Futuristic Notes: Sorry to disturb you. Tax Control here

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The Independent Culture
FORGET THE miniaturised cameras everywhere, the bugs, the spotter planes, the satellites, think about computers and how they keep an eye on every aspect of our lives, and I am not thinking about the obvious things like credit ratings, insurance claims, political affiliation.

Using the details on Sainsbury's receipts over a year, a clever analyst, itself computer-created, could, probably does, arrive at a remarkably detailed and accurate picture of every regular customer: how much they and their family drink, eat chocolate, use convenience foods, and so on; how their financial status fluctuates, whether or not they are impulse shoppers or fixated on the multi-buys and super-savers. Then add to Sainsbury's database those of every other retail outfit in the shopping mall.

GPs' and hospital records are now being computerised. Slot them into each personal file and the picture fills out that bit more: liver crisis two years ago (warning: no alcohol), high blood pressure (watch the salt intake in the convenience foods), diabetic (who's the chocolate for, then?).

All this information and much more is scattered over several databases in which we are all logged under different numerical and alphabetical codes and which, so far, do not speak easily to each other or to any central database. But IDs and smart cards are on the way: a steady drip of speculation and "discussion", nearly always presented in a way that makes the objectors look like naive or antisocial Luddites, is already softening us up.

In 1940 everyone had a number. Those who were alive then and are still alive now still have that number on their medical cards. No problem there then. Every one of our separate personal files, including those generated by credit cards and by supermarkets, and those held by the Inland Revenue or the bank could have the same number. It could even be the number of your car or your telephone. Certainly it will be the number on a nationwide employers' database and on your criminal record. Could be? Will be. And all that information could be, will be, available on a state-controlled database, logged under that one number. Too massive to handle for 60 million people? Ten years ago it might have been - not now. Think of the ease with which you can trawl the Internet for the most abstruse piece of information.

Can you imagine? A polite phone call. Sorry to disturb you Mr R, but here at the Central Health Office we see your purchase of chocolate has gone up and is spread over three different retail outlets. Your doctor has been informed. Sorry to disturb you Mr R, Tax Control here. Your cash withdrawals over the last three months are not accounted for through normal electronic channels. We are required to remind you of the penalties incurred by those employing unlicensed builders and paying them in cash . . . And so on.

Marvellous. Who could possibly object? The economy will be run more efficiently, our health needs properly assessed, cheating for benefits will be a thing of the past, and cheating on taxes too . . . and that's barely scratching the surface. Who are we that we should worry? Potential criminals? Welfare state scroungers? Anarchists, for Christ's sake?

There's no third way. Either you believe in the State's right to run things (that is, our lives) as efficiently as possible in the interests of the multinationals, I mean for the greatest good of the greatest number, or you don't. Whose side are you on? How can you justify your resistance? Are there enough of us to stop the rot? Are we sufficiently upset by it all to be bothered? As a romantic optimist with anarchist leanings (i.e. English) the answer for me is yes, perhaps, maybe. Yes.

Julian Rathbone's latest novel, `Trajectories' (Victor Gollancz, pounds 16,99), is set in 2035

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