When someone comes to write a cultural history of Britain, post-Thatcher, they should dedicate a chapter to data collection. The political arguments for and against surveillance are well rehearsed, with the Home Office on one side and Henry Porter on the other. The economic arguments for and against back office restructuring and knowledge management technologies are equally well rehearsed. But none of these analyses quite manages to explain why the production of data, evidence, a trace occupies such a prominent place in our contemporary national psyche. This is a cultural issue.
This sign adorns the flapjack tray of Costa coffee in Paddington Station. The normalisation of receipts in the last two years is, frankly, an irritation. It introduces a new way of giving change, where the coins are placed in the customers hand on top of a small piece of paper, which is then unavoidably trapped there beneath the weight of the money. "Here's your money - and in case you're wondering, yes this did just happen".
I've developed an expert way of then withdrawing my hand with the money in it, but ejecting the receipt back onto the counter with my thumb (where it sits along with the dozens of other little data trails that customers have dumped there).
This trend's been growing for years, gradually engulfing newspapers, sandwiches, beer and all the various other sub £5 items that used to be traded less accountably. Costa appear to have now normalised it further. To bemoan this politically would be fairly absurd, but I'm not doing this (although I do wonder how much it is explicable in terms of management surveillance and distrust of staff: it becomes impossible to keep an order out of the till, if the customer is demanding a receipt).
No, it's the cultural aspects that are strange. We know all about the British love of CCTV, that since the Bulger murder of 1993 has grown from being an anti-crime strategy to something that is adopted as a matter of course. We know that CCTV has long since ceased to be a tool for policing, not least because it's so useless in achieving convictions. The latest London buses use CCTV in the weirdest way yet. A prominent screen on the lower deck constantly plays real time images being recorded by the five or six cameras dotted around the bus. If it were only showing the upper deck, then one could argue that it encourages people to feel safer when they go upstairs late at night; but it also plays back to them pictures of the viewers on the lower deck. The "syn-opticon" indeed. But why?
At a seminar on visualisation in InSIS last week I wondered whether one could analyse such things in terms of the multiple justifications on which they rest (a la this theoretical favourite of mine). When is something justified as 'surveillance', when as 'efficient', when as 'aesthetic', and when does it collapse into pure voyeurism? I suggested here that often there is slippage between one justification for digitisation and another, such that democratic and voyeuristic arguments for transparency can morph into one another.
Sometimes justification gives way to sheer existentialism. Maybe the British need their data-gatherers in the same way that Estrago and Vladimir need each other in Waiting for Godot: simply to prove that they still exist. Maybe there are some Costa customers who take comfort in the fact that their coffee at 10.21 06:09:2009 is a matter of record, not because it is an alibi for a crime or because it is tax deductible, but because it is something to cling to. And maybe those TVs on buses are simply there to say "look - here you are." (It could be a situationist prank, aimed at sending people on their way with a nauseous sense of the vacuity of urban life, which eventually spills over into riotting).
Culturally, I think the normalisation of receipts is a shame, insofar as it effects the character of urban commerce. In the language of Michel Callon, economic exchange always 'overflows' its calculative devices, of money and accounting. There is always something not entirely accounted for, which the economist calls an 'externality', and the rest of us call 'the social bit'. Buying a coffee is a messy business, because the pleasure (or pain) of interacting with a stranger in a cafe always exceeds the calculations at the heart of the exchange. One of the joys of New York, and of its bars in particular, is the very shakey attitude to calculation and accounting that goes on - the tills are ancient mechanical things, the tips pile up haphazardly all over the place, the drinks are not measured and the free ones not counted. The effort to eliminate 'the social' from the calculated exchange is much less severe.
By contrast, to normalise receipts in cafes or bars is to strive for the perfect, 'disembedded' clean exchange, of the liberal-economic imaginary. It depersonalises the interaction and substitutes data for memory. It declares the exchange over, with nothing more owed by either party. Frankly, this is futile, as exchanges always leak into society. Marcel Mauss's lesson is that the perfect, calculated market exchange is as unrealisable as the perfect, uncalculated gift - actual, lived economic experience sits on a spectrum between these two poles, with the uncalculated and the calcuated parts entangled. But receipts wrestle economistically against this fact, impoverishing both the producer and the consumer of a coffee.