Tom Hodgkinson: 'The wired-up system has failed us'

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The Independent Online

The shopkeeper's life is a troubled one, and I blame technology. Like every business today, seemingly, we have been encouraged to do everything by computer. Even if perhaps we might have preferred, in our retail fantasy land, to have a nice old-fashioned till that made loud ringing noises, a typewriter out back for typing invoices, with carbon copies, and a nine-year-old lad sitting in the fireplace ready to run errands in return for a cup of sugary tea, you don't actually have much choice in the matter. When everyone else has broadband, electronic point-of-sale scanners, stock-control systems, touchscreen PCs and all the rest of it, you sort of have to join in.

So it is that our till needs no less than eight plugs for the various inter-related machines that a tiny bookshop and café seems to require as standard these days. Book orders are made via a horrendously complex system that links up to our wholesalers' computers. Despite three days of intensive tuition when we first opened, I still felt like the journalist in the Private Eye cartoon: "New technology baffles pissed old hack."

After a few months we all started to get the hang of the thing. We even started using the system quite happily, ordering books, updating stock and generally using the PC to run our business. Until one day, five weeks ago, when everything stopped working. No phone, no broadband: so no email, no internet connection. This meant we could not update our website, check orders, take orders or take credit-card payment, since the equipment relies on a phone line. Our phone company told us to turn the router on and off. We did this to no effect.

And five weeks on, the phone has finally been reconnected. But we still have no broadband. I don't know whether you have ever had your broadband or phone disconnected for a day or two. If so, you will know that feeling of utter helplessness, as if your mother has ripped the nipple from your mouth. Extend that feeling for a month and you might get an inkling of what we have been through.

There seemed to be absolutely nothing we could do. Daily and increasingly desperate calls to our telephone "reseller" yielded only a calming tone. A telecoms engineer eventually visited, mumbled something about "the exchange" and left. Nothing happened. We found it hard to believe that the technological authorities, who spend so much money persuading people to get with the times, could abandon a central London shop in this brutal way. It makes you realise how very frail this system is. Add to that the endless trauma of being patronised daily by call-centre geeks, and losing money, and you start to get a picture of a very stressful situation.

Phone-wise, we re-routed our main number to a mobile. In other areas we reverted to the old ways. For mail order, I would check the orders at home in North Devon, print them out and put them in the post. And can I say: thank you, Royal Mail. While the wired-up system failed us, the postal system did not. I could put an envelope in the post on Exmoor at 4pm and it would arrive in London the following day at 11am.

For book orders we reverted to the telephone, which was an improvement on transmitting them by computer, because somehow you absolutely knew the the order had been received, whereas with the computer, there was always the nagging worry that somehow it hadn't got through. For credit cards, we eventually ordered one of those old sliding machines which take carbon-copy slips. We also realised this would be a useful tool for our bookstall at festivals, where it is hard to get good phone reception.

In Orwell's 1984, you will remember, "Nothing works, except the police." Our situation was also rather like that described in Terry Gilliam's fantastic Brazil: we struggled with automated call centres as our own systems collapsed, while not far from our shop, young men appeared to be engaged on a looting spree, and police sirens echoed through the air. When three riot vans drove slowly past our shop during an event, it seemed normal. The mixture of technological breakdown and the sense of mayhem on the streets together create a sense of fearful helplessness, which I suppose makes for an easily governed people. I imagine that as result of the London riots, our liberties will be squeezed further, and 1984 will come a step closer.1

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'