Slavery in the Modern Commercial World

June 2, 2011

Slave – a person legally owned by another and having no freedom of action, according to the DeliveryDemon’s dictionary. The slave formed part of the wealth of the master, and was often used to generate more wealth. Supposedly slavery has been outlawed in most areas of the modern world, but is this true, or has it been replaced by a more subtle equivalent?

Suppose a company is sold in its entirety, or decides to sell some or all of its book of business. You, the customer, can be sold as part of that deal irrespective of whether you would choose to deal with the buying company. If you have a long term contract for a service such as utility supply, it is highly unlikely that any such sale will trigger a get-out clause in your contract. But the selling company is making money by selling you.

If your employer is sold, again you have no freedom of action. Some roles may be made redundant, others retained. If you occupy a retained role which is unchanged by the takeover you have no right to redundancy, not even if the new employer is one you might never have chosen to work for. Again the seller makes money by selling you.

The bureaucracy collects data on its citizens. Should you be born, or marry, divorce, or die, it becomes a matter of record and those personal details can be sold. Should you become a company director, your details may be sold. Should you decide to exercise your right to vote, your details will be sold unless you opt out, and that doesn’t provide a 100% guarantee. If you require hospital treatment, the consent form hides a proviso that your details will be passed on to a commercial benchmarking organisation called Dr Foster. Yes, our bureaucracy is selling our personal information.

Try being economically active, and it’s no longer a matter of exchanging currency for goods. The seller will move heaven and earth to acquire as much data as they can about you in order to boost their profits. We have become so used to loyalty cards we no longer think of how these little plastic objects are used to capture our likes and dislikes so that we can be targeted with marketing. Buying car insurance? Try doing that without giving away details of your house insurance. Buy a one-off gift online from Mothercare for a friend’s new baby and you have to set up an account which demands a much wider range of details than are needed for the transaction. Set up an Amazon account and every time you log in your transaction history is used to try and make you buy Amazon’s own products and that of the many organisations which use Amazon as a trading platform. Buy an iPhone and you give Apple a record of your movements.

Organisations tend to justify the commercial extraction of your data by saying it is used to give you a better shopping experience. In the DeliveryDemon’s experience, most people are capable of making their own shopping decisions. And targeted marketing models are usually based on such unsophisticated assumptions that random recommendations may well be as effective as their targeted suggestions. The only exception the DeliveryDemon has noticed is in the case of small specialist organisations whose principals have a great deal in common with their customer base.

So who’s making money out of you? And are they paying you for the value they get from you?

Delivering Spurious Accuracy, Demanding Constant Attention

November 10, 2009

The DeliveryDemon did a double-take. The hospital receptionist had actually offered a follow-up appointment time of 8.48 a.m. Not 8.45, not 8.50, 8.48 precisely!

Great efforts were made to get the patient to hospital for the prescribed minute. As the seconds clicked by, the DeliveryDemon gazed at the white blocks on the bilious yellow screen, idly wondering whether the developers were aware that the inability to distinguish between yellow and white is a common form of colour blindness. The clock ticked over to 8.48…… Nothing happened! At 8.55 the appointment pinged up for its allotted 3 seconds then disappeared into the ether, never to re-appear.

There is a huge disconnect between the design of this system and practical reality. The underlying driver may well be a target of fitting 5 x 12 minute appointments into the hour, but that 12 minutes is an average. Pinning appointments to an exact minute means that overruns delay subsequent appointment, but nothing is gained if an appointment finishes early – an approach which increases the likelihood of targets being missed. It also invites mockery.

The mechanism for summoning patients is equally poorly conceived. It relies on the assumption that patients gaze non-stop at the single screen, waiting for their numbers to flash up for those 3 short seconds. In reality, pillars obscure the screen from some seats, and passers-by may obscure it from any position. The area, lacking sound absorption, is noisy, so any audio cue is lost. A patient with poor eyesight may need to move closer to the high-mounted screen to read it, and age or infirmity would make those 3 seconds of visibility completely inadequate. And of course real patients are chatting, reading newpapers, watching the world go by, as the clock edges beyond the allotted minutes of their appointments. That sickly yellow screen is by no means the cynosure of all eyes.

Part of the DeliveryDemon wanted to laugh at the absence of basic common sense in the design. The reason she is not still in giggling thrall to those ridiculous flaws is the context. This was an NHS hospital. Huge sums of taxpayers’ hard-earned money went into the creation of the system. The appalling design is unlikely to result in patient fatality, but the blatant absence of commonsense in a patient-facing system must call into question the quality of other systems which are life-critical.

Delivering Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

March 19, 2009

DeliveryDemon was more than slightly incensed to receive from the local MP a letter which delivered a blast of breathtaking cynicism with a nasty aftertaste of unsubtle manipulativeness.


There’s a proposal to resite the outpatient facility of a hospital in the area, currently based in a town with a population of 50,000. It’s not being moved to another nearby town with a population of 46,000. No, it’s being moved to a much smaller town, population 9,000. This for a service used by older people, disabled people, ill people, people who may be unable to drive. This in an area with limited public transport outside the main population centres. Nothing in the letter to say why the MP supports this particular move, just a statement that the hospital deems it to be best for patients. Knowing the quality of service delivered by this particular hospital, the DeliveryDemon thinks this very statement is a good reason to question the decision, but that’s another story.


Anyway, the letter delivers a couple of paragraphs of unsubstantiated benefit claims followed by a tirade about political bias with a claim that only one view can be the right one and a total absence of any explanation of why the balance of benefits would favour the MP’s preferred option. The text is littered with ‘what do you think?’ but guess what options are offered in the poll at the end. Choose between the good of the patient and political pressure. In other words, either you agree with the MP or you are in favour of evil, underhand politicking. No room for dissent there.


Let’s step back from the issue of the hospital and look at the intended payload of this communication. No doubt Phil Hope would like to present to the local planning committee an interpretation of poll results showing that, of those who voted, the majority were in favour of his preferred option. Well, it’s a convenient vehicle for those in favour of the proposal to cast a vote in support of him. It has been lent dubious credibility by being sent to all local voters, and worded in a way which makes it unlikely that anyone not already in favour will vote against it. I refer back to my earlier comment on breathtaking cynicism and unsubtle manipulativeness.


And what is the actual delivery payload when the reader thinks about the letter? Any or all of the following:

  • Annoyance at an MP who thinks that voters are idiots who can be manipulated like this, and who thinks that it’s alright to do so
  • Annoyance at the waste of taxpayers’ money and the creation of landfill fodder in the form of thousands of pages and envelopes of expensive House of Commons stationery
  • Suspicion about the validity of the proposal
  • Distrust of the letter’s signatory
  • An inclination to question something which might otherwise have been of only passing interest.

This MP has made a massive mistake in ignoring the fact that successful delivery of a communication can only be measured in the context of the perception of the recipient. The implied message in his communication is completely at odds with what he intended. And that brings us to honesty. Successful delivery happens when deliverer and recipient have a shared view of what is to be delivered. Try and slip in something different from what you’re claiming to deliver and you’ll destroy the recipient’s trust. Honesty is the only basis for a strong relationship.