January 29, 2024
I once knew a self-employed person who was delighted to receive a letter from HMRC, the British equivalent of the IRS, informing him he owed them £0 in tax for that year. Excellent news, he thought. Then he began getting a further series of legally intimidatory letters from the taxman, threatening to take him to court for nonpayment of this very same impossible sum. Contacting a helpline, he was told not to worry, it was just some silly administrative error “to do with computers” which would all soon be sorted out.
And yet still the legal letters kept coming. In desperation, he did the only thing he could think of doing: He wrote out a check for £0 payable to HMRC. Seemingly, this act of inhuman logic acted to propitiate the computer’s circuits, and the letters stopped arriving. To the black-and-white, binary world of the database involved, it seemed that to owe the taxman nothing meant literally to owe him nothing.
Very possibly HMRC were foolish enough to be using the incredibly faulty computerized databases also used by the British Post Office, the subject of a major scandal over here in the U.K. of late. Flaws in the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system, designed by Japanese software giants Fujitsu, led hundreds of perfectly innocent sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of financial fraud, leading many into imprisonment, bankruptcy, or suicide.
Although it was blatantly obvious Horizon didn’t work properly and that the alleged unprecedented crime spree was a figment of the system’s online imagination, still nobody in power saw fit to admit so. Why? Besides the usual corporate corruption and cowardice, one key reason was the apparent fact that most of those overseeing the running of Horizon simply did not understand how it worked, just possessing a sort of blind faith that, as it was all computerized, it must automatically have functioned perfectly. Unlike mere flawed human beings, computers could never be wrong or mistaken, you see: That’s why my old acquaintance once ended up owing one £0.
Also surely a factor was the quite mad fact that, ever since 1999 (the very same year Horizon entered public service, curiously enough…), it has been an inarguable facet of U.K. law that evidence provided for the prosecution from within the bowels of a computer system is, as a matter of “legal presumption,” deemed automatically to be infallible and reliable! Talk about rewriting physical reality by simple act of government fiat: Even the transgender crowd might think that one’s a bit unrealistic.
A Complete Waste of Energy
How “infallible” are our massive modern-day corporate computer programs, really? Not very, it would seem. Just before Christmas, another such database scandal hit the headlines when the famous cross-dressing British artist and potter Grayson Perry suddenly had his energy company, EDF, try to up his monthly electricity bill via Direct Debit from £300 to £39,000, a trivial 130-fold increase (at least according to my on-laptop calculator—if this is incorrect, it only goes to prove my point further). It seems Perry received about fifteen bills “out of the blue” demanding this lunatic sum, which he was informed would be deducted from his account that very same day.
According to Perry, he had to spend “about three hours at least [on the phone] trying to get some sense out of a call center, but you’re talking to a computer, really, so it was very frustrating.” The problem was that the brain-dead cyborgs on the other end of the line “would just sort of say, ‘Well, it says £39,000—that’s how much we’re going to take.’”
Whilst it is true that, as a leading potter, Mr. Perry would naturally have an expensive kiln to maintain, it should have been obvious to anyone with so much as half a working brain cell that even the ovens at Auschwitz wouldn’t have cost £39,000 a month to operate—but still, the computer said that’s what he owed the company, so that must be what he owed the company, isn’t it, especially since those incredibly sensible 1999 alterations to English law?
Does Not Compute
Fortunately for Grayson Perry, he was an award-winning, eminent artist with a massive Twitter profile, who was soon able to attract attention to his plight and be invited to publicly and accurately call EDF a bunch of crooks and dickheads on national media, so the database error here was quickly sorted out—but, as he asked the BBC, “What is it like if you’re some vulnerable [i.e., non-rich, non-famous] person and this happens to you?”
I think the Post Office Horizon scandal answers that question quite succinctly: You go broke, you go to prison, or you kill yourself. According to an EDF spokesman, however, any ordinary, obscure, and unknown proles who suddenly receive a monthly bill for £12bn “do not need to worry” as “unusual changes to direct debit amounts can sometimes occur when there is an erroneous [computerized] meter-reading recorded in the system”—sometimes occur why, though?
The spokesman doesn’t say, presumably because he doesn’t know, because nobody does. Therefore, EDF supposedly had “robust interventions” in place whereby actual fully qualified humans, with flesh hearts as opposed to tin ones, would examine obviously absurd new billing amounts and log and correct them as electronic errors: “In almost all such cases, system errors are rectified and prevented, without customers being impacted.”
If that’s really the case, then why did the alleged “human” at the call center try to argue with Mr. Perry that he really did owe them £39,000 for his central heating that month? Well, the EDF spokesman did say “almost all” such cases, not “absolutely all”—as they have millions of customers nationwide, perhaps that helpful word “almost” allows them to get away with merely emptying the bank accounts of, say, five or six helpless old ladies per calendar month, an acceptable price to pay for the immense benefit to EDF themselves of sacking as many employees as possible and replacing them all with far cheaper to maintain machines.
What can us few remaining humans do to resist? Today, you can’t avoid using smart devices in some capacity—even to read this article. And if governments and corporations input your details into their servers, how can you prevent them? But one thing you can do is to stop mindlessly “increasing the attack surface,” as computer specialists phrase it, by refusing to computerize any and all aspects of your life that just don’t in any sense actually require it.
Consider “smart homes,” where you control all your formerly non-sentient devices, like freezers, lights, TVs, heaters, faucets, and ovens, from apps or by voice commands issued to Siri-style digital assistants. Things can easily go wrong here: Hackers could access your smart toilet and flush it so hard you get sucked down instantly into the sewers like a child’s dead goldfish.
Or maybe your smart home could falsely frame—and then punish—you as a racist? Last May, a man named Brandon Jackson found that access to his Amazon account, which helped control his home utilities, had been blocked after his electronic doorbell had supposedly been used to make “racist remarks” to a non-white Amazon delivery driver. As nobody was in, the doorbell had actually said “Excuse me, can I help you?” but the driver, wearing earphones, had misinterpreted badly—especially as Jackson himself was also black, and therefore most unlikely to program his doorbell to pointlessly shout the word “NIGGER!” at all-comers.
Nonetheless, once Amazon received this allegation, they immediately shut down Jackson’s web-linked smart-home devices for a week, potentially rendering his home unlivable by cutting off his heat, light, and electricity. Fortunately, Jackson happened to be an engineer at Microsoft, so he actually knew how such things operated and had a backup smart assistant ready to use instead, rather than having to cook dead mice by candlelight from hereon in, but not everyone is so lucky.
As some firms now advertise the incredible “opportunity” to gain access to your smart home via app-operated locks rather than traditional physical front-door keys, the prospect of being made homeless by a PC now raises its ugly head. Caught carelessly making a joke about George Floyd that Jeff Bezos’ chief motherboard doesn’t like? Better get used to living out on the streets: The opening flaps of cardboard boxes are still operated manually by hand, at least for now.
Even more unnecessary than computerizing your home, however, is the truly senseless act of computerizing your own penis. Apparently, there are some weirdos out there who absolutely love the idea of their genitals being imprisoned within online-enabled remote-access plastic chastity cages; then they can hand control of their cock over to their wife/girlfriend/local postmistress, who gets to control access to it via locking/unlocking the abomination with an app.
As a specific sales feature, such contraptions come with no manual override—which makes it awkward when, as reportedly happened to one customer named Sam Summers, hackers got into his own $190 Chinese-manufactured Cellmate Chastity Cage and then sent him a text message to the basic effect that (as another alleged victim reported, although the firm itself denies it) “Your cock is mine now.” Initially, Mr. Summers, being a demonstrable pervert, thought this was from his partner, and found the communication quite arousing. Then it turned out it was from ransomware cyber-pirates, who demanded $1,000 in BitCoin to free his Nelson Mandela.
After he paid, they demanded more, so Sam resorted to the toolshed to liberate his tool. His hammer being no use, he had to buy some bolt-cutters from a home-improvement store and cut the thing off himself (the cage, not his actual thing), leaving him with penile injuries so severe he was unable to have sex for a month. The product’s slogan, appropriately enough, was “Love Hurts.”
“These digital things, you cannot trust them,” Summers concluded. Indeed not. So perhaps best not to go ahead and ram your own penis into one of them, then, eh?
Yet are we all not forcibly placed in a similar position to Mr. Summers today, whether we like it or not? In our ever-more-digitized age, when it comes to having your metaphorical balls clamped within the ever-tightening vice of unfathomable and unaccountable Horizon-style online database systems by faceless governments, utility companies, internet giants, and global mega-corporations, it appears we all now have to whip our sensitive bits out and meekly submit to having them crushed by potential financial blackmailers.
And, if one of us should ever fall disastrous victim to such a faceless online Leviathan, if and when matters are eventually sorted out for us by legally “infallible” algorithm, what wholly inadequate redress will we actually end up being given by our new electronic overlords in the end? How about getting an uncashable check through the post for £0?