xrematon

March 14, 2019

Data-rich in the analogue world – challenging grey-tinted glasses perspectives on the times gone by

It is all too easy to slip into lazy thinking and simplistically assume that pre-internet, Big Data, cookies, mobile phones and so forth, it was like the Dark Ages and that options in terms of tracking and surveillance were limited. Well, think again. My own such assumptions were challenged from an unlikely source: a detective novel written in 1929 (“The Man in the Queue” by Josephine Tey).

Instead, the enterprising, thoughtful and rather dapper detective (Inspector Alan Grant) was able to get hold of many little elements of data, all of which provided valuable clues. This was possible because he was operating in the smaller scale, slow, pre-globalised and pre-AI world where people still wrote things down by hand and carried out many transactions in person.

Here are some examples to bring life what I mean:

Critical to uncovering to the identity of the murder victim was his tie. As things still got made in the UK at this time, the Inspector and his team went off to the tie manufacturer for some insights. The manufacturer checked their books and found out to which shop this tie with a more unusual design had been sent off. The next stop for the team was the identified department store on Nottingham. The Inspector spoke to the young man who worked on the tie counter, who was able to recall what the gentleman who had bought the tie looked like. There was no need to spool through hours of CCTV footage, hoping to find the right moment, which would have no doubt been caught only in limited grainy detail and at an odd angle. People remember people and, more importantly, are able to describe a person not just in terms of appearance but what ‘they were like’, giving valuable clues as to their character and state of mind.

In the 1930’s there was no digital social media but instead real-life community networks. And this turned out to be very useful for finding out where the suspect might have gone off to hide holed up by their family or friends. One of the Inspector’s team pretended to be a struggling soldier looking for some odd jobs to do in the neighbourhood and deliberately targeted the vicar. It was a smart choice as the vicar’s household knew all about their congregation and their backgrounds – a little flattery to some gossiping servants went a long way. No misleading fake posts here.

Another important point to note is that the analogue world still ‘did’ data but in different forms. Fingers prints abound, used left right and centre, whilst more ingenious and interesting, was making use of the serial numbers on bank notes. The suspect left a significant wedge of cash in their room and the Inspector took these notes to the bank. The bank tellers were able to look back at their ledgers and check who had actually withdrawn this money. This turned out not to be the suspect, thus providing another valuable clue.

But you know what – at the end of the day, none of this data was actually useful and more of a distraction or red herring! The guilty party turned out to be someone not caught up in this trail of records, files, community chat and so forth – but that kind of surprise twist is what you expect from a detective novel. Some things don’t change.

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November 16, 2016

Rematerialism

Compared to the boom consumption decades of the post-war era or the bling-times of 1980s, in more recent years, it could be maintained we have been living in a post-materialistic society. This was true in the buoyant affluence leading up to the global financial crisis and Great Recession when, putting it crudely, we had everything money could buy and we became interested instead in seeking the best, most glorious experiences. Red Letter Days, which lets you buy balloon rides and bungee-jumping as gifts, was the poster child organisation for this set of attitudes. Going through the recession and financial squeeze kept post-materialism still in there, but the motivations and perspectives behind it were different. With little spare money for excess and indulgence, we came to understand what was actually most important to us, and that was often spending quality time with family. In that environment, staying in became the new going out – a more modest experience, but an experience nonetheless.

However, I wonder whether attitudes might be shifting again. Experiences are still very important, in part because of economic pressures: having experiences can be relatively be expensive (compare the cost of meal out vs cooking at home). But now ‘things’ could get more expensive too given that the low value of the pound is pushing up the price of imports.

Beyond the simple economics of higher prices driving a sense of scarcity and thus the need to appreciate material goods, I wonder whether there is something in the way in which we ‘approach’ objects which is changing. There are two dynamics to this:

  • In certain sectors, we are moving to a prioritisation of ‘usership’ rather than ownership. It’s clearest with cars, when we can use Uber or some kind car rental scheme in order to answer our mobility needs other than through buying a vehicle. It’s also pretty big in media: we download films or albums when we want to watch or listen, rather than picking up a box from our shelves. This means that when we do buy ‘something’, it is rather special. Look at how everyone can’t resist getting a fine and fancy notebook in which to write their meeting notes.
  • In addition, the idea of repairing an object and investing in making it last is getting more mainstream. Patagonia is a leader here and on its website, it is possible to access a comprehensive set of easy-to-follow repair guides, from learning how to repair a baffle on a down jacket to replacing the slider on a plastic tooth zipper.

When our lives were full of wonderful experiences, we could fill post lovely pictures on social media of  happy people laughing on sandy beaches etc; I am not sure photos taken whilst descaling the kettle to make it last longer will really have quite the same impact.

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