David Randall: The rise of Google fascism, urban cyclists, and the importance of infamy

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The Independent Online

Attitudes to freedom of information are far from consistent. Take Google Street View. If we discovered that the Government had dispatched unmarked vans to tour every road, close, avenue, and street in Britain, photographing our homes without so much as a by-your-leave or prior announcement, there would, I imagine, be the most almighty fuss. Google does it (and collects private wireless internet data as well) and the pipsqueak protests soon die down.

Of course, householders can always request that the Street View image of their home be blurred, something a tiny fraction of people have done here. In Germany, a quarter of a million did so. Imagine the surprise these German Street View refuseniks got last week when some of them had eggs thrown at their homes, and "Google's Cool" notes stuck on their mailboxes. Those responsible are just a tiny minority etc etc, but are we seeing the dawning of the age of what you might call Google fascism, where everyone not prepared to have their life Facebooked, their career LinkedIn, their most banal thought Tweeted, and their homes Street Viewed is regarded as a dissident?


Lyon in France launched Vélo'v, the world's first shared bicycle scheme in 2005, and it now has 4,000 bikes available at 350 points around the city. Smart-card technology gives a read-out on the length and time each hiring takes, which means that the most comprehensive data ever collected on urban cycle use is sitting there, on the Vélo'v system, waiting to be analysed. This has now been done, and the results, based on the first 18 months' use – some 11.6m trips – are now in. The average journey is 1.54 miles (2.49km) and takes 14.7 minutes, meaning that in Lyons (a city without cycle lanes) each trip averages 6.2 miles per hour (10km/hr). This may sound slow, but it is about the same pace as the average inner-city car speed across Europe. But during rush hour, with staff furiously pedalling to get to work on time, the average speed increases to 9.3 miles per hour (15km/hr), comfortably faster than cars. And bike users find shorter ways to get from the same A to the same B than motorists, thus proving that they are quick to walk (or ride) up one-way streets, take alleys, and use all the dodges denied drivers. Impressive.


Even the most casual students of American history know two sayings of Franklin D Roosevelt. First, at the beginning of his presidency, when he said of the Depression: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; second, on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, when he called 7 December 1941 – the day the Japanese attacked the Hawaiian naval base – "a date which will live in infamy". Now, thanks to a document released by FDR's presidential library, we learn that the original draft read "a date which will live in world history", and that, shortly before he addressed Congress, Roosevelt took out his pen and made the switch to the more memorable phrase. Some 33 minutes after he ended his six-minute speech, Congress voted to declare war.


Finally, here's an idea from the United States which might usefully be adopted in Britain, where supermarkets dispense cheap booze to people who are, if the state of the surrounding area is anything to go by, not fully toilet trained. Walmart, the low-cost superstore chain, wants to install wine-bottle vending machines in selected outlets. In Pennsylvania, the authorities, in the shape of the local liquor control board, have insisted that buyers swipe their driver's licence, and also take a breathalyser test before the machines can dispense any hooch. An excellent idea. Would that Walmart require a similar breath test for anyone buying the guns their stores sell.