Back home in one of the bars in my local, there was no women’s toilet (this was the mid-80s). The few women who did frequent the smoke room, had to go outside, in all kinds of weather, to the single female toilet in the other bar. At the same time an old school down the road still had signs showing the separate boys’ and girls’ entrances. Society remains divided in many ways, not only in gender. One of the most obvious, yet at the same time, nefarious, regards consumer preference.
Platforms (or are they publishers?), such as Facebook and Twitter, provide their services for free on the basis that its users give away great amounts of personal information. So we now have individual profiling to “guide” us in our purchase choices. You know how it works; you may have been browsing holidays online, then when searching a news item for example, adverts pop up with specific holiday options. Business relies on stereotypes and certainty; such a social contract gives them that. So whilst there is a feeling that the Internet enables free expression, the template-nature of such social media platforms constrains heterogeneity. One of the early pioneers of web development and now critic of its outcomes, Jaron Lanier believes: “The basic problem is that web 2.0 tools are not supportive of democracy by design. They are tools designed to gather spy-agency-like data in a seductive way, first and foremost, but as a side effect they tend to provide software support for mob-like phenomena.”
In the service sector, this translates into splicing customers in different ways according to the data gathered. We are all valued by them, it’s just some are more valued than others – they would claim it is just differently. For example, supermarkets use terms such as “everyday value” or ‘basics’ ranges, to the more ‘upper’ ‘taste the difference’ & ‘you’ve never had it so good’ products. Travel firms have always done such stratification, albeit quite basically – first & second class, or economy, business, first class when it comes to flying.
Simon Armitage’s satirical poem, “Thank you for Waiting”, takes this type of consumer division to another level. “Thank you for waiting. Accredited Beautiful People/may now board, plus any gentlemen carrying a copy/of this month’s Cigar Aficionado magazine, plus subscribers/to our Red Diamond, Black Opal or Blue Garnet promotion.” Throughout he uses the metaphor of precious, and not-so precious metals and other natural resources, to show the ridiculous nature of our present day consumer society, where status is defined by possessions. “Also welcome at this time are passengers talking loudly/into cellphone headsets about recently completed share deals/property acquisitions and aggressive takeovers.” Then finally, we reach the bottom of the pile: “Passengers either partially or wholly dependent on welfare/or kindness, please have your travel coupons validated/at the Quarantine Desk.” A poem that is funny but makes you angry at the same time. – that’ll do. And remember it’s your choice.
Simon Armitage is Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, and in 2015 was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He has written many collections of poetry and translations, as well as plays, essays and novels. His latest collection is The Unaccompanied, published by Faber. And I owe him a pint for this poem.
Thank You for Waiting
At this moment in time we’d like to invite
First Class passengers only to board the aircraft.
Thank you for waiting. We now extend our invitation
to Exclusive, Superior, Privilege and Excelsior members,
followed by triple, double and single Platinum members,
followed by Gold and Silver Card members,
followed by Pearl and Coral Club members.
Military personnel in uniform may also board at this time.
Thank you for waiting. We now invite
Bronze Alliance Members and passengers enrolled
in our Rare Earth Metals Points and Reward Scheme
to come forward, and thank you for waiting.
Thank you for waiting. Accredited Beautiful People
may now board, plus any gentleman carrying a copy
of this month’s Cigar Aficionado magazine, plus subscribers
to our Red Diamond, Black Opal or Blue Garnet promotion.
We also welcome Sapphire, Ruby and Emerald members
at this time, followed by Amethyst, Onyx, Obsidian, Jet,
Topaz and Quartz members. Priority Lane customers,
Fast Track customers, Chosen Elite customers,
Preferred Access customers and First Among Equals customers
may also now board.
On production of a valid receipt travellers of elegance and style
wearing designer and/or hand-tailored clothing
to a minimum value of ten thousand US dollars may now board;
passengers in possession of items of jewellery
(including wristwatches) with a retail purchase price
greater than the average annual salary
of a mid-career high school teacher are also welcome to board.
Also welcome at this time are passengers talking loudly
into cellphone headsets about recently completed share deals
property acquisitions and aggressive takeovers,
plus hedge fund managers with proven track records
in the undermining of small-to-medium-sized ambitions.
Passengers in classes Loam, Chalk, Marl and Clay
may also board. Customers who have purchased
our Dignity or Morning Orchid packages
may now collect their sanitised shell suits prior to boarding.
Thank you for waiting.
Mediocre passengers are now invited to board,
followed by passengers lacking business acumen
or genuine leadership potential, followed by people
of little or no consequence, followed by people
operating at a net fiscal loss as people.
Those holding tickets for zones Rust, Mulch, Cardboard,
Puddle and Sand might now want to begin gathering
their tissues and crumbs prior to embarkation.
Passengers either partially or wholly dependent on welfare
or kindness, please have your travel coupons validated
at the Quarantine Desk.
Sweat, Dust, Shoddy, Scurf, Faeces, Chaff, Remnant,
Ash, Pus, Sludge, Clinker, Splinter and Soot;
all you people are now free to board.