Jacques Mattheij

technology, coding and business

Life as a Service

I’m not actually a citizen of this country, I’m a subscriber.

I was born on a rainy morning, the 20th of March 1965, 3:15 am on the outskirts of a big European city. There wasn’t much to do for me other than to drink my milk so I’m kind of surprised that I don’t remember the man with the contract that I signed within a few hours of being born. Stupid me. I really shouldn’t have done that. Or did I?

The contract I signed apparently was called ‘Life As A Service’, and I didn’t have a clue to what all those squiggles on the paper meant or I might have held back. Especially the whole subscription bit went completely over my head.

It must have happened that way, I can find no other explanation for the fact that simply by existing I seem to have affirmed my desire to be part of this society that I live in. There are lots of rights that I seem to have acquired simply by virtue of being born, but at the same time I seem to have agreed to a whole slew of obligations. And all that because of a stupid signature - and I wasn’t even of legal age back then.

There was no chance for me to consult with a lawyer whether or not it was wise for me to sign this particular piece of paper. That was pretty dumb on my part but I had not yet wised up to the ways of the world. Get them while they’re young! Of course, my parents all thought it was perfectly normal that I was to be assigned a nationality, a raft of subscriptions and many other attributes simply based on the location where I was born. If I had been born a few hundred kilometers to the North, South, East or West the situation would have been completely different! It’s not as if I had any say in where I wanted to be born - or if I wanted to be born at all for that matter! But now that it had happened chance dicated a large number of facts about me which I would not be able to change easily or even at all.

In contract law there is such a thing as consideration. Both parties are supposed to get something out of the contract they agree on. This keeps things nice and balanced and is a key in determining whether or not a contract is valid. Even though I can find myself in the basic arrangement of obligations on the one side and duties on the other, some of those I would have surely stricken from any contract before binding myself to it. And for good reasons too. Another part of contract law is that both parties enter into their arrangement of their own volition.

But opt-out - except in the most draconian fashion - seems to have been off the table. It simply wasn’t possible. Be born here, here is the contract, take it or take it.

Something is not quite right here. I can’t find a single reason why I should be legally bound to a whole pile of stuff, including a set of laws that are set in a language so arcane that you need a degree or an interpreter to make sense of any of it without so much as a chance to review, renegotiate or reject the whole thing.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I would reject it. Some of it strikes me as fair and on the whole when I compare this set to the other sets that are available then I would probably conclude that I’m one lucky guy to be born just here. But that does not make it right.

To give you some examples of the things that bug me:

  • I’m required to identify myself to the authorities using an ID card that I have to buy from those same authorities at a price that they set and that I can’t negotiate, and for which there are no alternate suppliers. I disagree both with my obligation to carry identification as well as with the obligation of buying something that is forced upon me.

  • refusing to carry such an ID card can get me arrested, and more and more people find themselves in front of a judge for simply not carrying ID when there is no obvious thing they are doing wrong. This is required for children age 14 and up. I break this law with alarming frequency and it’s only a matter of time before I’m going to be in trouble for it.

  • I could be called up for military service and be ordered to do things that are against my principles on punishment of execution or jail. Technically this has been disbanded but those that actually read the law will notice the fine print which states that this is a temporary measure and that it could be re-instated at any point in time. I got into a large amount of trouble for my attempts to ‘hack’ this problem. All is well that ends well but for a while it looked as if my future was going to be ruined because of my stubborn streak. I’m no pacifist by any stretch of the imagination but what I do is up to me and nobody else.

  • I am required to pay taxes. Not paying them would land me in jail or could cause my property to be confiscated. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually agree that if I’m part of this society that I should pay taxes. On the political spectrum from ‘left’ to ‘right’ I probably find myself somewhere left of the center in that I firmly believe that there should be a social net in place to catch those that are unfortunate enough to find themselves without the ability to generate income for whatever reason. A system of education is another good reason to pay taxes and there are quite a few more. But at the same time I balk at seeing how ‘my’ government wastes the money that I work hard for and that they demand be given to them. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were careful with it. Even so, I’d be a lot happier paying taxes if there had been a moment where I was given the choice: pay taxes and have these benefits or be left to your own devices. I’m not 100% sure which one I’d take of those two. But I’m funny in that I like to have choices and I simply can’t stand it when things - even good things - are forced upon me. A bunch of tickboxes on my tax form on how the government is allowed to spend my taxes would be a good start.

  • I need permission from my government if I want to leave the country. Being given a passport is apparently not a right. Oh and they cost quite a bit of money and are valid only 5 years. That works out to a certain amount of money per day just to be able to exist outside the borders of the country I was born in. Good thing it doubles as an ID card, I can save a bit there. Now I’ve never done anything from the list of offenses that would stop me from receiving a passport but I really wonder who gave who the right to stop anybody from going where they wanted to go. It makes very little sense to me, all these countries each with their own set of laws, borders, border guards to keep people out of one place, border guards to keep people in another place and so on. It feels as though they’re all prisons, just large enough that you can’t see the fences on the edge. But the fences are definitely there. And you can only buy your way out. Never mind that to go somewhere else you are also going to have to buy your way in.

  • If I want to engage in various activities I need licenses. For instance, if I buy a piece of land - which I find a very funny concept in and of itself, how could anybody actually own a piece of land? - then I can’t actually do with it whatever I want. Zoning laws, development plans, building permits and so on all restrict the ways in which I can use the land that I bought. And whether or not I would hinder someone else with any of that doesn’t seem to matter one bit. And if by the grace of whoever signs off on these things I were to obtain a building permit, and put up a house or some other structure then there are lots of rules on what it should look like. And there are great many other permits that you require to live. Driving licenses if you intend to operate a vehicle which are sold at exorbitant mark-up by pseudo government institutions, residence permits, copies of originals of birth certificates and all kinds of other magic pieces of paper with a price attached to them that bears little to no relationship to their intrinsic value. And they tend to have a shorter span of validity every time I need something new. And there’s ever more of them. (I agree in principle with things like a drivers license but I think it should be provided at cost and not by some semi governmental institution that turns a tidy profit).

  • The country where I live has a whole bunch of very lofty ideals written down in their foundational law articles, for instance, it says that we’re all equal before the law. But in practice it seems as though we are definitely not all equal before the law. We have two classes of individuals, ‘ordinary’ people and royalty, and the latter and the former are definitely not equal before the law. This is extra funny because those people that are of royal blood here (whatever that is) are actually without exception foreigners. You’d expect that such small details as who your parents are and whether or not you’re rich should make absolutely no difference in a country where there is by law no difference between the people. So much for the theory. Rich guy or corporation suing poor guy: the poor guy definitely does not have an equal chance at winning. And this goes for most of the lofty ideals that we pay lip service to. Each and every one of them is marred by flaws or corrupted by exceptions. To the point where the ideals become a caricature of what they could be. Equality before the law is a joke.

  • This is not really about the monetary angle but it does tie into the contract bit. The country that I seem to be a subscriber of does all kinds of stuff in my name that I flat-out disagree with. I’m given the right to vote in order to change the government in a direction that I like. But this seems to have little or no effect because regardless of the superficial differences between the various parties that I am allowed to choose from, the fact of the matter is that I seem to disagree with all of them most of the time. I am a small business owner, but I can’t find myself in the greedy arguments displayed by the parties that cater to the ‘middle class’. I think that the traditional left wing party is actually just an excuse for more greed in a slightly different package. I’m not afraid of foreigners (we have a special party for xenophobes), don’t believe in any particular deity (or even any at all) and so on. Which leads to there not being a single party that I would actually feel good about voting for. It’s for the most part limited to picking the worst of a number of evils, not a single party has clean hands, not a single party consists of members that are the kind of people that I would feel good about staying in my house, let alone running the country that has claimed me. They all strike me as hypocrites waiting for their turn to screw over as many people as they can get away with. In theory I could form my own political party. But in practice the barriers against this are pretty formidable and I find that the only people that are willing to run this country are probably the ones I distrust the most with their lust for power. If politicians have any kind of power then they’re typically part of a network of ‘old boys and girls’ that play games with ordinary citizens lives as if they’re so many pawns on a chess board. They appear to enjoy a ton of privileges and to receive all kinds of benefits in the form of outrageous salaries compared to the people they are supposed to govern. They waste tax money on themselves and their cronies and do so in full view, as if they’re immune to scrutiny and/or investigation. And it appears they are right in that. I don’t want any part of it and it bugs me that this is the case. So the list of for-pay obligations benefitting the people in power gets ever longer and I can’t do much about it with any degree of effectiveness.

  • more and more things that I think should be free are paid by subscriptions at non-negotiable prices. For instance, it is illegal to make a well (they say for health reasons, but any idiot knows how to cook water) so we are forced to buy water from the utility companies. Air is still free. For now.

  • it is illegal to place a windmill where I live (even though I have one, I can’t put it up), I have to buy my energy from a utility company

  • I pay road tax for owning a car, and I pay tax whenever I gas up (a whopping 60%+ or so of the pump price is tax!), then I pay tax once again when I park the car (in the larger cities the per-hour parking fee is now about 1/2 of what a minimum wage worker earns here!).

  • I need to buy mandatory health insurance from a group of accredited insurers that make tremendous profits each year, that increase the prices every year whilst decreasing coverage. There is supposed to be a market element here but I really can’t discern it.

  • I need to buy access to the phone network from the former monopolist (and still monopolist in anything but name) if I want to communicate with others at ridiculous prices given the fact that these same phonecalls when expressed as bits amount to next to nothing. The major shareholder of this former monopolist is, you’ve guesst it, the government.

  • I pay a tax over energy that I have to buy from the utility company, and somehow the price of this energy is related to the price of oil. That wouldn’t hurt me so much if it weren’t for the fact that I can generate my own energy but I’m legally not allowed to do so.

  • In spite of there being plenty of space, even in this cramped little country I’m forced to rent a house or buy one at prices that make no sense at all. All the cards here were already dealt before I was even born, the corporations that hold the for-rent houses and the people that seem to own most of the land do so without there being any logical reason for that, other than that their ancestors seem to have lived here longer than mine. Old money versus new money versus no money. But you have to live somewhere. So your choices are to pay exorbitant rents to landlords (the ‘lords’ bit there must be sarcastic, there is nothing lordly about these rent seeking parasites in most or nearly all cases) or pay exorbitant interest to some bank on a house that you can buy on a post-stamp sized bit of land. Which comes with a whole pile of subscriptions all by itself.

  • And that’s just the government angle in all of this. There is much more going on where the government has granted a monopoly or pseudo monopoly to various entities (such as the local variation on the RIAA) to get money from businesses if they happen to have employees that enjoy listening to music. Then there are all these things that you used to be able to buy outright, which today you are merely getting a right-to-use for, preferably on a subscription basis. A nice monthly fee instead of a way to simply buy it outright. No right-of-resale or anything nice like that. No more buying books, you get the right to read the book. Oh, and never mind that that incidentally will kill libraries at some point. Or did you really think the library will be able to lend you an e-book. Ditto with movies, music or any other kind of media. The ideal would be for you to be a consumer that pays a monthly fee for access to data, from authorized providers of that data.

Welcome to your Life-As-A-Service. Where like the most scammy websites you get shown a one time sale for one thing and you end up buying in to a whole pile of subscriptions with no way to cancel instead. And where the rules of the game change as you play it. As more and more entities start seeing you and me as so many cows to be milked you’ll find that you have little choice or even an obligation to spend your hard earned money on goods and services that should either be free or that you should be able to do without. Right now a good 50%-70% of my gross income goes towards these mandatory items each month. And I’m definitely not the only one in this position, almost everybody I know is in the same boat execpt for a very wealthy and elite group. Some people I know have a very hard time keeping their head above the water with all that pressure on them, single-earner two kids is pretty tough or impossible for someone with a normal wage. Of course, phone service, cars, energy, water a roof over your head, health care and so on aren’t things that you couldn’t do without if you had to. After all you could simply live in the streets with your kids. But if you want to live a normal life you’re going to have to play the game. Opting out is not on the menu at all, that’s tantamount to suicide (that may be a loophole in the scheme right there). The funny thing is that even a hobo living in a cardboard box is still subject to quite a few of those obligations!

In fact you’ll be paying a subscription fee just to stay alive, with pretty harsh measures if you refuse to pay up.

So, back to that contract. The only way it seems for me to get out of this is by dying or emigrating to a place where there are none of these problems. Off planet is not an option. I spent some time researching the emigration options. A lot of time actually. And I’ve found out that the place where I live is in spite of all of the above probably one of the best places on earth to be living at the moment. It’s shocking! Half the world or more of it would be more than happy just to trade with me, and they’d be absolutely right. So this piece, as heartfelt as it is is in fact the complaint of someone that is in the luxurious position of being able to evaluate their position in the world, something that a very large chunk of the population of spaceship earth can not afford because they’re too busy staying alive, and if they could they’d likely pick this place to be or one like it.

In spite of being pretty sure that I didn’t sign that contract, given the option I probably would/should have signed it. Even with all the terms that I disagree with. It’s like with those political parties. It sucks but this is one of the least evil of a large number of options.

But it could be so much better if we really tried.

I hope that at some point some society will find a balance between rights and obligations in such a way that the rights clearly outweigh the obligations and that there will be a way to force politicians into a mode of good stewardship rather than one of kleptocracy. That way they could comfortably let their citizens ‘opt-in’ instead of ramming the contract down their throat. And if a substantial number of them would opt-out that would be a much clearer sign than any elections ever could give that that society was on the wrong track.

A captive audience, even when they’re applauding is not a sign of appreciation.