Tuesday, 22 March 2011


There was once a Brian Aldiss short story called 'Supercity'. I think it was in the collection 'Space, Time and Nathaniel' but I used to have a lot of his books, now sadly gone.

It's not about a super city. It's one word, with the accent on the second syllable, and describes the act of becoming indispensible through being thoroughly useless.

In the story, a social climber commits a dreadful faux-pas involving a woman and scurries off to hide on some out of the way planet at the back end of nowhere. The planet has nothing and attracts no interest from Earth, a sort of space-age Deadwood Gulch. No oil, no minerals, nothing in the way of scenery, nothing to attract tourists so far off the beaten space-track.

The hero sets about improving his lot by, at first, filling in and returning every single beurocratic form sent from Earth. The pen-pushers are delighted. Nobody on that planet ever bothered returning anything before. They send more forms. He fills them in and sends them back. Then he stops.

The pen-pushers send concerned letters. Is something wrong? Yes, he responds. His entire administration has collapsed under the weight of forms. What he needs is a supercomputer.

Naturally, Earth sends one without question, for the forms are all-important. When it arrives, with technicians, it is discovered that this little planet has no electricity. So a host of engineers arrive to create an electricity generating system. There is no coal or oil. The planet surface is too smooth for any hope of hydro-electric. No nuclear sources to hand. In all this, the planet is getting massive income from all these visitors and the longer they fail to achieve their objectives, the richer it gets. I can't remember how they managed to generate electricity in the end, but it all resulted in a large flow of cash from Earth to Planet Deadwood.

All because of forms. Our system will do anything for forms.

In my last regular employment, there were time sheets. These had to be filled in in 15-minute increments. Also, there were forms relating to how much teaching, research, consultancy, holidays etc I took, all of which were already detailed on the timesheets and indeed in my contract. Teaching was also recorded on the class timetables which were centrally generated. Mine always matched up perfectly because I'd spend a day a year filling them all in and sending them out when requested for the rest of the year. What I was actually doing was never recorded. What I was supposed to be doing was recorded perfectly.

Nobody ever questioned this. The forms arrived, someone typed them into a computer, they matched, box ticked, job done.

I was, in effect, invisible to admin. No anomaly ever cropped up under my name. They'd put the forms in the computer and I was gone. Filed and forgotten. Those who tried to fill the forms honestly always made mistakes and always had to answer questions about data mismatches.

Once you understand the way the forms work, you can use them to your advantage. Nobody outside the incredibly Vogon world of the administrators gives two hoots about the forms but to admin, they are the very stuff of life. An incorrectly filled form is terror beyond comprehension to them. In Brian Aldiss's story, the hero uses forms to turn his outpost into a wealthy world. I used them to disappear into admin's computers.

On Nothing2Declare, guest poster SBC used the strict application of forms to take revenge on a vengeful boss.

Forms don't matter to me but to all levels of administration, they matter a lot. It's worth looking into the tedious world of forms because if you don't know how they work, you can be trapped by them.

If you do, you can set traps of your own.


Bill Sticker said...

I remember that cute little tale about the new governor of the planet 'Acrostic'. One of my favourite Aldiss short stories.

Roue le Jour said...

I'm reminded of that wonderful quote from Betty White in Lake Placid when the sheriff informs her he has no record of her husband's death. She replies, in a voice dripping with irony, "Well, I'm sorry. Incomplete records haunt me so."

smokervoter said...

It all started with the scribes. Some people made history whilst others followed them around recording what they did on their little clay tablets. In my Financial Analysis courses we learned that roughly 5% of production costs involved General Administration (box ticking). Now it's 95%. It's no wonder the Western economies are so screwed up.

Bankrupt California actually thinks that studying Toenail Nicotine levels in smokers is some kind of growth industry. They're proposing a new California cigarette tax:

Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended the press conference announcing the new cigarette tax revenue effort. "The California Cancer Research Act will spur job creation at the state's leading cancer research centers."

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