No, I’ve no idea either. There are Five Tests I apply to government slogans, and this one fails all of them.
But hey, who knows what they’re on about? Latest news is that anybody above the age of five who has the disease and is displaying symptoms of the disease can be tested for the disease.
Oh, and they’ve recruited lots of minions (no offence; I like those little guys) to run their contact-tracing service. I know one of them. She’s going to be given lists of numbers to call, she tells me.
“Hello? You’ve been in contact with somebody who has the disease. Have you got it, and are you displaying symptoms? No? In that case, wait a few days, and if you do come down with the disease, we’ll arrange to test you for the disease.”
Got to be showing symptoms, though.
“Actually, this is my home number. Go to gov.uk and that’ll give you a code to get you on the waiting list for a test. If you’ve got the disease and are showing symptoms, of course.”
Way back at the end of New Labour – “Not near you, no, but you can choose whether you want to drive to a test centre in England, Scotland or Wales” – back at the end of New Labour, the government spent a lot of money and time developing an unworkable identity-card scheme that nobody wanted*. Now we have this contact-tracing apparatus. Worked well in China, apparently.
“My partner’s a martial-arts enthusiast with serious anger-management issues. And he works from home. Now stop calling me!” [Update as of Wednesday morning: the home email addresses of 300-ish contact-tracers have been accidentally released into the public domain. I thought I was making this up.]
After “Stay Alert”, I’ve discovered, the second part of the new slogan is “Control the Virus”, which has that fuzzy-comfortable implication that you can actually control the virus. Along with the slightly less comfortable implication that the government is delegating control of the virus to you.
Good luck. Teach it to sit, and maybe to retrieve tennis balls when you shout “Fetch!”
And don’t blame the government for the second wave, because it’s down to you now. Remember that marketing slogan whereby products and services were always Putting You In Control? Exactly. Click here if you accept the terms and conditions. Paragraph 1, line 1: Don’t blame us.
Sooner or later, it’s going to occur to somebody in government that (a) they need people to be alive to book air tickets, pay taxes and revive The Economy, and (b) that their contact-tracing thing will only work if we’re Put In Control of being legally obliged to carry our smartphones at all times.
Remember that scene in the movie where they find the tracking bug and fix it to somebody else’s bumper? Can’t do that with an identity ca– sorry, smartphone.
I want a simple app that makes a noise whenever the distance between my phone and another phone falls below two metres. Something like a personal alarm, so simple that I can control it for myself without needing to be Put In Control.
Something that yells at passing joggers for me. Alexa? Make yourself useful for once?
Something that any passing millennial could design in her sleep without the need to recruit – how many? – contact tracers and the bureaucracy to manage them.
24,000 covid-tracers already recruited, going on 25,000, who will administer 10,000 tests per hour, rising to 100,000 tests per hour before PMQs next week, and twice the population tested by next bank-holiday weekend at the latest. We’ve got this virus licked!
The government’s panicking, isn’t it?
What they can’t say is: nothing’s changed. This is the same monster that we brought you inside to avoid. Now we need you to go outside again and make money for us. No, the monster’s still there. Stay alert! Control it!
[Aside: what they can say, deplorably, is that children are also vulnerable at home so might be better going back to school. Oh, very convenient and not what you were saying a few weeks ago. I have a quote lined up but I won’t use it because it enrages me.]
We’re responsible, right? If there’s a second wave, it’ll be our fault because we weren’t alert enough and failed to control it.
The tragedy is that although the government’s changed the underlying message from “We’ll take the credit!” to “It’s not our fault!” – it hasn’t relinquished control.
You don’t, though, do you, if you’re a government that’s panicking?
You double down: more big numbers in the daily briefings, more test kits posted and counted as done, more contact-tracers recruited; more scientists, more slide shows, more explanations of the R-number (there are two R-numbers, did you know?); all to back up your projections of how successful you’re about to be.
So: no quick, noisy, millennial-designed apps. Instead, a contact-tracing bureaucracy. Outsourced. Our contact-tracers’ personal data is very important to us. Lessons have been learned. 24,000, 25,000, 10,000 per day, nought to sixty; In the future, everybody will be tested for fifteen minutes.
This is another aspect of the apocalypse that fiction didn’t foresee.
The first one was (I just love this), It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (ITEOTWAWKI), and yet we can still order takeaway pizza. Got that. Loving it (with the G).
But here’s the second one: ITEOTWAWKI, and we have a government casting around for solutions that above all fit the established bureaucratic method. Holy challenging but realistic targets, Batman!
Part Three of the new slogan is “Save Lives”.
Gosh, you are going to be busy.
*The Identity Cards Act 2006 was repealed in 2010.
Not in a pompous way – not “Do You Know Who I Am?” spoken in that tone of voice. I just thought – yeah. I wonder.
I’m curious. We talk about Artificial Intelligence, and if we take that seriously (or imaginatively), then we’re talking about some kind of mind. With, let’s assume, thought processes and opinions.
Follow the logic of all the current blether about the exciting prospect of AI, blah blah, and even if that isn’t true today, it will be true soon. So there. You’ve hyped yourself into taking me seriously, professor. At least you got the funding.
No, I’m not going to try to make this funny. My laptop thinks I’m in Dorking and I wrote a piece once about the online provider that had analysed my data and worked out that I’m a Spanish woman.
Been there, done that. Today, I’m just looking at another intelligence across the divide, and wondering. There is a tentative meeting of minds going on here.
Amazon sent me an email yesterday. Books I might like to read on my Kindle “based on recent purchases”.
Actually, let’s do this as a competition. No need to enter. But, you know, think about it if you’ve run out of other distractions.
The competition question is to identify my recent purchases based on Amazon’s recommendations.
Here goes. That wise old algorithm at Amazon suggests that I might like to read:
All The Devils Are Here by Louise Penny
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Cold is the Grave by Peter Robinson
Heir to the Empire: Star Wars Legends (The Thrawn Trilogy) by Timothy Zahn
House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones (I’m giving these in the order Amazon lists them)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck and [with an introduction by] Susan Shillinglaw
Speaker for the Dead: Book Two of The Ender Saga (The Ender Quartet Series) by Orson Scott Card
Aberystwyth Mon Amour (Aberystwyth Noir Series Book 1) by Malcolm Price.
I want to meet myself!
More to the point – here’s the competition – what have I been buying?
Bonus question. What other aspects of my personal history did the wise old algorithm take into account when compiling its list of recommendations? What did it discount?
I will tell you – I’ve read a book by one of those authors, but not the one suggested and not on my Kindle.
If anybody actually asks, I might even reveal my recent purchases next week. I’ll try to keep the “These are just on my Kindle: I read impressively intellectual books in hardback, y’know” paragraph down to a minimum.
There’s a mind out there that sees me as a reader who would go from [insert one author from the list] to [another] followed by [another].
I should know better, but – I’m kind of flattered.
Footnote: I've always had a sneaking fondness for Amazon, ever since they were a plucky little dot-com fighting to survive the dot-com boom/bust. I know that isn't a fashionable opinion, but never mind. It's fair to add that there's always a "find out why we recommended this" button on Amazon's emails. If I'd already written a below-the-picture piece for this week, I would have just gone to the "we recommended this because you bought that" page and forgotten the whole thing. But I like to think of that algorithm, edging itself towards self-awareness. I wonder if it knows Skynet.