himself having to explain that he had no Barbeque coal because the weather forecast predicted a warm weekend on the south coast and it had all gone there. The supermarkets in west London could suddenly find themselves with fifty extra cases of Tartan Special, because the Calcutta Cup was being played at Twickers, and the Grand Slam was on. All of these things, and many more, were under the purview of just a few very large and very sophisticated computers. And for the most part things ran smoothly.

There were always a few glitches and short-falls and over-stocks. The drivers would blame the loaders, and the stackers blame the palletisers, and the managers blame the regional managers, and the workers blame the computers, and the computer people blame the workers, and everyone would blame the suppliers. And the suppliers, of course, blamed the weather. And so it went on, quite unhappily, for many years. And the bad old days, when most of this stuff had to be done manually, and managers actually had to decide what they wanted and when, were long forgotten, lost in the mists of time and in the long-term files-and-records storage depot in Swanage. The systems got bigger and bigger and more and more complex, as efficiency and competitivity ruled and the price-wars continued.

They were still busy implementing ever-cleverer systems, tying all the electronic spaghetti together and mixing the software sauce, when we got to Zero-hour. D-day. The Witching hour. That’s right, 14:35, Thursday 9th December 1999. The day they briefly called Really, Really Black Thursday. The day that the Footsie lost over a thousand points before they could close it down. The day Wall Street didn’t merely crash but collapsed entirely.

The day they closed the banks.

Now DC will talk about some of the causes behind Really, Really Black Thursday a bit later, but for right now, lets stick to the point, shopping. Here we are, two weeks before Christmas, three weeks before the biggest Friday-night ever, and access to cash is restricted by government emergency controls. The holes-in-the-walls are closed. The banks are issuing cash only in very special circumstances. Inflation is suddenly running at 5% and rising, and everyone is living on credit they don’t necessarily happen to have. And the supermarkets love it. For two weeks everybody, in blind panic, stockpiles and hoards; and buys, buys, buys; spends spends, spends; charges, charges, charges. The biggest ever example of the Just-in-Case syndrome, and the last. Everyone has already got their own little pile of cash; under the mattress, or in the teapot, or in that funny little hole in the wall behind the grandfather clock. But they don’t want to spend it, just-in-case. So the plastic melts, and the credit mountain grows, and the tills ring. (Actually they hum a happy little electronic hum, but how could that ever replace the magical ‘Chachunga!’ of real money).

And the customers trundle home with more food and drink than they can fit in their fridges and deep-freezes and cupboards. And garages and sheds and lofts and landings and spare bedrooms and wardrobes and granny annexes and pretty little cottages in the country for when we can get away for a few days. And anywhere and everywhere else. Everyone getting in a little extra for the New Year, just-in-case. By seven o’clock, on that last ever functional Friday, the shoppers are exhausted and the check-out girls are exhausted, and the stackers are exhausted, and the managers are happy and exhausted. And it’s all just as well, because supplies are exhausted too. The shelves are mostly empty. The unloading bays are mostly empty. The trucks are parked. The ships are docked. The warehouses are mostly empty too, but that’s no problem.

"We don’t open again until Tuesday. Plenty of time."

And they did have plenty of time, because they didn’t open again Tuesday.

Any Tuesday.

Copyright © Jock Howson 1999

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