Sunday, June 10, 2007

We're so pretty...we're vacant!

What is it with sodding "electrosensitivity"? Why has it suddenly achieved escape-from-reality velocity this spring? What is it with columnists like the Obscurer's Jasper Gerard, who this week chose to announce that, if you include the long-term sick, the total number of unemployed people in Britain is over 3 million. Wasn't it like that under Thatcher? Where's the outrage? Naturally, the figure of 3 million didn't include the long-term sick either. The reason why there are so many people on the sick is that Thatch used it as a way of laundering the unemployed. Enough from Jasper, I think.

What is it with MPs who think the scheme for Internet censorship is actually useful, or that ID cards can possibly work despite the fact that 99 per cent of 44 million people is a lot? Reading this, I was struck by the fact that the Psuedo Age seems to begin 10 years or so after the come-back of domestic service. That in itself is probably an echo of rising inequality and higher hours worked across the board. But it's worth remembering that the British elite has traditionally been opposed to knowing anything. Generalism is great. Experts should be on tap, not on top. Later, of course, the civil service even lost that, as so much of its institutional expertise was transferred to the Big Consultants.

Whatever it is you need, you can ask a specialist - didn't Mark Twain say that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme? The US Congress got rid of its Office of Technology Assessment in the early 90s. Parliament never felt the need of such a thing, and Christ, does it need one. One of the worrying things, though, is that in the past the top civil servants actually had a grip of how the administration worked because they'd worked in it. I recall that Chris Lightfoot once published some docs on the original National Registration system, which were full of exact details about which bits of the form went where. The equivalent today would be to quote the SQL statements, but as the government IT world is contractorised, nobody in Parliament or most of Whitehall could read them.

What if ignorance, at the elite level, survives despite everything because it's the ultimate status symbol? Not only do I get a man in (what a telling phrase that is) for everything, I don't need to know bugger all about my job. Perhaps that's the key to managerialism - if your skills are infinitely generalisable, are they distinguishable from total ignorance?

It seems to be a sort of conventional wisdom for a lot of people that science is equivalent with religion, that we believe in it thoughtlessly and without understanding. Therefore, faced with this ignorance, it's entirely valid to believe in imbecilic quackery like Julia Stephenson's naturopath (who advised her to "detox" in order to get rid of "radiation" from a WLAN router, apparently thinking that RF energy could accumulate in the body) - see, for example, this review of a book I took issue with earlier.
His researches are kick-started by his wife's pregnancy and her "almost sacred mission to purify her body". Each new piece of information makes him more paranoid about what he, she and their unborn child are eating...Paying £75 to a Harley Street doctor certified by "the American College of Nutrition", Fergusson drops his trousers and allows an Austrian nurse to draw a syringeful of fat from his bum. Hearing that he lives in London, the nurse says, "I think you will be all right. London is safer to live in than the countryside these days. There are so many pesticides in the countryside."

Even so, the test reveals that Fergusson "contained significantly high levels of DDT, DDE, HCB, PCBs, p-dichlorobenzene, dieldrin and chlordane". Analysis of his wife's breast-milk reveals the presence of all these too, although they are described as being "well within background exposure levels". Panicked, Fergusson and his wife jump into an infra-red sauna and stay there for 20 minutes, naked, scrubbing themselves with a loofah, sweating out toxins.
It's the loofah that amuses me, as well as the infra-red - is there a kind of sauna that doesn't use heat? I suppose the astonishing number of tanning enterprises in the north is a weird twist on the sauna, and those use ultra-violet light, but still. (In fact, this may be a function of their fairly low overhead and high cash turnover being ideal for the reprocessing of drugs money.)

But I think it's possible to make a case that the great status symbol of today is being able to buy a better class of paranoia. See also the Government's attitude to "risk". This used to be a hot issue in about 2000, and according to Peter Hennessy it was a pet issue of Tony Blair's. Sadly, the upshot appears to be that the public sector has concluded that "risk communication" implies that public perception of risk is a data point in assessment of risks - which fits into a broad sorta-markety world view, I suppose. The most egregious example being the Home Office "fear monitor", one of whose inputs is the number of scare stories in the press. One of the prime determiners of this, of course, is the activity of Home Office head of news John "Your marriage is over - understand!" Tozer.


Anonymous said...

"But it's worth remembering that the British elite has traditionally been opposed to knowing anything."

Alex - run, don't walk, to your nearest decent library and get out _The Government Machine_ by Jon Agar. Then read it.

You still here? Go and get the book. You'll thank me.

Chris Williams

Anonymous said...

Wow! The sarcasm in your writing is so thick and heavy, you could build houses with it! Lighten up, please - and look for some proof (preferably scientific) of the pooh-poohing statements that gush out of your pen.
All good wishes

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