A Tech Too Far

Always read the fine print. Actually, scrap that. Don’t bother. You don’t read it. I don’t read it. We all want facebook on our phones. And whatsapp. And Instagram. These things are tools of the modern age. These services provide that “connectivity” that people have been lauding. And besides, if you don’t agree with sharing your pictures, snippets of your voice picked up by microphone and data on where you live and your viewing habits, well, facebook, Whatsapp and instagram don’t want you.

No, wait. Go back to the fine print. You can choose to “out” of these options. And it is definitely for the best. Why? Well, let’s have a look.

Andy Jones, who wrote an article on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper titled “Why your social media activity could stop you getting a mortgage” scared the s#!t out of me.

Released today (21st September, 2018), Andy reported that mortgage providers and insurance firms are trialling the use of social media services on people who are seeking their services. No longer will providers request information from banks on your spending habits, but they will look at your viewing history as well.

“Promoting their service, The Online Me, Hello Soda says: “Every time you make a submission for a loan, a house, or a job, someone is vetting your social profiles.” That’s about as comforting as the thought of a stranger standing at the end of your bed.

HMRC, that scourge of the commoner and hero of the super-rich (see upcoming blog) openly says it will “observe, monitor, record and retain internet data” which is available to everyone including “blogs and social networking sites where no privacy settings have been applied.”’

The reason that mortgage lenders and insurance companies plan to do this is because they will better get an insight into your history, your holidays, how you spend your money and so forth. If you are holidaying every month and you’re not rolling in spondulicks then they would bring in a bunch of sun-deprived voyeurs to do a thorough search. When I read that article my immediate thought was: what does my social media say about me?

You see the danger of this now?
Imagine, in a society in the not so distant future, that you go on your annual family holiday and take a picture of the whole lot of you by the pool. And then you get home and apply for home insurance. Your case is decided by someone in an office clicking their way around your facebook profile.

How did they pay for that holiday? Was it with credit? Do they have a credit card? How do they pay that money back? How often? Have they missed any payments? Did they pay for it using nectar points or clubcard points? Let’s look at that image, where did they go? They had their locations settings on when they posted. That’s handy. Spain! Aha, okay. South east Spain. A villa. Aha! Less than five minutes from the sea. On a hilltop. I bet they paid extra for that view. How much was it exactly? Okay, let’s backtrack. Where does this person live? Eastbourne? Hmm… best do a google map search and see what kind of house they have.

If you think I’m dancing with hyperbole, I’m really not. The searches undertaken by the HMRC could “include anything from evidence of lavish spending on faceback to Google Earth pictures proving you have had an extension.” Forget that you paid for that extension with cash that your grandma left you, you have had the extension and that is what matters.

Imagine you wanted to travel the world. You want to have a bunch of adventures and when you get back you want to buy a house. You want life insurance. If something were to happen to you, your partner or the person with their name on your will no longer have to worry that they cannot pay for that house. You will get back from travelling and post a travel album. There you are smiling on top of Kilimanjaro. And an insurance company now has the rights to check out your lifestyle as part of their cover.

Cue the person considering your case, clocking in, sitting at their computer, clicking a few buttons and having access to your profiles.

Ah, they like expensive hikes. Is that jacket North Face? Hmm, that looks like specialist gear to me. Perhaps they spend frivolously. That would have to be taken into consideration.

There you are, arms wide at the top of a cliff, embracing the world with the wind in your hair.

Hmm, what does that say about them? They are after life insurance after all. I’ll put in the report: “likes to take risks”. It’ll likely increase their premiums but it is for the best.

And there you are strapped to another human being as you plummet toward the earth, smiling at the camera, enjoying one of the best, most thrilling and memorable moments you will ever experience.

Okay, wow. Skydiving in New Zealand! I’ll put: “Puts themselves in harm’s way. Likes extreme sports. Higher risk of injury or casualty.”

This is purely speculative, I cannot stress that enough. But I am, however, convinced that insurance companies are becoming more malign in their actions.

In 2016 I purchased insurance for my car. Fire and theft were included. In 2017 I used a comparison site in order to find my next insurer. I found one I liked and went to their page. After answering the questions I was met with that usual five to eight pages that ask you what extras you might like to include in your policy i.e. breakdown cover, jelly-bean scent, you name it. On the first page it asked me if I wanted to include fire and theft for an extra fee. That raises two questions. The first: why was that not included? Second, why are they charging extra for something that should already be included in everyone’s insurance plan?

It is common knowledge that companies are purchasing data. Fintech is a flourishing sector and the more personal it becomes, the more effective it becomes. And the easier it becomes to separate consumers from their money. I’ll be honest, I love when Man-Booker Prize winners are announced. I know that I am probably going to buy the latest winner and probably a couple more authored by the runners-up. If these books have been shortlisted for the most prestigious award in the world of literature…I want them.
That time of the year would be an easy target for advertisers. Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles, it does not matter. I would probably be susceptible.

Let us go back to that annual family holiday. It takes place in the same few weeks every year (as most peoples do considering families are limited to school term times). You have been targeted by a whole bunch of advertisers and marketing companies putting forward things you may or may not need for your holiday. But the fear is that it could get even more personal. If an algorithm can detect brands in the photos you post, you may be directed deals from that brand in the future. Your taste in cars, motorbikes, foods, jewellery, clothes. It can all be used in order to entice people to purchase goods they do not need. But when advertisements are tailor-made around your lifestyle it would become considerably harder to resist.

When I have looked at travel destinations on google, I often get suggestions afterward on places to go and gear to buy on what I recently believed were unconnected pages i.e. pinterest and instagram. This is something that anyone with a social media account experiences day-to-day.

The things that I have mentioned are not some strange conspiracy in which the “establishment” are dominating the world, it is just the future of marketing and risk management. As Rana Foroohar says in the Financial Times post (17th September, 2018) when reporting on a senate meeting regarding fintech, the Treasury “talks approvingly of data sharing among technology companies and big banks to improve efficiency, scale and lower consumer prices.

“The report puts rather less focus on the on the systemic risk and predatory pricing that could emerge if the world’s largest technology companies and the biggest banks on Wall Street share consumer data.”

As mentioned above, this is the possible future of marketing and risk management. But it is marketing and risk management that poses the danger of exceeding a moral boundary.

We are living in an age where the online and the offline world’s perimeters are blurring. We see something funny or something bad and we either tell our friends, or tell the world via a post. Or both. We want to take photos a certain way because we have seen something like it online. We share photos (don’t even get me started on the overkill of parents posting umpteen number of baby pictures) and we share memes. We share life quotes, music videos, book recommendations and generally scream our point of view into what is essentially…storage space. And why do we do it? Because it’s fun.

Maybe it is best that, however, that you pick and choose your data settings wisely. Because fun is not worth painting yourself a target for corporate interest.

The New-build Dilemma

It is official – houses are getting smaller.

Here are a few numbers from an article on the subject by Andrew Ellson and Jedidajah Otte in The Times, 20th August, 2018.

On average:

– Houses are now 20% smaller than in the 1970’s

– Living rooms are 1/3 smaller

– Kitchens are 1/4 smaller

– Bedrooms are 1/5 smaller

The road to purchasing a house is littered with potholes, diversions, dead-ends and dodgy signage. It took myself and my partner a year and a half to save up the deposit needed for a house in our area. And we only managed it because of the charity of my parents letting me live rent free in their house. If my partner and I had been renting, it would have taken us nearly three or four years to save for that deposit. That says a lot about our current culture.

New couples, new families and O.A.P’s looking to upgrade in their later years are buying new houses in new developments. Around Crawley and Horsham alone – where I am based – five new sectors are being added. Thousands of houses and apartments. All of them built smaller than the average residence, and – from myriad conversations I have had with labourers on site – with ever cheaper materials. For example: door frames built from compressed cardboard, plumbing constructed from PVC pipework, fake chimneys made from wood and rendered to look like brickwork. As well as plasterboard walls which would crumble if the PVC breaks or splits – after all PVC is far more brittle than copper and more susceptible to changes in pressure and atmospheric conditions.

New builds are not just smaller but also more expensive than the regular property and they are selling on the notion that, because they are modern, they have a longer lifespan than those built during earlier periods. No previous owners. No degradation. A new space to make a new home.

Space aside there is another issue facing those living in the new build houses and that is one of mental health. Statistically those living in smaller properties are more likely to develop mental health and social issues such as depression and anxiety. In cramped conditions, members of the family cannot get the time on their own that they need, as highlighted by Ben Derbyshire, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects who says that “In a two-bed, four person home there is no space to be on your own except in the lavatory. Humans are social animals but they also need peace, quiet and space for concentration.”

Higher property prices of new builds lead to financial anxieties due to buyers taking out larger mortgages. Combined with smaller living conditions leading to mental health problems the precedent being set by property developers is worrying.

Mental health and social issues after all lead to the most amount of work days missed and account for two of every five visits to G.P’s. The financial demand of the house combined with the house itself causing stress and worry would only create a false economy, would it not?

That is not to say that every new build is small, but with prices already high for smaller dwellings, the costs of larger properties are exponentially more and therefore fall into a price bracket that is often unachievable by those living on the average income. As commentator Tim Montgomerie says: “Inflated house prices owe much to the power of a few major builders to restrict the supply of new homes.” If someone wants to buy a house to call a home, they are at the whim of the prices dictated by developers. If you are a high-earner or in a high earning partnership and have enough money to buy a larger property, well, it turns out money really can buy you happiness.

The saleability of houses in regards to number of rooms is another contentious issue that we face in the United Kingdom. We are one of the only nations that sell properties based on the number of bedrooms that it has. In America and in much of Europe houses are sold on the basis of how many square metres are available. While people within the U.K might be happy in the knowledge that they have bought a three bedroom property, the space inside might not be appropriate for either the family unit, or to provide adequate separation space. After all, many properties advertised to have three bedrooms live up to the promise but space is massively lacking. What are sold as double bedrooms can at best fit a double bed and nothing else. I came across many of these houses when looking for the place we eventually called home.

As property developers squeeze as many houses into an acquired space as possible in order to maximise profits, the government is doing little in the way of putting regulations in place in order to set a decent living standard. Instead the “minimum size standards for new dwellings” as laid down by the government is entirely voluntary. This needs to change. The standards should become policy for all new developments not only for the benefit of the inhabitants but, as pointed out above, for the economy as a whole.

Architecture and proper civic planning can be, and has been, a tool for great change. By giving people space in which they can be part of the family unit and when needed to spend time by themselves. By focusing on creating public spaces in order to eradicate seclusion from one another and by bringing back community centres for children and social clubs for adults.

Due to the neoliberal dogma that the Conservative government subscribe to, projects such as this will simply not take hold. Maximising profits for companies and deregulating the market only weakens the government’s voice in matters of public discourse as corporate interest takes control. Prices will rise, houses will get incrementally smaller so that it is barely noticeable, and the effects on buyers will only be negative as a result.

Is this the way we want to go? Of course not. We need a government that will implement change and stamp policy into place to give people the place, and space, that they deserve.