The more digital takes over, the more people are fighting back – and the funnier it is getting.

For many people there is nothing more frustrating than the way in which the personal involvement of, well, people, has been replaced by digital.  The world, in short, is becoming automatic, and it probably won’t be long before we can feel a little unwell, sit in front of our computer, be told what is wrong and have a pill forced into our mouth or an injection pushed into an arm, all via a set of digital decisions.

Once such thoughts take hold there is seemingly no end to the areas of life in which those annoying, expensive, and contrary very much non-digital human beings can be pushed out of the way. We’re already told by computer that we were driving at 35mph in a 30mph speed limit.  The machine clicks the speed, another system issues the notice, another recognises the payment of the fine, and another puts the three points on the licence.

Move on from there, and all other offences can be dealt with in the same way. The central justice computer announces you have been accused of murder, a second system tells you that you have been tried by computer and found guilty, and a third locks the doors of your house so you can’t get out.  A small food parcel is put through the letter box (by machine) each day until 30 years later you are let out, probably only to find that civilisation has long since gone.

It all seems fairly horrible – or if you prefer “utterly and extremely frightening” – but at least some people are starting to fight back.

For it appears that there is a new game in town which relates to writing ludicrous reviews of stupid products on Amazon.

Take for example the Tuscan Dairy Whole Vitamin D Milk which has been advertised for a while on the website.  Not only does it have 1890 reviews but it also has over 100 questions submitted, which people then answer.

For example, one person wrote in and said

I see that they sell “Used & New from: $45.00” – How can they sell “Used” Milk? Used as a car wax? Used as a paint thinner, or… something else? 

In another example a reader wrote in and said

If I spill it, can I cry?

And the answer was provided

If you do it is best to cry either next to it or below it. Crying over it is useless.

Readers can then vote on the helpfulness of this answer.  In this case 292 people found it helpful.

One person wrote a 60 line poem about the product which got a wide range of positive commentaries (it is actually extremely well crafted and very droll).

But of course some comments are shorter such as:

Be careful, there is no warning on the label, but this product severely damaged my iPhone when I immersed it.

There are many such commentaries and it seems that entire sub-cultures arise which revolve around certain products, undermining the products credibility, while giving lots of people a laugh and allowing a large number of individuals with incredibly boring jobs to sit at their computers pretending to work while actually doing nothing of the kind.

Take for example the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer.  This has now become so popular that it has its own link to save you going to the trouble of finding it on Amazon:

There you will find 3682 positive reviews and one review which over 57,000 (yes 57 thousand) people found positive and helpful.  Although elsewhere there is the complaint that it only works with right curved bananas.

Eventually even the (normally rather serious) New Scientist magazine picked up on this, pointing out that one reviewer claimed the product “saved my marriage” while another said “What can I say about the 571B banana slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin or the iPhone.”

Personally I think it is quite wonderful that people are beginning to strike back against these totally automated and (obviously) utterly unchecked systems, and have in effect taken them over.

And just to round this off let me offer you this – again from New Scientist which found for us another Amazon product, a book called “How to Avoid Big Ships”, which makes me think that the people having fun are not only the reviewers but also the actual retailers.  Thus raising the possibility that a lot of stuff on Amazon doesn’t actually exist at all.

So person A has a laugh by inventing the product and Person B has a laugh by reviewing it.  Everyone’s having fun.

Here’s one review of the book.  “As the father of two teenagers I found this book invaluable.  I’m sure other parents here can empathize when I say I shudder at the thought of the increasing influence and presence of huge ships in the lives of my children.”

Suddenly I feel the world has become a better place, while resting secure that by and large neither storage nor removal is done by digital machines.


Why you should be extremely cautious if anyone tries to tempt you into the internet of things

One of my customers who is something of an IT whiz loves to regale me with tales of IT disasters.

Now that might seem a little contradictory, but her view is that everyone – or maybe I should say “nearly everyone” – who works in IT, knows perfectly well that by and large digital technology is packed solid with flaws and errors.  “And,” says my customer, “we keep telling everyone but no one listens.”

So, determined as always not to be just part of the herd, I asked for more details, promising as ever a cup of my deliciously brewed and some would say “unique brand” of instant coffee.

Curiously my client declined the offer, but settled down to tell me another outrageous story anyway.

“Digital technology,” she said, picking up her theme, “is imperfect in many regards.  And yet it is sold as being perfect.”

“That is not particularly unusual,” I countered.  “I mean everyone knows that cars break down and have crashes, but we still all expect our cars to work immediately and perfectly every day.  No one allows an extra hour for a journey in case something goes wrong.”

“But at least with cars, we know more or less what sort of things might go wrong,” she countered.  “With digital technology no one imagines what can go wrong.”

That seemed quite a challenging statement, so I demanded an explanation.

“If you were to visit Moscow,” I was told, “and you try to use any satellite navigation system to help you find your way to Red Square you will find you can’t.  For what the local government calls ‘security reasons’ all the satnav systems in the area are blocked.”

“But in that case,” I countered, “I know it is blocked, because it doesn’t work.  That doesn’t seem too different from a car to me.”

“True enough,” said my customer, “but with the car most of the time we know that the worst that can happen is that we can be late.  To stay with satellite navigation there are far worse things that can happen.

“If your satnav stops working, that’s that – you know at once.  But if it starts giving you false information and sending you to the wrong place, that can be more frustrating.  If it sends you over a cliff, or along a road that has been mined, that is rather more disastrous.  In the past six months we’ve seen about 100 ships being sent dangerously close to a rock strewn shoreline when they thought they were in a safe navigable channel.  The satnavs had been hacked.”

“OK,” I agreed, “hacking satellite navigation is dangerous.  But most of the internet of things is about everyday objects that don’t have life threatening effects.”

“You mean like your electrical appliances and the fact that you can switch them on to brew you a wonderful cup of … er… instant coffee so that it is ready just as you walk in the door.  Of course I understand that view, and I investigated one such two months ago.

“It was a system that allows you to set things up in your house when you are not there – like pulling the curtains, letting the cat in and providing cat food, and indeed turning on the kettle.

“When I did my review I found that it was all set to allow control via an app which worked through Bluetooth.  It had within it an unchangeable access code of 0000.  Meaning anyone with basic IT knowledge can enter the system and do anything from overfeed the cat to set the house on fire by keeping kettles boiling long after the water has run out.

I agreed this sounded worrying, but my customer was by no means finished.

“I wrote to the company selling the system three times to tell them of the fault – they have never replied and they are still selling the system with the same 0000 code.  But in the latest edition it now also includes the option of having an electronic key to the front and back doors so that when you pull up outside and then lock your car, the front door is simultaneously unlocked, so you don’t have to fiddle with the key while holding the stuff you have just unloaded from the car.

“Anyone can hack it in about three seconds, and thus gain total access to your house, immobilise the burglar alarm, steal anything they want, and should they wish, have a cup of coffee.

“That is why I keep copies of paper documents in the Admiral warehouse, even though I have them on two computers.  There is a chance that your warehouse might be sitting on top of a long forgotten volcano and I might lose my documents – but that is about a 1 in 100 million chance which is similar to the earth being struck by an asteroid similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs.

“There is a chance that my computer will be hacked and my documents corrupted.  That is about one in 100 even with all the security I have. Yours is the best back up option.”

I pondered my customer’s words for several moments, sipping my instant (not digitised) coffee made with water from a regular (not IT of Things) kettle.   Eventually I asked, “Would you like to write adverts for me?”

“No,” she replied, “but you can use this conversation on that blog of yours if you like.”