Last Tuesday my car was clamped in Soho. It happens. But as it also happened, I'd paid for my parking. So my call that followed to the number scrawled on the rather shaming, large poster stuck to my wide window was full of righteous rage, threats of lawsuits and so on.
Mr Bellweather (not his real name, but we did eventually become friendly, somehow) remained entirely calm and polite during my tragic rant. "Actually, the problem isn't your parking," he explained. "You have congestion charge fines going back to last December. I'm on my way over to you and we'll sort it out when I get there."
After protesting some more, and - to my subsequent embarrassment - shouting that if he didn't get to me immediately - from wherever he was - he'd be responsible for a tragedy of national scale, I hung up and waited. As I waited by the car - defiantly fielding the amused looks of passers-by - I remembered that he had been relentlessly pleasant to me on our call, and realising that further hostilities would achieve less than nothing, I sent a text to him apologising for having been such a dick.
(Talking of being a dick, this happened to be the day when someone drove a car into the building of the Houses of Parliament. Hmmmmmmm.)
At that moment Mr Bellweather arrived. And in the most apologetic manner, explained that I owed over £1000.00 to Transport for London (TfL) for unpaid fines. I'd been expecting - based on past clamping and towing experiences - to cough up about £200 to get my wheels back. And had more or less come to terms with that. But it turned out that, beyond the original fines, this startling sum had come from repeated visits by bailiffs to an address I hadn't lived at for several years.
And yes, this was partly my responsibility. I hadn't changed the registered address for my car with the DVLA. Like you, perhaps, I'm not good on this stuff. And, in my further defence, when this type of government bureaucracy is handled online - with prompts, ideally, by email or SMS - I'm on it. Letters in the post - and in this case - visits by bailiffs to an old address, don't really register with me these days.
But here's where it gets interesting, and the reason for this post, which I hope is more than a pathetic bleat about citizen victimisation by "The Man".
Mr Bellweather laid out how I'd been tracked down in Soho. I'd happened to be parked at the front of a row of cars, thus exposing my front number plate to one of (no doubt thousands) of the surveillance cameras that loom over the centre of London. These plates are, initially captured randomly. No crime or offence is assumed or suspected. But when the collected plates are sucked in and matched against the database of outstanding fines - and if a plate is associated with an unpaid fine - a clamper is immediately dispatched - to the exact location of the vehicle.
This - rightly or wrongly - doesn't sit well with me. It's the idea of our data being randomly, opportunistically hoovered up - again, to reiterate, in the initial absence of any known violation - and then matched with another data set - outstanding fines or whatever - to set up a collection that can't be either refused or delayed.
And perhaps it's the awful digital efficiency of the process that also grates. And the speed of the response.
Contrast this efficiency with those profoundly analogue bailiffs visits. Repeated, I think in this case, 4 times. At a cost to you and I of £250 each visit. This is damn good money for very little effort, isn't it? And we can be sure that the bailiffs were told by the current occupants of the old house (to whom I sold the house some years ago) during at least one of those remunerative little visits - that I don't live there any more.
So I asked Mr Bellweather, "I get that I should have updated my address with the DVLA, all good. But if it's so easy to track me down - more or less randomly - in the middle of busy Soho - how hard is it to find out where I actually do live? £250 a pop? Really?"
He had, of course, no sympathetic answer to that. And we parted, sort of, friends. And he was kind enough to knock off the cost of one of those sneaky visits, so for a mere £800 I was back in my car.
There's a sting in the tail, by the way. I got a text from Mr Bellweather a little later that evening. In his usual gentle tone, he let me know that a further fine - again for failure to pay a congestion charge, this time from March this year, had popped upon the system. I was in for another £568.00. And I had 30 days to hand that over.
So. My failure to change my address led to fines totalling £1500.00. And I do get that it's the law etc etc. And you can be sure that I got that damn change of address stuff sorted right away. Like all big lessons, a painful one.
But let's contrast the icy digital targeting of my car in Soho and its immediate clamping, briefly trapping me on the spot, with the blind, laborious - but hugely profitable - process of collection that led to a few easy quid becoming a whopping £1500.00.
This, in short, is very good business for TfL. And of course for those digitally deprived bailiffs too.
A couple of years ago, while doing some light research for a client, I did some digging on citizen surveillance. The conclusion - from the analysis of national and international security going back to 9/11 - has been that the immense surveillance under which we in the UK, and, perhaps with proportionately less cameras trained on the people, the US, has had no significant impact on either predicting or preventing acts of terrorism.
So who benefits here?
I'll be writing more about this subject in the coming days and weeks. I'd love to hear what you think. But I'll leave you with this.
Why is no one - and in that happy number I include myself - making more of a fuss about this? Is it perhaps because, not so much as citizens but as consumers, we spend so much of our spare time producing and consuming content in the lush fields of social media? Which are, note, entirely predicated on the monetisation of surveillance.
Is the death of boredom - which by the way was such a factor in the explosive anger and protest of punk (the UK in the mid-70's was really boring, let me tell you if you weren't there) - killing our inclination to defend ourselves and our rights. Are we, in the UK, settling into a bland acceptance of "Computer Says No"?