London’s War on Informality, what seven hours in London taught me about surveillance capitalism – Brett Scott

The War on Informality

What seven hours in London teaches me about surveillance capitalism – Brett Scott – 19 Dec 2023Brett’s Substack

I lived in London for 11 years, and hold a deep affection for the city, but when I visit now I feel physically uneasy. As I disembark at Gatwick airport and step into the terminal, I’m hit with the punch of an invisible forcefield. Alarms start ringing in my nervous system, like those birds that cause a racket when danger is approaching.









A friend tells me it’s because I’m an ‘economic empath’. She means it half-jokingly, but it’s true that I sense a creeping darkness looming in the city that I can’t easily put words to, but feel in my body. It must be something subliminal I’m picking up, but what? It starts when I see the HSBC billboards that line the passage to the passport control, with pictures of grandparents and kids alongside slogans like ‘together we thrive’. It builds as I force myself to look into the facial recognition cameras to trigger the e-gates through the border. It spikes further as I try to avoid looking at the MFlow cameras from Human Recognition Systems Ltd, their swirling lights trying to attract my attention so they can log my iris and track me around the airport to optimise crowd control.

Then there’s the feeling of being held hostage in the Gatwick shuttle train where they force me to listen to easyJet deals read by someone pretending to be my friend, selected by an advertising company that used consumer research that told them a working-class voice sounds more trustworthy when trying to sell things. Then comes the moment I dread most. The clipped voice over the loudspeakers at the National Rail station that says, “If you see something suspicious, report it to a member of the British Transport Police…” At that point I violently scrabble for my headphones, because I want to drown out what’s coming next. Shit, I’m too slow. Here it comes…

‘SEE IT, SAY IT, SORTED’, the voice says.

That phrase, which is repeated every five minutes on British transport, send those inner birds of mine into a scream. I think about the kids growing up in this environment, having this repetitive mantra coded into the deepest parts of their neural circuits as ‘normal’. I also think about the economic structure behind it. I picture the brainstorming sessions with the AML Group, the advertising agency that was paid a shed-tonne of money to create that slogan. They’re quite proud of it:

The AML Group execs reckon they’re pretty edgy with their Sin City aesthetics. The website profile photos of their leadership team are set against a backdrop of street art – presumably to show their creativity – while they boast that their campaign has led to a 365% increase in paranoid reports about ‘suspicious behaviour’. In London, you can get paid a lot to make creativity and conformity work hand in hand.

Being held by the handrail

So, within an hour of arriving in the UK, my emotional Geiger-counter is registering high ambient toxicity in the environment, but the triggering goes on. The journey from Gatwick into central London is one long string of directives to be a conscientious good citizen, playing in the background as I’m told to be a conscientious good consumer by the Santander billboards on the Tube platform, the fintech adverts in the carriage, and the Barclays posters on the escalators that pass me while the voice tells me to ‘please hold the handrail’.


London is a city of endless helpful requests coldly delivered to sound like orders, alongside matey propaganda designed by M&C Saatchi to make corporate platforms look warm and cuddly. When I lived here, this mix of dripping corporate inauthenticity and stultifying paternalism was there like a suffocating blanket, but the city had a strong counterculture to balance it out. I was born at the tail-end of the authoritarian apartheid regime in South Africa, so when I arrived London seemed a city of exhilarating experimentation and freedom. I lived in the neighbourhood of Brixton from 2008-2013, where every day the street market was a multicultural carnival with home-made ginger beer, ska music and the smell of weed. London seemed to have a decent balance of power between the formal corporate and state sphere, and the informal street life that teemed around it in the cracks. There was, as it were, a vibrant outside to the suffocating blanket.

Perhaps what my nervous system now registers is a shift in that balance. The vibrancy still exists, but it’s on the retreat as the outside space is eaten up. In the great ongoing war between bureaucratic corporate surveillance capitalism and the human soul, the former is gaining ground.

Entering the production line

Within two hours an emotional motif has emerged. It’s the feeling that London increasingly operates as a series of optimised production (and consumption) lines presided over by authorities, corporations and technology. People cram off the Tube to cram into Pret for coffee to cram into work, before cramming into the self-service checkouts at Tesco for lunch. You’ll never see the bosses or shareholders of the production lines, but you will see a series of CCTV cameras, touch-screens, QR codes and employees, with the latter increasingly subordinated to the technology.

As people cram into the bars in the evening, they’ll leave their Pret cups and Sainsbury’s sushi containers crammed into bins. Those will be emptied before dawn by an army of unseen cleaners, many of them immigrants, who will un-cram the city so the process can continue when everyone drains from the catchment area of the suburbs into the trains again. Once on the platform, our minds can get crammed afresh with the cutting edge of automation ideology, which in London means pervasive fintech ads, like this one from the automated investment manager Nutmeg.

Ah, Nutmeg. I remember this crew. I was involved in the London ‘alternative finance’ scene around 2011 when Nutmeg was founded, and the team would turn up at events I attended. Like most fintech players, they claimed to be pioneering a ‘revolution’ against the banks. Here’s their old billboard.

Spot the difference? Glance to the bottom left of their newer ad, and you’ll see that the ‘investing without the bankers’ company has been bought by J.P. Morgan. Their former CEO’s LinkedIn page says he’s ‘taking a break’, which is unsurprising given that he probably no longer needs to work after getting paid to sell out. Then again, selling out was always the plan. Nutmeg was backed from the start by firms like Armada Investment Group, Balderton Capital and Schroders, who would make damn sure the CEO ‘takes a break’ if the likes of J.P. Morgan made an offer. The inauthenticity in Nutmeg’s vision was always there.

At some level everyone here knows that every claim around them is laced with a streak of the fake. False revolutions are marketed constantly. Some are even named after revolutions, like Revolut.

It’s ironic that Revolut chooses this image, because 9 out of the 11 people in their leadership team are white men, and there are no black women, but commercial inauthenticity is so normal that Londoners expect to be lied to. The start-up phase of a company is just like the start-up phase of an unfinished product on a production line. In the early phase, the start-up gets to say scrappy rebellious things, but by the end they’re ready to be sold to J.P. Morgan. Revolut is backed by some of the same venture firms as Nutmeg was, so don’t be surprised if it ends up swallowed. The fintech scene primarily exists for one thing: to help bridge the gap between Big Finance and Big Tech.

The soundtrack of techno-feudalism

By hour three, the latest theme tune of London’s corporate takeover rises into my consciousness. It’s an incessant beeping sound. Beep. Beep. Beep. It’s the sound of people tapping their cards or phones on contactless payments terminals, in Pret, in the Tube, on the bus, in Sainsbury’s, everywhere. It’s the sound of a message being sent by the smart-chip on their card via the merchant’s bank to Visa’s fortress data-centres to their bank’s data-centres and back. It’s also the sound of Visa, Mastercard and the banking sector getting richer. More generally, it’s the sound of us being processed by a system that wants to accelerate its production and consumption lines.

Henry Ford famously quipped that ‘any customer can have a car painted any colour, so long as it is black’. The bosses of London increasingly say ‘use whatever form of payment you want, so long as it’s digital and corporate’. Indeed, the rise of contactless payment in London was kickstarted by the TfL transport system, which not only started blocking people from using cash, but partnered with Barclaycard to promote contactless payments. In true inauthenticity-maximization style, they ran a phoney charity drive to onboard people with the help of former mayor Boris Johnson and the advertising giant M&C Saatchi. The initiative, which was called ‘Penny for London’, claimed you could be a humanitarian by using contactless payment, because the system would automatically donate 1p from your train fare to underprivileged young Londoners if you did so.

The initiative raised little money for charity, but that was never the point. The point was to shift people’s payments behaviour. The directors of the now-dissolved Penny for London Ltd included Boris Johnson’s Mayor’s Fund, former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, and hedge fund mogul and Conservative Party peer, Baron Stanley Fink. Isn’t it strange that a bunch of financial elites were invited to sit on the board. Someone should report that to the See It, Say It, Sorted help-line as suspicious behaviour. I fantasize about calling the operator and saying:

‘I’ve noticed London has been taken over by two colossal American payments firms working in conjunction with Big Finance and Tech, and people don’t seem to notice. Suspicious?’

I can imagine the operator looking for ‘corporate takeover’ and ‘apathy towards ruling class hegemony’ in the list of threats to UK democracy. ‘No, sorry, we only act upon terrorist threats, homeless people, brown people, and people who take photos of our CCTV cameras’.

My French friend Victor takes glee in telling me that the UK has a lingering feudal mindset, because the country never had a true revolution like his. Certainly, parts of UK society seem to welcome in domination by techno-feudalism with minimal resistance. Behind the beeps on the contactless terminals I can see the grinning faces of the execs at Barclaycard, Visa and ApplePay, watching all the ‘cashless’ feedback loops accelerate, entrenching their platforms as the only means of survival in this environment. Their hegemony is amplified by state authorities, museums, universities, theatres and other institutions of cultural clout that add their official blessing to this takeover by ‘going cashless’.

Still, when I first lived in London, cultural immunity to this was higher. Using cash was normal, and it was also the currency of the informal underground that provided a counterpower to the formal sphere. Very few people experienced cash as ‘inconvenient’ in 2008, but even back then payments firms were working to shift that perception. I can hear the Visa UK marketing team popping the champagne cork on the night they released their 2016 ‘cashfree and proud’ campaign. Voiced by the much loved actor Brian Blessed, it had the objective of making cash seem ‘peculiar’ in the city by 2020.

Just like AML Group amplified British paranoia by 365%, these guys amplified the take-over of Big Finance-Tech with remarkable speed. Visa wanted Londoners ‘liberated’ from cash, but so-called ‘cashless payment’ is just transfers of bank-issued digital casino chips. Put differently, they wanted us liberated from our lack of reliance on banks. They wanted the cash economy to get metabolized by a corporate oligopoly.

This mentality of capture was presented as progressive: like our chuffed man in the ad above, we were supposed to feel a ‘sense of achievement’ when welcoming this in. Most notably, this mentality flourished in a particular strata of middle-class professionals. You don’t need to be a social scientist to see that wherever gentrification goes, cashlessness follows. The old ‘cash or card’ question asked by bartenders was silenced, and replaced by them shoving the POS terminal at you. This was the true ‘cashfree’ situation Visa desired, and yes, they are very proud that businesses will promote them by removing your choice to use their physical competitor.

Sterilisation by gentrification

By hour four in London I must find safe harbour. I retreat to the The Montagu Pyke on Charing Cross Road on the edge of Soho. It’s a Wetherspoons pub, and Wetherspoons is an interesting beast. One the one hand, it’s a stock-market listed company that consolidates pubs into a corporate chain. On the other, it uses its market power to protect stuff that might otherwise be undermined by market forces, like traditional real ale. Wetherspoons is notable for supporting CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – and The Montagu Pyke is bastion for old London geezers who don’t want to be shamed for using cash or talking in a cockney accent.

I actually used to work in an old CAMRA pub called The St. Radegund. The roguish but loveable old boss was called Terry, who in his twenties had travelled for years through Asia in a beat-up van. I walked in, asked for a job, and the next night I was working, no questions asked. His policy was to serve no lagers, allow no smartphones, and accept no card payments. At the end of the evening I’d lock the pub up and take my wages in cash out of the till for myself. He simply trusted I’d take the right amount.

St Radegund regulars

The Radegund felt ‘homely’, but what does this mean? In a corporate office you’re only allowed you to express a limited part of yourself, but in a home all aspects of your being are allowed to reside. Things we call ‘homely’, then, have a certain level of holism. The Radegund was part of the capitalist economy – it sold beers for profit – but that was but one part of its spirit. It was also a community meeting space, a place for lonely widowers to find company, and for Terry to tell long stories to the regulars.

The Radegund’s most notable feature was the banning of phones, which prevented people from accessing a tool they might otherwise use to mine their environment for emotional commodities that could be pushed into an attention marketplace. Even the image I managed to sneak above was a partial infraction on that spirit. Phones are designed to make it technically easy for us to make audio-visual objects out of feelings and experiences that otherwise would resist objectification, and at this time Facebook was trying to lure me in with little dopamine rewards to get me to hand these objects over to them, so it could be displayed back to me from the outside.

At first glance the phone ban seemed restrictive – even draconian – but actually it protected the space from a mentality of commodification that might otherwise take root. Arguably, holding that mentality at bay is what makes things feel ‘underground’. One of the darkest possibilities facing us right now is that our phones may be like trojan horses invited into realms we may want protected from commodification. They slowly erode the sense that the underground resides within us.

Needless to say, the non-commodified holism that made the Radegund feel homely is the same thing that makes entire neighbourhoods feel homely. The old Brixton market, for example, played host to all manner of non-commercial values that co-existed alongside market activities. There was a diversity of spirit, which is what people end up calling ‘vibrant’. The more you push the needle towards non-commercial logics, the more ‘alternative’ a place seems. What we call ‘counterculture’ is a mentality that revels in de-prioritizing commercial logic, rather than foregrounding it.

Brixton’s gentrification really kicked off in 2011, when the Tory government broke the squatting scene and cleared out a big chunk of the informal culture. In the years since, a Wetherspoons pub called the Beehive has operated like a shelter, taking in fugitives pushed out by the rise of cashless wine bars and craft beer breweries. Soho, where the Montagu Pyke stands, was lost to gentrification way before that, but the pub is hosted in the building that once housed the old Marquee Club. Back in the late 60s, the venue was home to nascent stars like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. The pub has a small exhibit commemorating this:

When I first moved to London, I got a thrill from listening to the Dire Straits song Wild West End, in which Mark Knopfler sings about walking the grimy streets of Soho before the area was turned into a simulacrum of itself to be sold to tourists. I never got to experience Mark’s Soho. One of the classic symptoms of deep urban commodification is that the identity of a place gets ripped away from those who live there and displayed back to them from the outside. You don’t host the spirit of Soho. You consume it. You live inside a product, and the local authorities begin to view themselves as product managers.

Many so-called ‘global cities’ face this problem. Amsterdam and Barcelona, for example, increasingly feel like managed products, which is why neighbourhoods like Gracia in Barcelona have graffiti saying ‘TOURISTS GO HOME, YOU’RE NOT WELCOME’. People who live in a home don’t like sensing they’re living in a production line for experiential commodities to be sold to outsiders, but London authorities have long given up the idea that the city is primarily a home. No, it’s primarily a venue to attract foreign investment, a tourist package, or a canvas of opportunities for property developers.

I saw this first hand when I worked in the financial sector from 2008-2011. I specialised in flogging exotic derivative contracts to property investment funds and developers. I saw how they saw the city as a series of spreadsheets. Buildings were just the intersection of input costs and output revenue, existing only to yield that residual essence called profit. Of course, these values of efficiency and accumulation feel sterile, so the developers would constantly try to cloak their profit-extraction endeavours in non-commercial imagery of friends, family, fun, adventure, weirdness, rebellion and so on. This is a more general feature of capitalism, which always must seek to appropriate non-commercial logics, and this is what ends up making things feel ‘gentrified’.

Gentrification is best understood as a pacification process, in which the marketable elements of some holistic thing are split off from its threatening elements. It’s like skinning a tiger. You’re left with an exotic, novel and aesthetically-pleasing skin, without any of the substance in its original context. Interestingly, if you study the Montagu Pyke exhibit above, it references backlashes to this phenomenon in music:

In reaction to celebrity rock, and to music run by record companies as a branded consumer product, the streets broke through again in the form of Punk Rock

‘The streets’ is an interesting phrase, but the last bastion of punk rock in London was a place called Camden, which no longer exists. Well, it technically exists, but what people call ‘Camden’ right now is actually the skin of the old punk neighbourhood, thrown over a commercial machine that sells the image of punk culture back to both the residents and a sea of tourists.

Trying to be a 1970s punk in a 2023 London is like trying to be a wild ferment in pasteurised milk. What makes a place feel ‘commercial’ is when the values of efficiency, ‘convenience’ and accumulation take over from all others, and the holistic spirit is slowly evicted. Commercial culture sterilises – or pasteurises – the environment of any parts of the human spirit that don’t act to support its aims.

All watched over by benevolent intermediaries

Young Mark Knopfler

In Wild West End Mark Knopfler sings about ‘getting a pickup for his steel guitar’ in Soho’s music Mecca, Denmark Street. By hour five in London I’ll inevitably end up there. I go to Wunjo Guitars and pretend to be in the market for a National Resonator. A staff member plays along, saying “give it try!” The Wunjo staff are all passionate guitar geeks, and – while they wouldn’t mind making a sale – they’re just as excited to share their love for the topic with anyone who turns up. Denmark Street retains some of the spirit of Mark’s time, but other things are being lost.

One of Mark’s most gutsy songs is Walk of Life. It’s about a busker called Johnny who plays “down in the tunnels, trying to make it pay”. Busking is a classic informal economy activity. You set up on the street, get moved on by cops, set up someone else, and collect coins as you go. I remember a busker called Flame Proof Moth who’d play down on the banks of the Thames next to a big target for people to chuck coins at.

Let’s map Flame Proof Moth on an economic systems diagram. If you imagine an economy as a giant interdependent mesh of players, ranging from tiny to gigantic, it would look something like the diagram below. The big corporate oligopolies sit in a centre, with smaller SMEs further down the chain, and then the millions of employees, freelancers and precarious workers forming rings around this. The ‘informal economy’ is always in the periphery. As I chuck a coin to Flame Proof Moth, it’s like two tiny nodes interacting on the outskirts.

Imagine now I live in a world where my brain has become convinced that progress means being totally dependent on Visa. Flame Proof Moth has been forced to come up from the River Thames and to set up one of those iZettle payments terminals next to him, so my card can call out via his bank and Visa to my bank and ask them to transfer 50p in digital casino chips to him (minus fees). Now, the tiny nodes no longer interact. Rather, we route our relationship through the central oligopoly.

If we rendered this image in 3D, tapping that card might look like this.

We’re now part of the formal economy. The ‘formal’ sector is the realm where bureaucratic values of hierarchal order preside. Formalization often entails intermediation, with small players routing through large players, a process that requires authentication. The ‘informal sector’, by contrast, operates on more horizontal and peer-to-peer lines. Amazon is formal. Large parts of the old Brixton market were informal. Many other businesses are a hybrid.

People whose minds have become excessively formalised will often demonise the informal sector with names like ‘the black market’. They may insist we ‘bring people in’ to the formal market, because they imagine that those who rely on street-level relations are out in the cold, and that corporate capitalism is like a kindly parental entity waiting to cuddle them. The informal market stands in opposition to corporate capitalism, so is branded as ‘inefficient’, precisely because it holds space for non-commercial values. It’s some grungy guy on the banks of the Thames who wants you to throw coins at him. He obviously has yet to understand that ‘liberation’ follows if he agrees to pay fees to Mastercard for the privilege of survival.

But here comes the dark part. The informal realm is what maintains the very vibe of a city, the sense of aliveness, the sense that its citizens are active creators rather than passive consumers. Some of the world’s most vibing places maintain a healthy balance of power between informal and formal. There’s an almost erotic interplay between those spheres, but the sure-fire way to kill the vibe is to break the balance. That’s when the society gets pasteurised. That’s when punks become consumers.

Keeping posture in slump culture

It’s hour six, and against my better judgement I enter Tesco to get dried fruit to keep my energy up. The UK’s biggest supermarket is part of a cluster of chain stores that dominate every high street. This phenomenon was dubbed ‘Clone Town Britain’ by the New Economics Foundation, who found that 41% of high streets in Britain were indistinguishable from each other in 2007.

Tesco is a champion for the bureaucratic streamlining of the UK populace. When I lived in London they pioneered self-service checkouts as a way to fire their service staff. As I was leaving they started piloting cashless stores in certain central London locations, aiming to set a new cultural precedent. The Guardian uncritically reported on this as part of the ‘growing cash free revolution’, but we know all about these phoney revolutions. Since I left, Tesco has pioneered the ‘make-it-normal-to-surveil-customers revolution’: each cashless self-service checkout now sports a mini-panopticon camera, to make you feel like you’re being watched.

I look at the people dutifully scanning their goods around me. They seem obedient, or is it that they’re stressed and preoccupied? Their faces seem to say ‘Don’t ask me to think about something political. This is progress’.

We’re told that progress is a bold striding into the future, but much ‘progress’ is actually a type of releasing of resistance. It’s the process whereby we either invite in, or relinquish resistance to, a narrow set of values that will displace a more holistic set. Much like the act of me slumping into a chair is me going along with gravity (rather than resisting it by holding posture), progress is the process by which we slump into acceptance of the default systemic tendencies in a large-scale capitalist system.

Those default tendencies are expansion and acceleration, both of which are elements of the economic god of Growth, and automation is a crucial component of all. Under a capitalist economy, tech just makes our lives faster, rather than easier. It’s not like the people in the Tesco self-checkout area are chilled out. No, they’re being pushed through a bureaucratic apparatus that wants them to move faster. Of course, Tesco will market this with reference to ‘convenience’, showcasing some marginal short-term benefit, but once a person steps in, the alternative will be pulled away from them. Self-checkout used to be optional. Now it’s often mandatory.

This is a type of entrapment, but given that resistance feels futile, it’s psychologically easier to nudge yourself towards believing that a self-service surveillance check-out is ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. If nothing else, you’ll grudgingly learn that this is the new normal. After all, everyone else is doing it. What’s actually happening here is that the systemic tendencies of capitalism are proliferating through a network of people who have no ability to push pause to stop and ask if this is what they all really want. This is what ‘market forces’ are so good at doing: they prioritise a small subset of human desire – that momentary need to move slightly faster, for example – in order to lock in a new state of acceleration that you won’t be able to back away from.

This is easy to see, because there are many British people who demand physical cash to stay, but their demand will never be acted upon. What will actually happen is that those who slide into digital payment will have their ‘demand’ weaponised to recalibrate the infrastructure. Just look at all the new cash-blocking ticket machines in the National Rail stations. What they’re saying is this: From this point on, we only accept corporate intermediation. We don’t care about your archaic demands for texture. We require frictionlessness. We prioritise hierarchy over horizontality. They’re basically coercing cash users towards the choice that jells with automation.

In the current phase of the global economy, you’re told that you will be ‘left behind’ unless you leap aboard the platforms required to reach the requisite level of automation that everyone’s expected to sync up to. As you slump into acquiescence, the more likely you are to take on the persona of ‘the consumer’. Yes, I’m being served by Tesco. They only put these machines here for my convenience.

Antonio Gramsci would have called this ‘cultural hegemony’. It’s when people internalise the value set of a ruling class as natural, inevitable, and – eventually – their own. This poses a problem for me, because when I critique the captor, the captives might turn on me. I often have London friends shuffling uncomfortably as I insist on paying cash in a restaurant, or asking for a menu rather than scanning the QR code. They feel I’m being unfair on the waiter, who has no power to change the decisions made by the faceless bosses. It’s not like Tesco CEO Ken Murphy is going to turn up when I ask the Tesco assistant why my face is now on a screen. Ken answers only to his institutional shareholders. If I cause a fuss, I’m the trouble-maker.

Holding posture in this environment takes energy, but people are still resistant to the slump. Walking away from Tesco I notice that Nationwide has picked up on the angst felt by those who are being nudged towards digital apps as their bank branches are closed down.

There’s some fine-print at the bottom. If we have a branch in your town, we’ll still be there until at least 2026.

Three years. That’s all they’re prepared to promise. After that, all deals are off. The decision is made, and the key question facing the corporate sector is how to slowly mould the ‘laggards’ into compliance.

Searching for the outside

I want to see my old home. It’s a bittersweet way to spend my seventh hour, but Brixton was always a melting pot for the different clans of the ‘periphery’. This included immigrants but also the countercultures. In the last decade, however, Brixton became a battleground between two different conceptions of ‘independence’. On the one hand, were cash-only informal-vibe diaspora shops selling giant African land snails, jerk chicken and goats hooves. They authentically were pretty independent from the formal corporate economy. On the other, were a new crop of entrepreneurs opening ‘boutique’ shops with names like Champagne+Fromage and Honest Burger.

It was always a class war. The new entrepreneurs called themselves ‘indy’ but firmly plugged themselves into the digital mega-platforms, both in their marketing and operations. Visa was there to present itself as a humble servant, while the businesses slumped into a Faustian alliance to become its ‘cashless’ frontline agents in exchange for shaving a percent off their costs. They always knew their customers would wilt into compliance, after which the adaptable human brain could do the work of editing their memories to forget that there ever was an outside to Visa.

People ask me why I focus so much on cash. It’s because the arrival of so-called cashlessness is an eviction notice served to non-commercial spirits. The formal sector is slowly assassinating the informal economy, like an imperial death squad hunting down rebels. The creep is like a virus, and old Brixton punks must watch as it spreads into the body of the neighbourhood that hosts their identity. It appears to them as a sedation of the spirit, and a great forgetting of a world where solidarity, disdain for authority, and acceptance of imperfection were standard.

Their – perhaps reactionary – fear, of course, is that young Londoners will be born into this situation of capture, with their brain patterns calibrated within the formal system, such that they can’t recognise an outside. For example, many young people no longer have a concept of ‘money outside the bank’. Money is ApplePay. What is friendship without WhatsApp? What is directions without Google? There is no world that precedes the digital corporate overlay, with its filtering, auto-correcting and curating. The very concept of un-intermediated life is an endangered species.

I have no way of knowing what it was like to arrive in London in the 1700s, with no phone to connect to wherever you came from, or what it was like being Mark Knopfler arriving in 1973. I have, though, experienced what it’s like to arrive in 2008 without Silicon Valley laying out an all-encompassing digital red carpet. I’ve experienced getting paid ‘under the counter’ at an old pub, and doing things ‘off the record’. I guess I’m worried that 18 year-olds arriving here now must be preceded by their bank, by Google, by facial recognition, by Whatsapp.

But it would wrong to say that the outside doesn’t exist. Everyone has a holistic spirit with rebellious, creative and romantic elements, even if they increasingly must funnel through platforms that fundamentally contain no rebellion or romanticism. I know that there’s a team of AI engineers right now working on producing simulacra of those mystical feelings, so they can be wrenched from you and sold back. I’m just hoping they don’t succeed.

Do you feel it?

London now manifest in my body as a feeling of constriction, but there’s a hint of something else. Loneliness. I often get told I’m weird for caring about stuff like cash and informal economies, and perhaps my greatest angst in London is to do with voice. I want to name what’s going on, but sense that many others find it uncomfortable, even taboo. I’m not even asking for Tesco to be anything different from what it is. All I want is for them to be authentic for once. I just want to walk in and to hear the bosses admit that those self-service checkouts have got sweet fuck all to do with my interests. I want to hear Ken Murphy say: Brett, the self-service machines are here for us to process you faster, so suck it up and stop standing in the way of our profit. Ah, how refreshing that would be.

One thought on “London’s War on Informality, what seven hours in London taught me about surveillance capitalism – Brett Scott”

  1. Anyone else intending to visit London – stay well away from the chains (there are still many independent coffee shops, restaurants and shops) – why in earth would anyone visit Weatherspoons and Tesco!), visit the many farmers markets (which sell amazing locally produced products – from goats cheese to honey, from wild venison to unpasteurised milk) and perhaps visit one of the city’s the truly amazing world class orchestras or theatres. Oh and refuse to switch on the TV or read main stream media – pick up a copy of the Light Paper instead- to find out how us Brits are pushing back and waking up!

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