Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A guest blog from a Londoner :0)

Firstly, I would like to thank Luke for the invite to write a guest blog for him. I've known Luke for years, we met originally in Malaysia when he helped me escape from a German lesbian who was stalking me through a rain forest (true story); Luke has been one of my closest friends ever since.

I was briefed to write something which demonstrated stark comparisons and current issues, so welcome to the ramblings of a mad woman; here we are and off we go...

I was away from the UK three years in total, half of which was spent in Asia where the bartering system is alive and well. I initially enjoyed (then later found rather exhausting) the interaction between a shop keeper and myself. In the independent shops full of tourist tat, clothes, jewellery or cell phones, one can't go in, pick something up, then simply ask how much an item is and expect to be given a fixed price.

No. No. No.

Instead, there is a time honoured game played between the purveyor and his customer; the item must be presented to you by the shop keeper, never the correct item, but something that is similar to in many ways, but not quite what you had in mind that will just have to do you for today as there is nowhere else that may stock anything like what you wanted. As an example, one may forget buying one’s favourite shampoo, you may have the local knock-off equivalent that probably smells better but just doesn't seem to ever rinse out in the shower. This seems fair enough until your hotel owner has great joy informing you that this is, in fact, dog shampoo therefore making you wonder precisely how far down the hippy trail you have accidently wandered.
The initial price tag of the item may alter according to many variables; for example the time of day (possibly higher when he's just setting up for the day or lower if you are asking for the "sunset price") or maybe the perceived wealth of the customer (the price for a poor local farmer will be substantially lower than that of a rich American backpacker). I've been told that the perfect barter results in the buyer feeling as though he's been ripped off a little and the seller experiencing the discomfort of feeling he could have charged more for the item at hand. Quite how they are both going to know that they have reached that point is anyone's guess, I can't say that I've ever been able to walk away knowing this is what has happened.

This is worlds away from the First World system of commerce; to the point that, when I returned to Europe, I had to have a friend go to the supermarket with me the first time for moral support. I drifted through the revolving doors and was faced with a gargantuan warehouse stuffed full with a world of goods, all stacked neatly and labelled with the price. One could merely glance at the shelf to find out the value of the item, none of this guess work that I had, up until so recently, been subjected to. The total cost of a basket of goods could be predicted and if anything it went down thanks to 2-4-1 deals and the like.

Utter bliss...

Until, that is, I went to the check out.

Here, dear reader, I was confronted with the "Self Service Checkout". Instead of being greeted by a smiling checkout chick asking me if I wanted to pay by cash or card (no, I don’t have a frigging loyalty card), I was subjected to making a ritual offering to the demon who lives inside the magical touch-screen box. It progressively traumatises the unsuspecting shopper by a number of methods. Frequently it falsely accuses you of attempting to steal the 19 pence Value Strawberry Yogurt because the scanner didn't really scan it before you put it in the bag (even though you would swear on your Grandmother's grave that you hear the demon "beep" it's accent half a second ago). It asks questions such as "do you have any of your own bags?", thus making one confront the reality that one has forgotten their eco bags and therefore is helping to destroy the planet just a little bit more by using up 2 of their shiny new bags; which they then charge you tuppence each, just to really piss you off.
Lo-and-behold the miserable shopper who puts their purse on any of the touch sensitive scales; thou shalt burn for tickling of such sensitive technology. And Cashback? You must be joking! The belly of the demon needs feeding! It is not about to serve you your wealth, don't be so very silly. How very dare you for such a thought crossing your mind.

Every time you can't make the bastard machine work, you have to summon the utterly uninterested teenage assistant (who hates the demon machine far more than you and I may fathom) to kick it into submission for you. Each time you think that you are going to get arrested for that yogurt that didn't scan, or maybe that you told the demon that the Capsicum was red and not green. Don't get your Capsicums muddled up, the demon knows the truth that lies beneath...

By the time you've left the shop you are in a worse mood that you were when you went in, but this time you will have no one to shout at.

Not healthy. Not healthy one bean.

What's any of this got to do with anything at all though?

In these days of rioting, occupations of various central business districts (Wall Street, Auckland and London being three of which I'm currently following), dwindling family values where people feel more and more disempowered and have increasingly distant relationships with the people who we share our cities with, it is sad to see that yet one more valuable human interaction has been so swiftly whipped away out of our daily lives from before our very eyes. We are becoming more and more distant from the people who share our living spaces which has created loneliness and isolation from within the crowd.

I'm not technophobic by any stretch of the imagination, I have techno-joy and am usually inseparable from my Android phone and laptop, but it's the fighting with unfeeling, uncaring, unknowing computers (such as the self serve checkout ) instead of working with fellow humans which worries me. How are we to correct this when people are being replaced by beeping machines containing demons which need to be satisfied?
Although bartering drives me to distraction, I loved the social challenges it brought and the lessons it taught me; how to be good natured in defeat or gracious in victory, how to develop and maintain a relationship with an individual or team of individuals in a constructive way which can then be built upon over the time that I am a patron of the establishment. By removing the human, we've not only lost the opportunity for personal growth, but also a degree of community adhesion. These simple daily interactions create social conversation; about how the area is developing and forming, what Mrs So-and-so is up to these days or the state of the local council. If local people are not engaged in conversation with their neighbours here, then where are they to do it? Not in the pub, people are too busy getting drunk and forgetting to treat each other nicely. Not in the coffee shops, people are too busy reading and poking their iPhones. Not on the Underground, people are too busy looking at anything other than each other to avoid interacting with the person that who they are nose to armpit with during crush-hour.

Without these forced social interactions, in places such as the local shops, society will eventually fail to talk to each other.
Then what?

I've already figured out that were I ever to find a job that allowed me to work from behind a computer at home then I would never have to leave the place ever again. Everything can be mailed to me from Ebay etc and groceries delivered from Sainsbury’s Online.
Will people eventually become segregated into those who hide behind their computers and those who are the invisible servants who create and deliver the goods?

Is this the city in which you wish to live?

I sure as hell don't.

Come out into the city and play with us, there is a whole world to talk to :0)
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