I don’t know whether it’s a peculiarly British thing, or whether it’s something that’s becoming more common elsewhere too, but in recent times it seems to me that we’re seeing an increase in the number of official warnings, alerts and advisories for things that we either wouldn’t have worried about all that much in the first place or are a simple matter of common sense, but are suddenly apparently now essential for our continuing health and wellbeing.
In less risk averse times, warnings were pretty straightforward, easy to understand affairs, that clearly had our interests at heart: Don’t talk to strangers; don’t stroke strange dogs; don’t eat yellow snow, and so on. Today however, things have become rather more complicated – and you get the impression that such measures are often purely in place only from fear of lawsuits, criticism and accusations of failure to look after society. Here in Britopia, these days we now apparently need terrorism threat levels, wind, rain, snow, heat, and flood warnings, air quality alerts and goodness knows what else the authorities decide to come up with in order to discharge their duty of care to society in general. Frankly, most – if not all of it – is total codswallop!
To take a current example: When this post was written last week, the following day, according to every news source in the country, we were facing an ‘Amber’ snow warning. I didn’t have the faintest idea what that means, and to be honest, even now it’s all history, I still don’t. Does it mean that the snow due to fall is going to be of a particularly specific orange hue? Worse still, some parts of the country were on yellow alert… And, thanks to my childhood memories, I’m absolutely sure that I really don’t want to be caught up in a blizzard of yellow snow! But, is amber snow better, or worse than yellow? I really don’t know.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong, and we’re talking the same sort of alerts they have in Star Trek – the sort that come with klaxons and flashing lights, and are frequently followed by crew members violently throwing themselves around the bridge, whilst desperately trying to arm photon torpedoes and completely failing to ask the rather obvious question, ‘why the hell are the ship’s doctor and engineer on the Bridge at a time when they really should be at their proper posts?’
The trouble is, just randomly throwing out these alerts with no real frame of reference is not going to help me understand the situation at all. If they’re saying that a couple of inches of snow is Amber and – I kid you not – potentially life threatening – then what about those poor buggers in Canada and Siberia who have to contend with several feet of snow at near enough absolute zero… What the hell alert level are they at? Neon purple with dayglo orange stripes? And how exactly does an Amber snow alert correlate with an Amber flood alert, or a ‘Significant’ influenza warning? Are they cross-compatible, or do they follow their own arcane rules? Nobody, in my entire lifetime, has explained these things to me – and, to be absolutely honest, I’ve never needed government advice about snowy weather anyway: I’ve always followed the same routine – look at the weather forecast, and if it’s snow, look out of the window, at which point I make a decision… Is it too deep/blizzardy/scary to go out in, or not?
Helpfully, the news agencies were also bestowing little nuggets of information supposedly in an effort to assist: Some parts of the country, apparently, were to be as cold as Norway. Well, that’s helpful… I’ll just jump on a plane to Scandinavia to check out the local temperature, so I’ll know whether I’ll need to wear my gloves today! Such ‘useful’ yardsticks that are frequently cited to assist in our comprehension are useless in most contexts – if I know what average temperatures in Norway at this time of year generally are, then great, but I – along with most of the UK population – haven’t a clue. I assume Norwegian February is cold, but for all I know, it could be sub-tropical bikini weather! We use these measures as a means of visualising abstract concepts, but we’re not terribly good at abstraction, actually. Unless you really have a good idea of the height of Nelson’s Column, the length of of a double-decker bus, the weight of an elephant, the size of Wembley Stadium, Wales or Wisconsin, it’s not going to help you much at all – I only know two of those things, and I consider myself to be both pretty well-informed and pretty abstract!
My biggest argument against such arbitrary alerts is that they’re invariably accompanied by a full explanation of the prevailing conditions anyway. Who cares if the heat merits a Yellow alert, if it’s accompanied by a two-page article describing the horrors that will accompany it? The warning is completely superfluous. Plus, of course, the average human being is pretty capable of following my own rationale of looking out of the window and concluding that it is both cold, and the snow is too deep to safely drive in.
I think that the real world could learn something from the way SL gives its ‘unscheduled maintenance’ notices. Having attempted to log in seventy three times, been unable to get dressed, and can only see the world in battleship grey, we readily conclude that something is badly wrong. Sure enough, an hour or so later, the Lab dutifully produce an Unscheduled Maintenance notice, telling us what we already know – but at least we now know that they know, and are presumably doing all they can to fix things, behind the scenes. They’ll also tag on an old-fashioned warning to the notice – don’t rez ‘no copy’ stuff; don’t build stuff; don’t buy stuff – all common sense, but sound, safe advice. They won’t pretend to know when things will be fixed, but the general rule is that when things get back to normal, it’s OK.
Now that’s the kind of warning I can relate to – no daft alerts, flags or colour codes, no unnecessary advice, no comparisons or in-depth analysis. It’s simple, straight to the point and readily understood. ‘Something’s broken, we’re fixing it, take precautions’.
I like simple.
Hmm… I’m looking outside the train window, and it’s just started to snow… And, contrary to all warnings, it’s white!
The creeping cold has fingers
That caress without permission
And mystic crystal snowdrops
Only aggravate the condition
Lindisfarne – Winter Song