The British government decided to celebrate Saint George’s Day and the possible birthday of William Shakespeare by broadcasting a sound described by the Guardian (and they should know) as “an ear-splitting shriek” on everyone’s cellphone. The purpose of this was to cause road traffic accidents and put battered women in danger, as the Citizens Advice Bureau recognised when it made the following recommendation:
"If you’re living with domestic abuse and you have a mobile phone hidden in your house “just in case”? Please remember to switch it off on Sunday 23 April 2023"
No, I don’t understand the punctuation either. The question mark seems to be inserted at random in the middle of a sentence that does not require one even at the end. If one reads the announcement as two sentences, the first requires a verb and the second a full stop. Still, the meaning is clear enough and perhaps the writer was actuated by a sense of emergency. This, after all, was an emergency alarm, and the government clearly thought that it would be most efficient to create the emergency and broadcast it at the same time, thereby killing two birds with one tone.
I did not hear the piercing shriek myself. In search of a less interfering and tyrannical government, I moved to China last year and have since received only occasional telephone communications from the mother country. The most recent was a request from my doctor saying that the surgery wished to “update my ethnicity”, to which I replied that I am not Chinese yet. I do not know what symptoms I should look out for, but I have a feeling that extreme attachment to one’s cellphone is quite near the top of the list. In 2014, when I lived in Hong Kong, a young man in nearby Guangzhou bought 99 iPhones and arranged them in the shape of a heart as part of an elaborate proposal to his girlfriend. She turned him down like a bedspread.
The young woman in question was unusual in her ability to resist the lure of the cellphone. A few years before the Guangzhou iPhone proposal, I went on a journey through Mongolia which involved a horse trek into the midst of a vast wilderness. In the silence and emptiness of the Gobi, the guide told me to take out my mobile ‘phone and note the excellence of the three-bar reception. I could call or text anyone I wanted, he told me, but I did not want to call or text anyone. The cellphones glued to the palms of everyone I saw in the cities of East Asia already seemed like narcotics, or manacles, or both. If they had been ordered to carry these devices, some might have resisted, but every time Apple brought out a shining new set of shackles, people eagerly lined up to pay hundreds of dollars for them.
Applications such as WeChat and Alipay, which began as innocuous social media and payment platforms, have been weaponised as methods of coercion throughout China. In the province of Zhejiang, where I live, it was impossible to use any form of public transport, or to enter a shop or restaurant without displaying a green Alipay health code until the end of last year. If you did not have a cellphone, or could not take a PCR test… well, then you would just have to give up eating. This, of course, was all for the sake of your health.
At the end of 2022, large-scale popular uprisings, particularly in Hangzhou, forced the Communist Party to abandon its policy of therapeutic enslavement, at least for the time being. Unfortunately, by this time, governments all over the world had already been imitating China for years, adding insult to injury in the cruelest possible way by telling their citizens that they were being murdered and driven insane for their own good. Shrieks as loud as any emergency alarm attended the slightest expression of dissent in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the wide open spaces once regarded as refuges from, rather than bastions of, fascism.
The central problem here is peculiarly intractable. Government really does have a role in keeping people safe. Even the most extreme devotees of the free market might hesitate to privatise the Fire Brigade, or ask the Duke of Westminster and Mrs. Sunak to club together and buy some frigates for the Royal Navy. Privatisation of various natural monopolies, such as the railways, has been a failure. It is clearly possible to imagine a benign government, but it is much more difficult to point to one which exists in real life, and any example which appears to shine brightly is apt to lose its lustre on close inspection. Americans who are, quite reasonably, appalled by their broken healthcare system tend to point to Canada and the United Kingdom as successful examples of socialised medicine. Those who actually live in Canada find it impossible to obtain a medical appointment unless they stay in the same place forever and inherit a family doctor from their forebears, while NHS waiting lists now appear to include almost everyone in Britain.
It is only to be expected that governments are not particularly efficient in running large institutions. They are, after all, spending other people’s money on services that most of the people in government do not use themselves, giving them little incentive to care about either quality or value. This, however, is the thing they do best or, at any rate, the thing that no one else does any better. The thing they do worst is taking decisions for individuals. This is true even when the decision happens to be a good one. We should all probably take more exercise and eat less salt, but it is not for the state to force us onto the treadmill or snatch away the salt cellar.
The emergency alarm is an excellent example of the type of thing the government of a liberal democracy should not be doing, and provides a telling metaphor for the perils of the state interfering in the daily lives of its citizens. No central planner can possibly have any idea of the effect this sudden shriek will have on a myriad of individuals. Even with the best will in the world, it may kill or harm more people than it saves, and Westminster has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not have the best will in the world. It is perfectly predictable that when the government has the ability to harass and browbeat you by means of your cellphone, it will do so ever more frequently with ever less excuse.
This is a solution in search of a problem. How many of us have been in the midst of a terrorist siege or a zombie apocalypse and thought: “Gosh, I wish my cellphone were emitting an ear-splitting shriek right now. That would enable me to deal with this situation in a calmer and more rational manner.” Even when there is a problem to be solved, more oppressive government is generally not the solution, and the British government in 2023 looks every day more like the answer to a question that nobody has asked.