Eliane Glaser | I am not a robot · LRB 13 May 2022

Please go to checkout number nine. See it, say it, sorted. I have read the terms and conditions. Accept all cookies. We are currently experiencing very high call volumes. Please take a moment to give us your feedback. I am not a robot.

These messages are the soundtrack to modern life. On trains, futile reminders to ‘keep your belongings with you at all times’ and totalitarianism-lite security announcements are repeated at a nonsensical, intolerable frequency. In supermarkets, the faux friendliness of self-checkouts compounds the irritation of forgetting once again that the bagging area is on the left. Being misinformed that ‘your call is important to us’ is increasingly superseded by the even more infuriating chatbots.

The messages are as ubiquitous on screen as they are on the tannoy: the bad-faith charade of the terms and conditions tick box, the blatant cynicism of ‘we value your privacy’, the humiliating drudgery of spotting which photographs contain traffic lights. We are thwarted by incompatible browsers and out-of-date operating systems, waste mornings deciphering technical message-board threads, and at every turn – including, yes, on the LRB website – encounter expressionless words on closed doors. ‘Please enter your username’. ‘Please enter your password’. ‘That username or password is incorrect’. And then there is the secret relief, tinged with self-loathing, of spending time on such tasks instead of our (if we’re lucky) more meaningful, but daunting, real work.

For a radio programme (entitled Noise), Jon Holmes and I have interviewed scores of ordinary citizens exasperated by what Mark Fisher called ‘boring dystopia’. Consumer wormholes are a big part of it – everyone has a story about trying to fix a broken phone, switch energy supplier or trace a lost package. But the condition is pervasive: a pernicious computer-generated miasma through which we interact with the world.

Why is it that in an age of cutting-edge technology and corporate efficiency so many of us spend our days mastering yet another counter-intuitive software system, struggling to stay friendly on the phone to IT support, or going through the motions of an online training course?

For the anthropologist David Graeber, the answer was twofold. First, the glitches and pointless routines are in fact intrinsic to late capitalism: proof, along with the rise of ‘bullshit jobs’ in services and management, that private-sector efficacy is a myth. Second, bureaucracy conceals violence: it is a way of exerting state power or corporate coercion at arm’s length, by outsourcing it to third-hand ‘service providers’ and disavowing it through form-filling and the use of opaque, generic language.

There are other factors. Cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors drives a race to the bottom: the alternatives are no better, or don’t exist. Administrative labour is devolved onto customers (everyone’s a customer now) – the so-called ‘time tax’. Platform capitalism turns a chat at the checkout (the vestiges of community) into wordless delivery by an exploited moped driver. Automation begets automation: we have to book online because everyone else does.

As Hannah Arendt observed, in a bureaucratic society ‘everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act.’ No wonder the Brexit promise to ‘take back control’ had such appeal (though we’re now even more ensnared in red tape). In a fully developed bureaucracy, Arendt wrote, ‘there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted.’ The call handlers are not responsible, you remind yourself, your blood pressure rising.

In 2014, Rory Stewart suggested that ordinary Afghans have more power than British citizens, because at least they have a role in their village. ‘The secret of modern Britain,’ he said, ‘is there is no power anywhere.’ Every prime minister since Blair, he claimed, has found that even they somehow can’t get anything done. ‘You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.’

There may be some truth to this, but it’s also a version of the lie that ‘we are all in this together.’ We are not all equally powerless, and bureaucracy protects corporate and state power by channelling resistance into ‘feedback’ and complaints that get lost in the weeds.

And there are other ways to respond. The composer Neil Luck has transformed those formulas and protocols into a piece of music for soprano, cello and saxophone. You can hear it at 6:45 on Sunday evening on Radio 3. As long as the download works.

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