Everything Changes

In which The Author wonders if there really is a future

‘The twenty-first century’s when it all changes, and you’ve gotta be ready.’

Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood

I’ve been a huge fan of science fiction since I was in junior school. Doctor Who (starring Jon Pertwee, and later Tom Baker) seemed to be on TV every Saturday evening in those days. I used to watch it even though I wasn’t sure what was happening a lot of the time. I think I got really hooked on SF when I was at home with one of the illnesses which children used to get when I was younger (it might have been while I had mumps).
One day, Mother went shopping while Mams looked after me. In those days we did nearly all our weekly shopping in Les Loyns’s shop on Trecynon square and Bob Mock’s newsagent’s next door (see ‘Not Open All Hours (Part 1)‘). Mock’s kept a fair range of books in stock, and on this particular day Mother returned with a copy of Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion by Terrance Dicks. It was just the thing to keep me occupied for a few days.
After that our regular visits to Aberdare were incomplete without a visit to Graham Ewington’s shop by the level crossing (both long gone) and a new Doctor Who book. I’ve still got them on my shelves, and I suspect they’d present a fairly challenging read to children these days.
I moved on to more serious SF in my teens. I was reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, the two Roberts (Heinlein and Silverberg), Philip José Farmer, Harlan Ellison, Ian Watson, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, and anthologies of short stories.
There were also good quality TV dramas aimed at older children with SF/fantasy themes: The Tomorrow People, The Georgian House, Children of the Stones (see ‘Getting Stoned’), The Changes, and The Moon Stallion, to name some that I can recall.
A slightly older audience got to watch evening dramas: Survivors or Blake’s 7 (both devised by Daleks creator Terry Nation), Sapphire and Steel (whose creator Peter J. Hammond wrote a couple of Torchwood episodes), and of course Star Trek was never off the schedules in those days.
ITV used to show Gerry Anderson’s live action series UFO and Space 1999 on Saturday mornings. The UK broadcasters also imported series like Planet of the Apes, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run, The Invisible Man, Gemini Man, The Man from Atlantis, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Superman, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Knight Rider, and showed them at peak times.
Then there were popular science shows on TV: Tomorrow’s World, Horizon, Equinox, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and James Burke’s Connections. These would fire your imagination to synthesise some of the ideas you’d read about, showing them as concrete (albeit remote) possibilities.
The nicest hybrid of science and SF was the American magazine OMNI, which I bought monthly from Mock’s in the early 80s. I’ve still got a number of them. OMNI was a great blend of hard science stories, speculative articles, polemical columns urging investment in technology,  dazzling artwork and photography, and cutting-edge fiction (including extracts from Stephen King’s novel Firestarter and the first publication of William Gibson’s story ‘Johnny Mnemonic’). You’d be hard-pressed to find anything like that on the market today (see ‘OMNIscience‘).
There was a fresh flowering of SF films during this period, beginning with Star Wars, through Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien to E.T. and beyond. From time to time, BBC would put on a season of vintage SF films as well. On Saturday afternoons I’d enjoy George Pal’s The Time Machine (that bloody sphinx used to scare the crap out of me!), When Worlds Collide, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others which are only remembered in reference books.
For a keen SF fan, it seemed that the future was going to go in one of two directions.
According to some forecasters it was going to be full of supercomputers, starships, aliens, lasers, unlimited wealth, and peace for all humanity – a high-tech version of Timothy Leary’s S.M.I².L.E Agenda (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension).
We’d zip around the megacities in our Dymaxion cars, talk to our friends across the world by video link, or take a weekend break on Mars. We might not even need the spaceships – we’d have perfected teleportation and time travel.
Benevolent computers would allocate global resources in a Marxist utopia, allowing us to shake off the chains of industry and reach our collective peak as a species. We’d be able to devote our time to art, literature, music, pure research, and the exploration of Outer and Inner Space while robots did all the hard work.
It would be a new Golden Age that would make the Renaissance look like a heated debate in a sixth-form common room. We’d trade commodities and ideas with the inhabitants of far-off worlds, expanding our civilisation to undreamed-of heights. We might even transcend our physical forms altogether and become creatures of pure consciousness, at one with the Universe.
Other people foresaw horrific visions of the future. Deadly pollution, natural disasters, or entropic decay would slowly destroy the planet while scientists were powerless to stop the slaughter.
Overpopulation would be tackled by eugenics, rigorous controls on parenthood, or enforced euthanasia. Humans would develop their psychic powers and use them to make their fortunes out of other people’s foolhardiness.
Cloning and genetic engineering would unleash all manner of monsters upon the earth. Mind-numbing drugs and mind-numbing entertainment would pacify the population while the elite lived their decadent lives.
Corrupt corporations would control governments (overtly or covertly) and nation-states would become simply their branch offices.
It would be an era of total warfare lasting for millennia, whether between rival ideologies, different ethnic groups, competing totalitarian regimes, other planetary species (or intelligent machines), or even between planets, inevitably resulting in the enslavement of humanity by aliens.
The worst case scenario would be global nuclear detonation or the spread of a killer virus (accidental or otherwise) wiping out our species altogether, apart from small bands of mutated survivors fighting over scant resources.
One thing was certain: the future would be different from the past. As Captain Jack Harkness tells Gwen Cooper in the first episode of Torchwood, ‘The twenty-first century’s when it all changes, and you’ve gotta be ready.’
Oh yes – those of us who’d been reading SF for years were ready, all right!
Anyway, time moved on and some of the things I used to read about and see on TV have come to pass. But they haven’t exactly had the desired effect, have they?
If you’re reading this, you’ve obviously got a screen of some size in front of you. It’s connected to a ‘black box’ (in Information Theory terms, meaning that you don’t understand the internal processes) which enables you to read things written seconds earlier by someone you’ve never even met.
The problem is, of course, that a great deal of what you’re going to find is bullshit. There’s no editorial control, no peer review, and nobody standing over your shoulder to point out the mistakes. You’re so used to taking whatever you find on the Internet as gospel that you don’t question it. Even if I were to include a list of Recommended Reading at the end, you’d probably be happy to take my word that I’d read the books in question and was giving you accurate information.
You can communicate in virtually real time with people from all over the world – without any way of knowing whether that person is who he/she claims to be. I’m a forty-five year old man, and I don’t have much in common with schoolgirls, so we’d have little to talk about – but someone who was determined to abuse young children would be able to pass himself off quite convincingly, with potentially disastrous results. I’m not scaremongering. It’s already happened, and it will happen again.
You can listen to radio programmes from Australia or Greenland or Uruguay more or less as they are broadcast – regardless of the fact that you’ll hear much the same music as you would if you’d stuck with your analogue set at home. If you ask a class of primary school children to sing a song, it’s for more likely to be the latest hit by Rihanna than ‘Aiken Drum’. It’s one of the unintended consequences of globalisation.
The US-based English-speaking hegemony of the Internet threatens to wipe out indigenous languages, and when a language dies, so does the associated culture. In the future, nursery rhymes, children’s songs, folk tales and traditional stories will be confined to a limited middle-class population whose parents have insisted on reading them books instead of letting the TV do the babysitting.
Your car talks to you, telling you where to go without consulting a map. You don’t even bother to put the road atlas in the car any more. Why would you? You don’t need it. Until, of course, there’s an accident or a diversion – in which case you’re on your own. Walkers can buy GPS units which do the same thing. But maps reveal our history and our heritage in the way no electronic device will ever do. The satnav reduces the landscape merely to a skeletal pattern of lines on a blank field.
If you’re in a shop, you don’t have to give your cash to the person behind the till any more. You just swipe your plastic card and enter your PIN on the terminal. If you’re not in a hurry, you can use the self-service terminal. This allows you to do your shopping without the chore of speaking to the bored minimum wage slave behind the counter entirely. It’s only a matter of time before the whole place becomes self-service and till robots replace the human robots.
What will the humans do with all their increased leisure time when they’re all living on the bare minimum deemed necessary by the State? What about those people who have no money in their accounts? Well, they’ll be fucked! They won’t be able to borrow a fiver off a friend until they get paid. They’ll have to go hungry, or resort to stealing. Marvellous, isn’t it?
As for that bulky, environmentally-hostile, difficult to master, time-consuming pen-and ink technology – who needs it anyway? People just type whatever they want to say into the little box on the screen, hit ‘send’, and the message goes directly to whichever friend, relative, radio presenter, local authority employee, lawyer, politician, campaigner, corporate boss, or total stranger whom they’ve decided is likely to take an interest.
There’s no need to spend ages mastering spelling, punctuation, grammar or the formal rules of letter-writing any more. The computer will point out misspelled words (although it won’t point out when they’ve used a real but incorrect word.) The chances are that the recipient will have achieved more or less the same level of semi-literacy as the sender, so won’t be any the wiser anyway.
Some linguists, like Prof. David Crystal, argue that the spread of text-speak and email won’t have a detrimental effect on our ability to communicate. You think? Try searching for a music download or a YouTube video. Possibly as often as a third of the time, the title or artist have been entered incorrectly. When people keying in the information are unable to spell, information becomes more and more difficult to find.
In the meantime, the Royal Mail (for fear of putting people out of work) whiles away its days collecting, conveying, sorting, conveying, sorting, and delivering millions of pieces of rubbish (see ‘A Load of Crap‘).
Important correspondence gets swamped in this ocean of rubbish. It gets lost, or delayed, or misdelivered, or (in some cases) even thrown away by the postman because he’s in danger of missing his performance targets. As we’ll see …
So, at long last, we reach the point of this rambling discussion. In Little Dorrit (published 1855-7), Charles Dickens created the Circumlocution Office – his satirical take on the British Civil Service, and its ability to take forever to carry out the simplest of tasks:
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.
This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.
Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be—what it was.’

(Little Dorrit, ch. 10.)

Nearly a century and a half on, the Circumlocution Office is still there. The name has been changed several times, of course. It may have been privatised, or outsourced, or transformed into an Executive Agency, but ultimately any public official you deal with is almost certainly a subcontractor for the Circumlocution Office.
A friend of mine suffers with a long-term back problem, and so has been receiving a state benefit called Employment Support Allowance. On three occasions within as many weeks, the staff at Aberdare Jobcentre (an Executive Agency of the Circumlocution Office) somehow contrived to lose her medical certificate. This meant that she received no money at all to feed herself and her two young sons. Eventually, after visiting the Circumlocution Office on three consecutive days she kicked up a fuss one Friday afternoon. It wouldn’t have taken me that long, in fairness to her. This forced them to issue a counter payment so that she could at least survive the weekend.
Meanwhile, assorted heroin addicts, criminals and lead-swingers who virtually inhabit the Circumlocution Office were out in a few minutes, Giros in hands, and straight to the pub via the pharmacy. It’s just one of many horror stories I’ve heard about Jobcentres, local authorities, hospitals, social services, courts, the Inland Revenue, and other government agencies over the past few months. Try this one for size:
Another friend of mine applied for a job in the Prison Service two years ago. He passed his assessments, his fitness tests, his security vetting, and everything else before a sporting injury meant that he missed the previous intake on medical grounds.
Last week he was very disappointed (and not a little angry) to find that his application had been rejected because he’d failed to disclose a criminal conviction. We were talking about it, and he couldn’t figure out what the black mark on his record was. He found out this morning.
He was prosecuted for pissing against a wall in Hirwaun.
In 1988.
Yes, you read that correctly – twenty-three years ago! He must have been in his late teens at the time. It’s a wonder he could even remember it himself. But on the strength of a silly drunken episode a quarter of a century ago, the Circumlocution Office has deemed him unfit to work in the Prison Service.
Not satisfied yet? Here’s another one:
I had to get up at the crack of dawn one morning in summer 2007 to get to Llandough Hospital for an 8 a.m. orthopaedic outpatient clinic. From Aberdare it’s a fairly straightforward journey by public transport – a leisurely walk from my house to the station, the 0622 train through to Cogan just outside Penarth, and a pleasant walk to the hospital from there. I arrived just as the 0800 breakfast news was starting on the TV in the waiting room, and went to check in at the reception desk. After a few minutes of looking down her lists and failing to find my name, the receptionist checked on the computer.
It turned out that my appointment had been rescheduled for a fortnight’s time at the University Hospital of Wales. I asked her why they hadn’t thought to tell me beforehand, and she said that they’d sent me a letter. I got home in a foul mood after a wasted morning (and a day out of my annual leave) to find a letter waiting for me from Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust, with details of my new appointment at UHW. It was dated over a week earlier.
I was furious. I rang them and complained about the delay, and was told that the fault lay with the new couriers the trust was using. I didn’t believe them – until a few weeks later, when this story appeared on the front page of the South Wales Echo:
It turned out that I wasn’t the only victim of the Circumlocution Office after all. I wrote to the paper with my experiences – one of several letters on the same theme which they received over the next few days. At the time, one of our lunchtime drinking pals was Greg Tindle, the health correspondent for the paper, and he told me that it had been a hot topic in the newsroom for a while.
I’ve still got unfinished business with the local authority, regarding Matt’s unpaid housing benefit claim for when he was living in my house. That particular branch of the Circumlocution Office managed to lose his paperwork at least twice to my certain knowledge, and as a result I’m over £2,000 down. But that’s nothing compared to the latest bureaucratic fuck-up.
I had to suspend my university studies after I injured my back over the Xmas period. The worst case scenario was surgery, which might have put me out of action for several weeks at least, so I decided to defer a decision on returning until I’d had my MRI scan and seen the specialist.
In the meantime Dr Ahmed at my local surgery wrote a letter explaining the problem. On a visit to the chiropractic clinic at the university, I decided to call in and see Peter Roberts, one of the tutors who also dealt with the departmental administration. He gave me a form requesting a suspension of my studies. I took the form home, filled it in, photocopied Dr Ahmed’s letter, and posted them back to the university. I assumed (as you would) that everything was in hand.
During the spring and summer I had my MRI and the specialist who assured me that the problem wasn’t serious enough to require an operation. So I applied for funding for the repeated second year, and emailed Peter to ask how I went about re-enrolling. I didn’t hear anything back from him, but it was the summer vacation so I assumed everyone was on holiday.
After the A level results came out I waited a few days to let the dust settle before contacting the University again. This time, I decided to email the faculty advice shop instead, as I still hadn’t heard anything from Peter.
I outlined my situation, and asked what I should do next. I had an email from one of the staff, telling me that Peter was no longer at the University (which explained the unanswered email) and that the person I needed to contact was on holiday. I left it until the following week and tried again. And then I got the reply I’d been dreading.
Yes, you’ve guessed it – there was no trace of the paperwork I’d submitted in the spring. Either it had gone astray at the University itself, or it hadn’t even arrived there in the first place.
When you read the occasional news story about letters or postcards or birthday cards turning up decades after they were posted, you might have a little chuckle. When it happens to you. you soon realise it’s no laughing matter!
I was told that I’d have to go through the verification procedure, and to print out the form I’d find online. It took long enough to find the form on the website, and I filled it in over the weekend. Dr Wardrop had written another letter explaining the specialist’s findings, so I decided to take the paperwork to the office in person. I wasn’t prepared to put such an important document in the post again. I spent a couple of hours on the campus, going from pillar to post, and received an acknowledgement by email that afternoon.
Yesterday, I had another email. Even in the face of my medical evidence, the department does not consider that I followed the correct procedure and therefore I will be not be allowed to repeat the year. Therefore, as of yesterday, I am no longer a student at the University of Glamorgan. There are several courses of action open to me, apparently.
  • I can’t appeal against the board’s decision, so that’s the obvious one out of the way to start with.
  • Helen Wakeford, who’s been NUS branch president for two years and is a real and Facebook friend, advised me to contact the union and instigate the complaints procedure with their support.
  • There’s also a higher education watchdog which I can approach, but I imagine they’re just as powerless as all the other regulatory bodies, ombudsmen, and independent watchdogs in this country.
  • I could sign on the dole tomorrow.
Let’s face it – I might as well. I’d be no worse off than I am now, after all. I’ve got about 20p to my name. At least I’d have a Giro some time soon. I’m absolutely on my arse. My cooker needs fixing, my boots won’t survive another winter, and to add insult to injury the builders working next door told me last week that my roof needs urgent repair work.
My mortgage is overdue. I owe water rates, an electricity bill and a gas bill. I’m fending off the debt collectors and expecting to be disconnected any time soon. I wouldn’t even be able to afford to get reconnected. I might as well just pack up my stuff, take my books and records and DVDs to the charity shop, and drop my house keys back into the building society.
At least if I was signing on, I’d get help towards paying my mortgage (always assuming my house isn’t repossessed in the interim). I’d be able to apply for a debt relief order and try and get rid of at least some of the hellhounds on my tail. I don’t have any childcare responsibilities, pets, vehicle costs, and I live alone so my bills aren’t enormous. I might even be able to get some free courses courtesy of the state and start driving lessons.
After all, even if do manage to overturn the University’s decision and resume my studies, what would be the fucking point? I’ll be nearly fifty by the time I graduate, and what would I do then?
Even if I could survive another two years of the bollocks which I wrote about in ‘Bullshit Detector‘, I’d be too old to get a job which utilised my qualifications, after all.
I’ve already ruled out any idea of teaching in this country. I think the future is probably going to resemble some hybrid of Mad Max and A Clockwork Orange, with the value of education being replaced by some baser impulse towards survival at any cost. I might as well stack shelves in Tesco for the rest of my days, and keep my ideas to myself. I’ll be able to read whatever interests me, and form my own opinions. Is it really worth going through the hassle of challenging the Circumlocution Office at all?
So, as we know now, Captain Jack Harkness was wrong. The twenty-first century is when some things change. The Circumlocutions Office and its subsidiaries carry on in their time-honoured way, which was already ancient when Dickens first recorded its exploits a century and a half ago.
There’s one final course of action open to me, of course. I could just do what some of my friends have done over the years, when things have got too heavy for them to manage. I’ve just been to the chemist for a hundred Co-codamol tablets, to see me through the next couple of months when the weather starts playing hell with my back. I’ve got three bottles of wine and two bottles of pre-mixed vodka mixers on top of the fridge, which I won in quizzes at the Mount Pleasant before Joy closed up for the last time. I think they’d wash the tablets down a treat, quite frankly.
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