A mere quarter of a mile from my home the traffic ground to an unaccustomed halt. The sporadic nature of its movement proclaimed a contraflow in action somewhere up ahead and, with no other way of accessing my street, I settled down to patiently wait in the Great British Queue… an institution we are good at in this country. Mainly through interminable practice. The grass verge beside the road looked inviting. Wider than the road itself, flat and unobstructed, it leads to the lane that runs to my home a mere few hundred yards away. I didn’t take it of course…partly because it would undoubtedly churn up the grass, but mainly because it isn’t the ‘done thing’.
I glare at the cameras beside the road that now monitor the movement of every vehicle in the country, ostensibly in order to check we have all paid our road tax, but in reality just part of what seems to be an inexorable movement towards the impossibility of anonymity; of escaping from the needs and obligations of the daily grind with at least the illusion of freedom. Shades of Orwell’s dystopia rear their heads… I can’t say I like the insidious increase in surveillance. Not that I don’t understand and approve of security. Not that I particularly wish to hide; but privacy and choice matter to me. Lately it seems as if many minor incursions are being made into the small liberties and I wonder just how far it will go… and how it happens that we simply accept in silence.
I had begun to ponder this whole question earlier, checking sell by dates for one of my sons and disposing of large quantities of things for him which had passed them. He and many others of his generation that I know seem obsessed by the dates on packets. A minor thing, you might think, but it sparked a train of thought as I sat there in the traffic. I know it is a generational thing, because, of course, I grew up in a world that had never heard of putting a sell by date on an apple. Tins and packets, perhaps… though even those, we were taught, were only an indication, a safeguard, and probably marked a midway point in shelf-life. Common sense was the thing; we were taught to apply it to food and make informed decisions.
Regulations have changed over the years and my sons’ generation have been raised in a world where ‘sell by’, ‘display until’ and ‘use by’ dates are the norm. The trouble is there seems to be little understanding of the application of these labels and huge amounts of fresh food are discarded because a date applied for stock rotation purposes puts the proverbial wind up consumers. There is nothing wrong with a slightly wrinkly apple. Fresh fruit and vegetables keep far longer than the supermarkets’ dating implies. You can tell when such fresh produce is no longer worth eating. Yet, although they listen to definition and explanation, my sons refuse to accept in practical terms that only a ‘use by’ date has real significance for food safety. And that is without the aesthetic standards applied that sees misshapen produce rejected.
From a purely commercial point of view one has to give credit to the supermarkets. Once a date is passed and the product discarded, we buy more. They are hardly going to complain or try to stop us. Common sense has been replaced by the subtle imposition of a dichotomy of fear and safety dictated by a printed label.
I know it is a small and rather insignificant example, but I wondered why this and other examples of quiet acceptance are so rife. Of course the world changes; of course older generations will always look back, shaking their heads with an ‘in my day…’ It bothers me to see such mass manipulation take root and I wondered at the lack of challenge.
Perhaps, I mused, the teenage years have something to do with it. Looking back there was always a choice of rebellion available to youngsters… Hippies, Mods and Rockers, Pop, Rock, Punk, New Romantic… I don’t think my own sons really had that wave of subcultural choice in their teens; certainly not in the small town in which we lived. It all seemed rather bland. I wonder just how big a part the rebellion of the teenage years plays in the process of developing the ability to choose a personal expression of freedom for the outer persona that both mirrors and teaches a personal and inner freedom. I also wonder what is in store for this generation as their own children reach the age of teenage rebellion.
Perhaps it is simply an expression of my own generation and upbringing that questions as the technology and society that was invented to serve us assumes the silently dictatorial overtones of an Orwellian Big Brother. We are, after all, each of us, responsible for the world we have shaped.