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On computers, terror and Brexit

22.12.2016-farage-johnson-590.jpg [Related Image]
March for Europe, London, 2 July 2016. Gustavo Ferlizi under a Creative Commons Licence

Travelling can sometimes help put things into perspective, writes James Rowland.

We have just returned from a week in Amsterdam, doing the round of family and friends. As usual there is a lot of interest in goings on in the UK, with Brexit the main topic of conversation.

The starting position of most people we know has been complete astonishment that Brits would want to leave Europe, reform it yes, but to actually want to leave! Gradually this position has shifted as people take in the US elections and the rise of politicians like Geert Wilders, founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Marine Le Pen, President of France’s National Front party.

To try and increase their understanding lots of friends have been to see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and at least one reported that the film had, for the first time, helped her to understand why so many supported Brexit.

Indeed it is entirely possible that in a year from now us Brits will have reclaimed our position of being Europe’s witty entertainers rather than being seen as the vanguard of the resurgence of the right.

As insulting as they may be, our far right now seems really quite lightweight. On the Eurostar from London we found ourselves two carriages away from Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party who campaigned for Brexit; he travelled alone and on arrival rang his contacts (presumably) and scurried off to the parking garage, no minders, no spads.

Even at this early stage in Brexit I can see Nigel and Boris Johnson, Britain’s current Secretary of State, providing a lot of laughs for our European friends as we all watch the headless UK government lurch from one failed negotiation to another.

And speaking of Daniel Blake, the thing that most disturbed me in the film was the power of the computer. The Little Britain ’computer says no’ culture is on the march. No matter how sympathetic the employees of the bureaucracy might be, their hands are completely tied by what their computer tells them.

Those most affected by these unfeeling decisions are usually those who need the help of society most; the sick, the elderly etc. It is also starting to affect people going about their daily lives.

In Holland there are now lots of places where you cannot pay with cash; this includes transport where everyone carries a little plastic card to check in and out of buses, trains, etc.

In general it works well but then complications set in: you have to pay extra for a bike, the elderly get a discount, those travelling with the elderly also get a discount, some stations are serviced by three rival train companies, all with different cards. At some point on each visit we seem to find ourselves at a station help desk asking them to unravel our travel cards.

My biggest recent problem with computers was dealing with Canadian immigration. For years the US have required those arriving by air to first obtain an electronic permit. This is not required if you enter by train and so the US has forced Canada to insist on visitors obtaining a similar permit. This was introduced in March 2016 but visitors were given dispensation until the end of September.

We were travelling in September but the permit was cheap and by all accounts easy to obtain and so we applied. I then received an e-mail to say that there were further questions. I wasn’t told what these were, to find out this I had to set up two separate online accounts with the Canadian government, I then had to link these accounts to be told what the problem was.

I set up the accounts but their system wouldn’t link them. I then tried to check the status of my application but their system didn’t recognise GBR as a legitimate passport, despite it being on their drop down menu. There then followed various fruitless enquiries on their website, all were answered by computer generated replies that failed to address my problems, and couldn’t be replied to.

Eventually I discovered that the problem was that I had admitted to a motoring offence in France about 20 years ago. As a result Canada required a full transcript of the ruling from the French court together with a police statement from every country that I had lived in since the age of 18 to say that I hadn’t got a criminal record.

My pleas produced more computerised responses and so I realised I had to scan and send the documents. This caused more nightmarish back and forths and so we left for Canada with a pile of documentation prepared for some strict questioning.

In the event the border police were as friendly as one might expect Canadians to be, enquiring only whether the Marmite I was carrying contained any meat.

Whilst we were away I received two further e-mails to say that they were expecting documentation from me and a few days after we returned another e-mail to say that my visa request had been denied. As usual this came from an address which couldn’t be replied to and whilst it said ‘I have declined your request …’ there was no indication who it was from.

Sadly, I guess I will have to pursue this as there must be a fair chance that I would be refused entry to Canada in the future, and possibly the US as well as I expect their computers talk to each other.

Our increasingly unequal world, aided and abetted by 9/11, seems to have brought us to a place where no-one is to be trusted and where judgements at an increasing pace are being made by computers and not people.

If even the friendly people of Canada have fallen to this level it does not bode well for the rest of us. At least the European Economic Community gave us less bureaucracy; imagine the online form filling we will all have to do in a few years’ time as we travel and trade across borders. But maybe this will help save the planet as we adjust our lives to ones with less growth, less international trade, less travelling, etc.

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