Book Review – Machines Like Me

One of the UK’s foremost novelists, Ian McEwan has written 18 novels, of which Machines Like Me was the 17th. I’ve read many of its predecessors, and all since Enduring Love, but I only managed to catch up with this one in its paperback edition.

McEwan’s greatest skill as a writer lies in making us confront topical aspects of our own existence, whether it be terrorism (Saturday), climate change (Solar) or the extent to which the courts are able to adjudicate on matters of individual morality and belief (The Children Act). He writes most comfortably in terms of developing middle class characters, perhaps, but the situations which each of them have to confront are universal. He’s also of course no stranger to writing historical fiction, with many of his novels set at least partly in the past.

Told in ten chapters, Machines Like Me is no different in these respects. Charlie is a bit of a drifter but has come into an inheritance which he uses to buy Adam, an artificial human – a first (and limited) edition of ‘truly viable manufactured humans with plausible intelligence and looks, [and] believable motion and shifts of expression’. Together with Miranda, his upstairs neighbour and herself the daughter of a man of letters, he sets about creating Adam’s personality and the three set up an existence together. The novel is set in the 1980s, but an alternative reality, counterfactual version in which certain historical events have not happened, or happened differently. Most significantly, the Falklands War has been lost and, in the aftermath, Thatcher is facing political oblivion in the face of a Benn-led Labour Party; but, critically, Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaking and early computer genius of Bletchley Park, and a figure of long-standing literary interest for McEwan, has not committed suicide/suffered a careless accident/been killed by agents of the state but lives free and able to use his brilliance to develop and refine theories of the construction of artificial intelligence.

This has left the 1980s UK in a state of technological development much greater than we have even now, in the 2020s: autonomous cars, for example, have been on the streets since the 1960s – though Britain still suffers intense pollution – mobile phones are cutting edge rather than bricks; and Adam is here to carry out the tasks expected and desired of a creation deliberately constructed by humans.

Thus McEwan is able to confront the concerns now being raised by artificial intelligence – the future of work (and workers), and class, and whether and how humans can live alongside robots – in a way that does not potentially date by being set in the future and by concerns either that this or that event was ‘not going to be likely’ or which ‘did not turn out like that’. This is not science fiction and it does not predict; therefore, because the ‘facts’ of a historical novel are those which are set out within its pages, the morality issues which McEwan wants the work to confront are allowed to take their proper place at the centre of the novel.

Chief among these is the ability of humans and robots to live alongside each other and how those relationships can be regulated – the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each – within our existing understanding of the rule of law. This is not just a question of the lack of understanding of the illogicality of humans, and the question of ‘Who will write the algorithm for the little white lie?’; but also, and more critically, one of how the one can be held responsible for his or her actions vis-à-vis the other. In the process, McEwan raises issues of mental health – in a cutely aware nod to the demise in real life of Turing – as well as the moral choices we face when confronted with a dilemma. The shocking end to the work reveals the crucial truth present in all of McEwan’s novels – that you always have to be paying proper attention.

If the book is indeed a ‘novel about the power of novels… a celebration of the flaws that make us human‘ it’s only correct to point out the flaws in the work.

Firstly, the alternative reality 1980s is, in many cases, rather familiar – for Benn and Labour in the early 1980s, read Corbyn and Labour at the end of the 2010s – while there is also a reference to leaving the EU (to be fair, this was Labour Party policy at the time). Protest rallies and confrontations on the streets which set the popular background to events in the novel appear highly contemporary in the US (Black Lives Matter) and with the third Extinction Rebellion now taking place on the streets of London (and elsewhere), and convey the same impressions of social and political breakdown. Here, it is as if McEwan’s alternative reality was simply the product of reading today’s newspapers – and, probably, The Guardian – rather than one of powerful imagination. This does give a reminder of the contemporary nature of the conundrums that McEwan is raising – the novel is, after all, about the present not some alternative dystopia, but the counterfactual does appear to be somewhat easily, if not lazily, created.

Secondly – and somewhat stemming from the above – McEwan might well have set out both here as well as in Nutshell just to write, free of the detailed research that informed previous works, but there are several extended, McEwan-like discourses on different issues stemming from his research which are shoe-horned into the text and which disrupt the flow. The impression of wading through treacle is, when viewing the novel as a whole, fleeting – and, as above, the need to pay attention in a McEwan novel remains ever-present – but there is the thought that sharper editorial control would have produced a better, tighter novel.

Thirdly, Machines Like Me indicates a first person narrative, i.e. from the perspective of Adam, though the work is actually narrated by Charlie. It’s not that the title is odd – there is a reason for it, which appears late on in the text – but that the dialogue between Charlie and Miranda is curiously stilted. It doesn’t crackle with tension and desire, and neither does it convince. The characters simply do not leap off the page at you. This is particularly a problem when there are really only three characters in the novel (Turing is a fourth): the interactions that takes place between them is the novel’s only dialogue and thus greater emphasis is thrown on it. My impression throughout most of the work was that McEwan was running his own version of a Turing Test (whether you can tell the difference between a human and a robot mind) on the reader and that one – or even both – of Charlie and Miranda were also (earlier prototype) robots. This is not the case – but it’s as if McEwan has been unable to write dialogue between humans and robots at the same time, within the same novel, as between humans. It might well be that one of the problems of robots and humans living side-by-side turns out to be that dialogue does become stilted, but this doesn’t appear to be one of McEwan’s themes. Consequently, this leaves behind it the question that the dialogue is, disappointingly, awkwardly constructed.

Machines Like Me is a profound, uneasy and ultimately rather disturbing novel which thus fits rather well within McEwan’s 45-year canon concerning human beings in some way out of control. The questions that it raises are real and need to be confronted the closer we get to situations in which robots take a greater role in our actual everyday lives as opposed to simply in the manufacture of the products we consume. Autonomous driving (and the use of piloting software in aeroplanes) is a very real example of this, as indeed is the use of algorithms whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Whether we have the minds capable of producing answers to them – in government or in society more broadly – is an open question.

Huawei – the UK malaise and what can be done about it

My spring 2020 column for BECTU, the union for creative ambition within Prospect, addressed some of the issues behind the January announcement in the government’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review.

You can read that post directly below, or via the separate page link over on the left, but it has now been superseded by yesterday’s announcement that Huawei equipment must be removed from telecoms networks in the UK by 2027. This stems from fresh advice from the National Cyber Security Centre that it could:

No longer offer sufficient assurance that the risks arising from the use of such post-sanction manufactured equipment can be mitigated (para. 18).

What has changed in the meantime is that the US, in reaction not least (although clearly not only) to the UK’s decision in January, decided in May to block Huawei from buying semi-conductors made by US manufacturers – this is the sanction to which the NCSC refers. The critical importance of this in yesterday’s decision is recognised by the NCSC in the title of its collection of pages on the subject. As neatly explained by Gordon Corera in his interview for the BBC’s Newscast (the news item, with three different interlocutors, covers most of the programme starting from 03:45; but see, in particular, Corera’s segment starting from 6.00), what this essentially means is that, firstly, Huawei needs to find a new source of semi-conductors; and, secondly, that the UK’s intelligence services, which examines Huawei’s equipment regularly, would as a result not be able to guarantee they could give the equipment the same security vetting.

I’m by no means a technical expert, so take this with the requisite amount of salt: but I simply don’t buy this as an explanation. The notion that the UK’s intelligence services are unable to investigate the security of alternative (non-US) sources of semi-conductors, as a part of their regular examination of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s communications equipment, and then to vet their use, appears on the face of it to be an extraordinarily lazy, sloppy claim entirely unworthy of the men and women in the NCSC. But, like I say, I’m no expert here.

There are, of course, many reasons to be careful of dealings with China, new security law in Hong Kong and its internment of Uighur Muslims (China says that the camps are closed, former detainees having ‘graduated’) being but two.

What the decision does do, of course, is tie the UK (now ‘liberated’ from membership of the European Union) very firmly into the US orbit, and quite specifically a Trumpian view of the world. Whatever the technical and security aspects of the decision, such a decision is highly favourable to Trump and the UK has thus been heavily leaned on, Trump’s self-congratulatory pleasure at the decision doing nothing to minimise such a conclusion. It couldn’t be clearer, at this point in the UK’s history, as to where this country’s political elites see its future, regardless of the likelihood of Trump losing the forthcoming election and US foreign policy changing as a result. China has reacted angrily, foreshadowing ‘public and painful retaliation’ as a means of preventing China from being seen to have been bullied. At this point, I’m very much reminded very much of this wonderful cartoon, copyright of the New Zealand Herald:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EbnRsjQXkAEuqjl?format=jpg&name=900x900

Cartoon by Guy Body, NZH cartoonist.

And, once China has done for us, we’re likely to find the US agricultural industry next donning the guise of Uncle Sam.

Politics apart, the roots of the malaise in which the UK has now come to find itself, as a consequence of a decision which is likely to put back the broadband connectivity timetable, not least in rural and small towns, can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, as my colleague Keith pointed out back in January. Decades-long reliance on ‘the market’, on privatisation and on an abandonment of industry and long-term investment in favour of profit-taking has left the UK exactly the sort of state which is not only reliant on the cheapness of foreign goods but which has come to see price as the ultimate determinant of decision-making. Be in no mistake, whatever the quality or advantages of Huawei kit, this country’s telecoms firms are using it because it is the cheapest around – as a result  not least of extensive R&D investment by the Chinese government – and because its deployment therefore maximises the return to shareholders.

Indeed, telecoms companies are now faced with greater costs as a result, not so much in having to strip out kit because the likelihood is that much of this is likely to have been replaced by 2027 anyway as a part of the continual upgrading of the network, but in terms of the likely greater expense that a removal of one of the three major players will entail, as Rory Cellan-Jones goes on to explain in his contribution to Newscast (from 11.40 and see, in particular, from 15.00). Nokia and Ericsson were already more expensive; they may yet get more so as a result of the narrower telecoms equipment supply market the exclusion of Huawei means. On top of this, there is the impact of the likely post-Brexit lack of a deal on trade in goods with the EU, judging by the current state of negotiations, as well as the continuing decline in the exchange rate (the £ has slipped by 6.2% against the euro since 1 January alone, standing today at just €1.10).

The decision raises a substantial number of policy questions, chief among which would appear to be these.

Firstly, there is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which gives private companies from one signatory state the right to sue governments of another when policy changes. This has a controversial history and was the cause of the EU (eventually) dropping negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade deal. The failure of the EU to tie up many free trade deals was, of course, one of the arguments mounted against it by Brexiteers, though we should note the involvement of trade unions and other civil society actors in persuading the European Parliament to put pressure on the Commission to drop the deal. The US (inevitably) is a fan of ISDS and we’re thus likely to see it included in US demands of the UK as part of a free trade deal. Representatives, activists and negotiators need to be prepared for that. In this context, China’s open question as to whether the UK can ‘Provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries‘ raises substantial, and reverberative, questions.

Secondly, BT reckons that the additional costs of this decision can be absorbed within its estimates of the cost of the original January decision (£500m). That may or may turn out to be so – it looks somewhat optimistic – but, equally, BT is not the only telecoms company. The potential costs of £6.8bn identified by Mobile UK in April last year look geared towards a somewhat different set of circumstances, but costs there will be. It is extremely unlikely that we will see UK companies sue the UK government for a change in policy affecting the climate of business decisions, in a kind of internal ISDS, but there will, instead, be substantial lobbying for other mechanisms under which these additional costs can somehow be recouped (in terms of forbearances on network roll-out, more favourable terms for investment, etc.). Those costs will, therefore, be born in the end by UK citizens.

Thirdly, and going back to the reasons why UK telecoms companies find themselves in the position of buying Huawei kit, there is the interesting context of the UK’s industrial policy. Non-existent since the time of Thatcher, which has seen all manner of technological companies either fail or sold off ahead of their time, from Marconi to ARM Holdings, while the UK government stood on the sidelines preaching about ‘the market’, industry policy seems to have gained a new focus. In this light, the publication last week of a policy paper on the UK’s Research and Development Roadmap looks like a step forward. This is, of course, Cummings’s grand plan. A commitment to spending £1.5bn more on R&D each year on average, taking the total to £22bn by 2024/25, to make the post-Brexit UK a global centre for science and innovation, certainly looks ambitious, not least in the face of governments’ deliberate act of vandalism in running down engagement in such areas and their encouragement of a privatised, share option focus to the rewards which such innovation ought to bring.

Now, this blog is no fan of Dominic Cummings, as readers might well be aware. But there is at least significant potential in this, not least in terms of establishing a route out of the malaise into which the lack of industrial policy has led us. There are questions that arise, including the extent to which public sector money can generate further private sector investment as well as, most critically, the ways in which this can generate, in non-military areas, a sustainable, zero carbon economy. The question of collaboration, across Europe, is also critically important to such a vision.

But what is also important is the question of ownership and the retention in the public sector, for the long-term benefit of everyone in this country, of what has been generated by public money. Capitalism, based as it is on inequality and exploitation, cannot generate a green economy nor, in the current context, a recovery which is geared towards sustainability. That needs planning and design, improved democracy, and it implies a key role for the public sector in the launch of a Green Recovery Act for which Common Wealth, a think tank supported, among others, by the Communication Workers Union and the Trades Union Congress, has recently called. Organisationally, it means democratising the workplace so that everyone has a stake in, and shares, the wealth that their labour is creating.

This is probably an issue which is not on Cummings’s horizon nor that more widely of the party actually in government, but it needs to be. The focus on short-term profit, and the focus on the supposed primacy of the private sector, have both had their day.

The route out of any malaise is – as with any pit – firstly to stop digging; and then to turn attention to thinking on how to build a ladder. If the Huawei decision means that we have indeed now stopped digging – and that is a big ‘if’ – it may be that the Roadmap, allied to a Green Recovery Act, provide some of the rungs of the ladder. Ultimately, however, we can’t build a new, bottom-up industry policy which puts right the problems ever since the Thatcher revolution without addressing that key question of ownership.

Edit 16 July: Worth noting in the context of the security concerns over Huawei that the European Court of Justice has this morning struck down the EU’s ‘privacy shield’ arrangement with the US on the grounds that US surveillance of data transferred to its territory (e.g. by Facebook) is ‘not limited to what is strictly necessary’ – i.e. that US data surveillance of communications is over-obtrusive.

The Huawei controversy – a symptom of a deep malaise

This is the text of my spring 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Note that some of the most recent developments in this story, including the ban on the use of Huawei kit, announced in the Commons yesterday, are now covered in a separate post above.

At the end of January, the government made its long-awaited decision on the third aspect of its Telecoms Supply Chain Review – addressing the security challenges posed by using network infrastructure supplied by so-called high-risk vendors.

Chinese company Huawei’s equipment will be allowed to account for 35% of kit used in the non-core part of the UK’s 5G network, despite pressure from US president Donald Trump to block the firm altogether. This includes being banned from supplying kit to “sensitive parts” of the network and excluded from areas near military bases and nuclear sites.

Huawei is not the only vendor of telecoms equipment regarded as “high-risk” – so, too, is ZTE, also Chinese. But it is the only one for which the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has a mitigation strategy designed to manage the risks raised by operators choosing to use Huawei equipment.

Prospect has members in Huawei and we will continue to articulate their interests as the outcomes of the review are worked through.

The details of the decision have been well-publicised. Essentially, they boil down to first, the desirability of the equipment of “high-risk” vendors being embedded in the communications networks on which we increasingly depend; and second, the problems posed by one equipment supplier coming to a position of market dominance.

Both represent different aspects of the risks in relation to Huawei; but I want to focus on the second.

A blog post by Dr Ian Levy, NCSC technical director, and published as a part of the package of materials released at the time of the review, is key.

Dr Levy acknowledges that “the market is broken”, for reasons due predominantly to low margins at a time of high research and development (R&D) demands.

Prospect has been banging this particular drum for years and it is good to see this being recognised, at least in the equipment supply segment of the communications sector.

The solutions to which the review is directed are, at heart, a new test lab to de-risk the costs of market entry, allied to the government working with industry, and internationally, to increase the extent to which equipment from different vendors can be used seamlessly. Allied to this are questions of spectrum management and intellectual property.

All the above needs to happen, but also encouraging new market entrants, and facilitating market entry for those suppliers not currently operating here. However, this is a (very) long-term objective, so other solutions also need also to be considered.

There are few operators currently supplying the UK market. Nokia and Ericsson are the two most likely alternatives.

But they are already more expensive and, should there be no Brexit deal on goods, the cost differential after 31 December 2020 will rise further.

BT, whose compliance bill for limiting Huawei equipment is estimated by the company itself at £500m, may as a consequence face greater exposure in relation to costs.

Furthermore, the same problems are likely to arise in the future on batteries for electric cars. There are few operators of scale able to supply electric batteries at European level and, globally, those that are? Well, they’re Chinese, not least as a result of that government’s extensive backing for R&D.

We are beginning to reap what we have sown from our decades-long reliance on the market, privatisation and an emphasis in communications on price competition. The question that remains is how far the UK government is prepared to go to support the levels of R&D that “global Britain” will surely require.

Change your mindset – not your handset

Here’s my winter 2019 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect, which organises managers and professionals right across the UK. This was my fourth column for the union and, as always, the full column is available only to members – you can join right here and indeed so you should.

In it, I look at the sustainability of mobile handsets within the context of the industry’s two-year, contract-based replacement cycle and the environmental arguments behind why this should be extended. Note that I have slightly updated this with a couple more links.

The frequency with which we replace our mobile handsets – what the industry calls ‘handset replacement cycles’ – continues to lengthen.

Evidence suggests that consumers are seeing value in keeping their devices beyond the two-year timeframe which the industry has seen as standard in recent years.

Forecaster Gartner recently predicted that worldwide sales of smartphones will drop by 3.2% in 2019 – apparently the largest decline in shipments ever experienced.

If this is true, it will come as news to Huawei, which shipped 200 million smartphones in 2019 some 64 days earlier than it did in 2018.

And Apple has just increased production of its new iPhone 11 models by up to 8m units (about 10%). However, the company’s initial conservatism over production levels means that the increase takes it ahead of 2018 production levels by a much smaller amount.

5G to the rescue

5G is expected to rescue manufacturers in 2020 and will bring a return to growth in the market. This is one reason why the industry is continuing to talk up 5G technology as ‘transformational’.

But it does seem that 5G will facilitate some genuine breakthroughs, including:

  • much faster access speeds
  • extremely low levels of latency – the delay between sending and receiving information; this will encourage the development of connected self-driving cars
  • extremely low power consumption
  • greater connectivity, which will be required if the internet of things – the ability of your fridge to engage with your grocer of choice – is to take off.

Low power consumption, albeit within an energy market that will still grow as a result of new uses, has to be a good thing.

But, returning to mobile handsets, the question is ‘How often do we need to replace our handsets?’

Climate cost of short lifespan products

The European Environmental Bureau – a network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe – recently released a report on the climate impact of short-lifespan consumer products, including smartphones, and drew attention to the benefits of making such products more durable.

The study said that the average lifespan of a smartphone, whose production has the largest climate impact of all the consumer products studied, is just three years. Extending this to four years would save more than 2 million tonnes of emissions (CO2eq).

EEB argues that the study is ‘further proof’ that Europe’s climate obligations cannot be met without addressing our production and consumption patterns, which are based on the disposability mindset of the wider consumer electronics industry.

EEB says smartphones need to have longer lifespans and be more easily repaired when they break in order to minimise the climate impact of the production of new handsets.

The study concludes that it is hard to assess if manufacturers build obsolescence into their products. But the number of consumers who are replacing, rather than repairing, defective products is growing.

Right to repair law won’t cover mobile handsets

A new EU law on ecodesign, seeking to facilitate a right to repair and part of a much broader approach to sustainability and the circular economy, will help here although unfortunately it does not extend to mobile handsets (Edit: though this may be changing both for mobile handsets as well as for other electronic devices).

So, the next time your two-year mobile phone contract comes up, ask yourself whether you really need a new handset or whether you can make do with the old one for a bit longer (and save yourself some money in the process).

Rebelling against the disposability of mobile handsets might be but a small act on behalf of the planet – but it is an act.

Facial recognition technology: a personal story

A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)

So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.

Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.

This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.

The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).

‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.

‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’

This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.

Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.

Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.

Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.

‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’

And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.

Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’

A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.

Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)

As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.

Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:

1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.

2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.

3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.

Time for a re-think, HAA?