Thursday, May 10, 2012

The strangers' society vs the nanny state

When I moved to the Czech republic one of the things that most struck me was the society's reliance on official ID. I know that I have a particularly special perspective, coming from one of the few countries that doesn't have compulsory ID cards (yet…), but bearing in mind I've lived in France, Italy and Switzerland too, all countries with compulsory ID, all countries with similar enough set-ups and cultures to this one, I wasn't expecting it to be so much more reliant on them.
Some examples:

  1. If I go to visit someone at their office, and their office (public administration or private business) is not a shop, then I will walk in and find a reception desk / concierge, who will demand my ID, and will record my name, and its number, in a book, before allowing me to enter. I know plenty of places where I would be required to state my name on entering such a place, but the Czech Republic is the first society I've lived in in which it's absolutely standard practice to require proof of this, and to record the evidence, as part of such an ordinary procedure as visiting an office. They also don't require one to sign out again when leaving, so it seems they record this information just in case of future interest, as they couldn't really use it to prove who was or wasn't in the building at any one time. 
  2. If I am out walking, in the city, in France for example, I know that I am legally required to carry ID and that if something happens (for example, an accident) I will be required to show it. However, I don't expect that it will be needed unless I am, in fact, involved in some kind of incident [or unless as part of my wandering I decide to get an EU-under-26s-for-free ticket to visit a museum]. In the Czech Republic, each time I walk or tram-ride around the city, I know that a police officer could stop me and check my ID at any time. It hasn't happened to me yet, I'll admit, but I see them checking someone nearly every time I am out. 
  3. The post office. Admittedly there are occasions on which, if a parcel has been sent to you in the UK and you weren't there to collect it, you would need to take ID to the sorting office in order to retrieve it. But that is, or at least used to be, only in case of recorded delivery (where the item would have required a signature if delivered at the door). Here, not only do they not even try to deliver parcels at the door (the letter boxes are far too small and the posties don't know how to ring doorbells, I suppose, or maybe have the sense to realise it's a waste of their time in 80% of cases since they come mid-morning and most people are at work), they also always require ID to collect the parcel at the post office. This is usually no problem at all, and sometimes knowing I am foreign, they don't bother, but sometimes can be tricky, for example, they like to enter the ID number into their system to record who collected the item. This is more tricky when the ID number doesn't match the Czech patterns ("computer says no"). It can also cause some confusions given that my surname in my passport is not what it ought to be according to Czech tradition (see the following post for further examples of the hilarity this can cause).

    The only thing that could possibly take the place of a passport or ID card, in this country, is a stamp. Stamps prove that you are official (even though they can be bought and customised for a few crowns). I will have a stamp soon, and all will be well. 
I won't go into the history behind this here, but it seems that the society here is (still?) one in which no person can trust another, and where who you say you are, or what you say you are, is not sufficient. It's also a society that has got so used to presenting proof all the time that they don't consider it an invasion of their privacy, or an obligation to provide more information than really necessary, that will be stored for an indefinite time and used in an indefinite way. There's no choice, so you just accept that your activities will be recorded, albeit via pen and paper and not because you swipe a chip card over an oyster reader or into an ATM. 

By contrast, the UK seems (at least to me) outwardly much more friendly and trusting. If you enter an office block and state that you're N, here for a meeting with X, they will usually politely ask you to take a seat, while they let X know that you've arrived. They won't ask you to prove it. 
But the UK society has a different sort of mistrust. It doesn't trust people to have any common sense any more. The threat of terrorism and criminality may seem to preoccupy politics, but when you look around you, it appears nothing by comparison with the danger each person poses to him/herself because he might slip on a wet floor or scald himself by turning on a hot tap.  Fewer are the posters and announcements about baggage left unattended (although they still exist, along with the announcements I most detest about reporting people who act, or look suspicious). Multiplying, meanwhile, are those that warn us that the contents of our coffee cup (shock, horror!) might actually be hot. 

Last year, this was already rather noticeable, and the Czechs and Finns (and no doubt others) over to work/study for the year in Cambridge made no end of mockery of all the ridiculous notices designed to protect the general public from their own stupidity. 
We went back, just for the weekend, a couple of weeks ago, and wow. It has undoubtedly got even worse, and having been away for a few months it was much more noticeable to the point of being utterly dizzying. Every possible public wall or surface bears some sort of caution, warning or notice of information. Every loudspeaker rings out every 30 seconds - 1 minute with an announcement about the public's own safety and security. 

It's not just temporary bollards warning that the floor is momentarily slippery as it's been cleaned just now,  or notices that one shouldn't use the train toilet in a station (which, given the variety of plumbing systems available, might not always be obvious), that one should mind the gap (which one may not realise is there) or that one shouldn't walk on this particular lawn. Those I can understand, they give useful information to help one make one's decisions about how to behave. 

But try these:

  • "Caution: contents may be hot" (coffee cup). I think what it really means is the outside of the cup might get rather hot, while you're busy carrying it towards the train, in a hurry, with a bag in the other hand and nowhere to put the cup down before it burns your entire hand. But that's not what it says. Personally, when I've ordered hot chocolate I rather expect it to be hot. I'd be rather more concerned if the cup said the contents might be cold. Unless I'd ordered a milkshake in which case the contents won't be hot if I've been given the thing I ordered. So no need for a warning, or am I thinking too much?
  • "This [station/airport/bus/train/university campus/church - ok admit I haven't seen that yet] is monitored by CCTV for security and safety management". What this seems to suggest is they've got a guy sitting there watching in case someone trips on the platform, so that they can walkie-talkie the buildings management crew to come and cordon off the trip hazard. I think it would be more helpful if that person was actually on the concourse and ready to provide first aid to the poor person who was running to fast for the train in high heels, but evidently staring at a screen is more secure. And if I was cynical I'd also point out that it enables them to film everyone for future reference, not just the person who slipped over. 
  • "During the Olympics, London transport lines may become busy. Check if this is the case, before you travel, on this website." No, really, I'd never have guessed! And given that I'm in fact dead certain that all the transport lines will be totally clogged up during the Olympics, I doubt that checking the website will help me to get anywhere. It would be better to buy a bike, or possibly buy a ticket on the eurostar before they're sky-high and thereby escape the country for the duration. Oh yeah, already escaped. 
  • "In rainy weather, pavements may be slippery". Do you know, in all my twenty-several years, I had never noticed that rain makes things wet and slippery.  
  • "Please be advised that the train doors will close 2 minutes before departure. This is for your safety." Load of bollocks, if you don't mind me saying. This is partly so that the train is not delayed by last-minute passengers with five large suitcases to load in through the ridiculously small door into the ridiculously minimal luggage racks, (though even then, it hardly ever results in an on-time service), and partly because you, dear train company, have bought pendolino trains that have so much fancy electronics it actually takes them two minutes between automatically closing the doors and automatically actually being able to move forwards. 
There are the type that try to tell us what to do (let's call them nanny notices):

"Please now wash your hands" has become a common one in toilets. I appreciate that some cultures possibly don't have this as an ingrained habit, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of people living in the UK probably do automatically do this, and if they don't, I'm not sure a notice will change that. I should think the presence of the wash basin is a sufficient reminder, if one is required. 

Another one that we came across recently, in a train, was "do not place items in this area" indicating the whole surface around a washbasin in the toilet. Now there could be only two reasons why not: 1) you might get your handbag/jumper/book wet, if you put it there, because the tap splashes, or 2) the surface is slopey and if the train joggles a bit, your handbag/book/jumper will fall onto the dirty floor. In the first case, I would think they should have built a better tap, and in the second case it's really up to the person whether they want to risk something falling off, isn't it. We all know that trains joggle. 

I wouldn't be surprised if next time I buy a sandwich from Pret a Manger, it says on the inside of the packet, "and now don't forget to chew with your mouth closed." Actually, given some of the eating I've seen around me recently, this wouldn't be a bad idea at all. 

There are the type that try to tell us what not to do (dummy notices):

This is an old classic, but it's noticeable, coming from Prague where the announcement on the metro is just "please finish getting on and off, the doors are now closing", to observe that in London as well as the regular "stand clear of the closing doors,"we also need notices that say "obstructing the doors can be dangerous". It's as if to say you might trap your fingers, dear, so don't go near the doors now. It seems to me that most people big enough to step across the gap between the train and the platform edge (what other gap would they be talking about?!) would also be big enough and clever enough to realise that closing doors present the risk of trapped fingers if you get in the way. It is then up to that person whether to risk it or not, once the doors are about to close. That's how we usually live, and I am not sure a notice will really change it. But maybe I overestimate common sense. 

Some give us information we never needed to know:

Some accidentally say something they didn't intend, by misusing punctuation, as one notice for cyclists did when I was in Norwich. Some threaten us (with fines, for example), and some just state the bleeding obvious, such as "caution, hot water" above a tap clearly marked in red (does anyone actually think red means cold, and if they did, would it really hurt them to discover by trial and error?) or "Do not enter when gates are locked."

It can go beyond notices, too. Yesterday my mother parked her bicycle as she does every day, in a quiet spot outside her office. She locked it, but didn't lock it to anything other than itself. This having been sufficient in the past to secure her bike (and she has parked it there very many many times), she was reasonably surprised to discover that it was gone when she came to go home on it in the evening. In fact, what had happened, was that the university Security Services, feeling that her bicycle was in danger of being stolen and imagining, I suppose, that my mother had not even considered for one moment the risk she took by not fastening it to something, had taken her bicycle away for safe-keeping. Or rather, had stolen her bicycle. They left no notice about having done so, and not knowing to whom the bicycle belonged were, of course, unable to inform her that they had done such a lovely thing to protect her bicycle. As a result, she was unable to get to where she was going in the evening on time, and could have been vastly more inconvenienced had it been another day or time. She was lucky enough to have had this same thing happen once before, and so did ask the security services and reclaim her bicycle, but any other person would not have known this was an option, and would surely have given up the bike for lost and reported the crime to the police. Has it really got to the stage where the university can protect us from theft of our property by compulsory removal of said property without warning or informing us?  

(Another post is required on the importance of "security services" of which more perhaps later.) 

I'm not really sure whether I find it nicer to live surrounded by notices that assume I'm a toddler, or to have to constantly prove who I am just in order to go about an ordinary every day task. I don't really like either, and would be rather happy if they found a happy medium. I don't mind proving my identity when that's actually necessary, and I don't mind being warned about something when I couldn't have worked it out for myself, or most people wouldn't have. I'll be interested to see what Olympic visitors to the UK make of all those signs, whether they really find them enlightening or useful. I wonder, too, whether there are some on the Queen's special Jubilee boat, like "please keep hands and arms inside the boat at all times." I mean, it's a good idea, isn't it, but I don't imagine that she would have got through sixty years of being Queen without knowing that sort of thing to start with. 


Philip said...

All these ridiculous 'hot water', 'trip hazard', 'slippery floor' signs are put up by public bodies and companies in order to give them a legal defence against the gold-diggers who've discovered that dodgy lawyers will sue on their behalf and claim thousands of pounds for scalds, bruises, etc. supposedly incurred as a result of the negligence of the drink supplier, floor owner and so on. How does the Czech legal system stop these frivolous, if not fraudulent claims for negligence?
The 'CCTV in use' signs are to stop similar legal claims that the subject's human rights have been infringed by their being unknowingly filmed, and to deter vandals and footpads from choosing that station platform, university campus, etc. to perform their misdeeds. They also perhaps reassure nervous maidens that there is someone around, even if they can't be seen!

Catherine Rowett said...

The thing about "obstructing the doors can be dangerous" on the Tube is a very old thing. In the good old days it was a routine habit on the part of Tube riding officionados to deliberately obstruct the doors, which were programmed in some way to spring open again if someone was caught in them. So if you wanted to hold the train briefly while all your friends got on, you stuck yourself or your bag in the door way as the door shut and then the door would open again and your friends could jump on. This caused much delay in rush hours, since the doors would be obstructed over and over again. It's less common now, but it was that game they had to put notices against (hence the "causes delays and can be dangerous"). I think people have become more obedient these days.

Annie said...

Philip, I know this is the "excuse" or supposed reason behind all the ridiculous warnings. But even if that is the real reason, all it shows is that our legal system is not able to assume that people should have a reasonable level of common sense and responsibility for their own movements. What happens here in the Czech Republic is that common sense is assumed, and I don't think the silly legal cases (if they were brought - which they generally are not) would get very far as the judges would simply tell them that's their own look-out.
As for the CCTV signs, I agree that we should be informed when someone is taking pictures of us and I really would rather they didn't, most of the time. But I am not sure what is expected one should do if one is against being filmed - never leave the house? In Britain there is CCTV everywhere, and putting a sign doesn't really change that.

Annie said...

Catherine - that's exactly what happens here, despite the signs. Everyone knows it is dangerous, but they assess the risks and if it's worth it to delay the train (which is after all the whole point of the exercise) they just do it. Mostly not more than once for the same train though :)