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Doom and Gloom

28 March, 2011 (01:02) | Rants | By: Ian Burdon

When I first started to blog in 2002 I wrote the following on my then website:

If we could reduce all of the variables in modern British society into
symbolic form and express their inter-relationships by integral calculus, the
limits of the function would be bounded by the lowest common denominator and the highest common bullshit factor.

Why is so much so awful and our expectations so pathetic? What about all
those marvels that don’t work? All that ‘progress’ which is regress in
disguise? All that which should be satisfying and inspiring which has become
crass and insulting?

Our economy is locked into a search for growth which our resources can not
sustain, driven by a service economy in which there are progressively fewer in
other modes of employment to sustain the services. Opportunities for building
dignity and self respect in this economic ourobouros are sacrificed to ‘labour
flexibility’ on the post-Thatcherite altar – and as the economic underclass
become labelled and stigmatised as a social underclass (and therefore by
definition in the prevailing mythos a moral underclass) we ensure that the
problems which political rhetoric vows eternally to vanquish become
institutionalised and endemic. Generations of children who are born carrying
within them all the wonderment of living are both literally and metaphorically
undernourished and denied the opportunity to find their potential in a free

When I was a student first time round, between 1977 to 1982, I found myself
expressing the occasional radical opinion here and there. Nothing too dangerous of course, I’m too much of a coward for that, but the odd CND march and an evening in a cage at the end of Princes Street for Amnesty International spring to mind (together with the American tourists who, regrettably, played directly to stereotype by asking me to assure them that I wasn’t a communist).

After a while the gloss wore off as my idealism was soured by encounters with
the dogmatists of radical politics who generally were (and remain) at least as
intolerant and rigidly conformist as those whom they villify. At an intellectual
level, quite apart from the ways in which my personal beliefs had changed to
reject theism, my reading of radical theology came to an abrupt halt when I
realised that there was nothing much radical about it at all but just, as
Gunther Grass would have it, the dispensing of the blood of Christ in Hegelian
bottles, and of a pretty nondescript vintage at that. I could never understand
why all those white, anglo saxon, presbyterian lecturers got so excited by books which essentially presented a narrow Catholic theology in the language of undergraduate Marxism.

Then later, on 25 and 26 January 2003, I wrote the following:

I was over in East Kilbride at a funeral today. I don’t plan to write much about the funeral directly although it did set off some thoughts which might find their way here sooner or later.

I don’t often go to East Kilbride for any reason other than to visit family, and not usually by train as I did today. As is inevitable after a funeral, I suppose, I was in a somewhat reflective mood as I came home, looking around me. I found myself getting not depressed exactly but perhaps somewhat melancholic as the train wound through a grim urban wasteland, over trickles of brown sludge that passed for streams – although the filthy “water” was the only thing on the route not scarred by graffiti. (Incidentally, this is something which really narks me: train journeys both in the UK and continental Europe are marked by having to look at elaborate graffiti which are often treated, not least by the perpetrators but also by various idiots who should know better, as some form of artistic expression. It is not artistic expression – it is vandalism and it is a mess).

On the train children wore their respiratory problems like shawls over their cheap clothes while their pasty faced parents twitched anxiously, anticipating their station where they could rush out into the fresh air and light up before finding some treated lard that they could gobble down.

When we moved to East Kilbride in 1969 it was a New Town full of people who had gone there to make new homes in an optimistic era. Now, thirty four years after we arrived and twenty five years after I left, I looked at those once new buildings with chipped and patched pebble dash walls and peeling paint, grey cement watermarked with random washes of greyer cement where damp had set in, and I couldn’t help wonder what had happened to those optimistic dreams of starting over.

The same can be seen all over. We have at least two generations, and probably more, whose experience of work, if any, is in some backwater of the service economy which is rapidly running out of people in real jobs whom they can service. The community traditions which saw our great-grandparents through hardships, as well as the dignity – however marginal – which real work bought, have gone to be replaced by nothing.

And there is no sign that it is getting better.

Re-reading yesterday’s posting I had a flashback to a conversation in the late seventies in the front room of the Gatehouse at Coates Hall. The conversation was around the then fashionable notion that the silicon chip and accessible computing would herald the dawn of the leisure economy and the strains this would bring before we managed to create a society free of the tyranny of having to work for a living. We failed to anticipate the extent to which it would become a ‘sit around on your arse and hope for a big lottery win’ economy.

I think one of the key things which we did not then appreciate (remember Mrs. Thatcher did not become Prime Minister until 1979) was the extent to which the core industrial infrastructure would not simply be allowed to disappear but would be tacitly encouraged to do so as a function of monetarist ideology and competition legislation. The importance of this industrial infrastructure was that it also underpinned the social infrastructure and therefore an ethical infrastructure (by which I do not mean any particular set of moral values but rather the bigger picture of social interactions within which behaviours were judged).

I retain memories of travelling from Derby to Annfield Plain to visit my Gran in the nineteen sixties. The route of the train would take us through Sheffield and Rotherham which were major industrial centres, Sheffield of course for steel. When we reached Annfield Plain we could still see working pits from the upstairs front window and my Dad’s Uncle George used to drive steam engines (Black 5s?) from the Steel Works at Consett to Stanley.

None of that exists any longer and the Annfield Plain Co-op is part of the heritage museum at Beamish.

Some of my words yesterday might appear to be sentimental yearning for the noble toil of the working classes. That wasn’t my intent. I do think though that growing up without any expectation of economic opportunity has destroyed the outlook and prospects of at least two generations in the UK and provided conditions for many of our other social problems to take hold and fester.

I bring this all up again now because I was mind-mapping some stuff about eCommerce and eProcurement this afternoon and the same topic came up from my subconscious in broadly the same terms and I was prompted to go back and see what I wrote then.   This afternoon I was coming at this from the perspective of the pursuit of efficiencies via IT and I offer it up for consideration.  There isn’t much original in it (Wall-E covered much the same ground!) but I would be interested in your thoughts.

UK readers of a certain age will recall when Tomorrow’s World gave us silicon chips with everything and there was a utopian vision in play of a world  where gadgets would make life easy and we would all have plenty of time to think great thoughts and build the good society.  This line of thought continues today with advertisements for the latest must have gadgets.  Apple are bad for this but only marginally more so than their competitors.

In fact what we have 35 years later is a profoundly unequal society with endemic inter-generational unemployment and large scale narcotic and alcohol driven social problems.  Of course this can not completely be blamed on the pursuit of a technocratic ideal but that pursuit is at least complicit: for many the pursuit of IT enabled “efficiencies” in business means removal from process of the principal vectors of error and “inefficiency” – human beings.

One does not have to be a genius sociologist to grasp that this stores up trouble if the displaced people are not able to grow into independent economic agents and to form and contribute to communities.  At least some will find other ways of passing their time, especially if there is a parallel development of an economic elite from whom not only does little or nothing trickle down but in fact they are the beneficiaries as things trickle up.

I do not argue for a crude redistribution of wealth but I do argue for much more careful consideration being given than is presently the case to unintended consequences of business strategies and decisions  in both public and private sectors. As the old business models fall away with technological change we should be concerned to identify and foster new models