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Artillery Row

Big Brother is talking to you

What is with London’s obsession for dystopian public address announcements?

By the end of four months in London, I was close to being broken by the public address announcements that seem to follow you everywhere you go in the UK capital. 

A request to cover an editor’s maternity leave resulted in me unexpectedly finding myself back in the city of my birth. Being ex-British Army, I’m familiar with the dark intrigues of psy-ops, but I hadn’t expected, along with every other poor sod commuting into London, to be on the receiving end of so much psychological manipulating and “nudging” in a civilian setting at the heart of so-called British democracy. 

It really is nightmarish for anyone commuting: every day you have to trudge through the same Tube stop hearing the same endless intonations from the Tannoy system at the escalators: “to grip the handrail”, “watch your luggage”, “be careful with your skirt”, “hold on to your child” (what do they think you are going to do?! push them down…), and on it goes.  

What’s worse is the use of children’s voices to make some announcements. Presumably because some consulting company got paid loads of taxpayer’s cash to analyse and conclude it’s more “impactful”. Maybe. I just found it truly sinister: Big Brother deploying the intonations of a sweet little girl’s voice.

Lording it over the lecturing banalities is the dreaded “See it, Say it, Sorted” mantra that is omnipresent in modern Britain, and the worst attempt at alliteration in history from the same country that produced the poetical words of the likes of William Blake, George Herbert and Siegfried Sassoon.

By month three I found myself developing a type of Tourette’s, muttering oaths to myself usually an “Oh, f**k off, please leave me alone” — every time I heard the same bossy pronouncement again and again as I scurried like a rat along with my fellow commuting rodents through the corridors of Victoria Tube station.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote about how the dystopian government of the future would conduct this sort of never-ending aural assault, focusing on how it would happen when we were asleep, with quiet messages waxed lyrical in the background:

Like drops of liquid sealing wax, drops that adhere, encrust, incorporate themselves with what they fall on, till finally the rock is one scarlet blob. Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions and the sum of these suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But these suggestions are our suggestions—suggestions from the State…

For now, the State is not opting for hypnopedia and is sticking to more overt means. The public announcements wouldn’t be quite so bad, were it not for everything else going on around them, all of which added up to feeling like the scientific dictatorship of Brave New World was growing up around me day by day. 

Everyone glued to their phones, scrolling Instagram, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), lapping up the inane propaganda being beamed to them, not caring who or what might be behind it. All the automated check out tills where you are confronted with an image of how gormless you look as you navigate the instructions and buttons. Then when you do get someone in Sainsbury’s at a till, that individual is wearing a body camera pointing at you; after another uplifting interaction with a fellow Brit, you leave the store to be met with the endless hardened faces everywhere. Look at billboards and none of the models are smiling as they espouse the “I’m young, I’m beautiful, and I hate the world” look that is all the rage at the moment. Might this milieu of resentment and bad attitude be influencing young people?…

It all makes one consider the point Huxley brought up in Brave New World Revisited, his analysis of the world roughly 25 years on from his novel, that “if only all of us…could be effectively filled, during our sleep, with love and compassion for all!” Though as Huxley goes on to note, “it is not the message conveyed by the inspirational whisper that one objects to; it is the principle of sleep teaching by governmental agencies”.

And yet arguably we are already halfway to a state of mass hypnopaedia, because, as Huxley pointed out, “most of us are half asleep all the time and go through life as somnambulists obeying somebody else’s suggestions.”

Now, over 65 years after his warnings, we are getting lectured, prodded, messaged, nudged more and more each day in a society striving for a “perfect efficiency [that] left no room for freedom or personal initiative”, as Huxley put it. And we just go along with it, or perhaps give a shrug and nonchalant comment that it is a “funny old time” we are living in. I’m all for a bit of counter cultural guru Alan Watts’ not taking everything so seriously and just enjoying the sublime mystery of existence, but not if it allows a police state to slip in through the back door.

“Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new morality has arisen from the belly of Enlightenment thinking, which in a number of respects is stricter, more vagarious, more irrational, and more hypocritical than the prior religious morality, which the Enlightenment sought to obliterate in order to set people free,” writes Mattias Desmet in The Psychology of Totalitarianism, which attempts to parse what an earth happened during Covid and lockdowns when we embraced herd lunacy. 

“The regulation mania, in all its extravagance and absurdity, undoubtedly contributes to the psychological troubles of our time,” Desmet says, adding that the contradiction and ambiguity of so many rules creates a neurotic effect and “its excessive nature takes away the satisfaction, spontaneity and joy of life”.

Indeed, there was often more satisfaction, spontaneity and joy to be had in a forward operating base in Afghanistan compared to my recent “deployment” to London. The regulation mania and the behavioural habits that it prompts results, as Desmet notes, “in a psychologically exhausted population that craves an absolute master”. 

Do modern-day Brits actually value freedom, I increasingly wonder, or was Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor right when he admonishes Jesus for his sunny optimism and faith in mankind:

 Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’

So, all together now, in the words of our favourite Campaign for Public Awareness and Reporting: “See it, Say it, Sorted.” Because then everything will be just fine.

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