The Times, 21 July 2007


As I enter middle age (ok, I’m 32. But my generation plans to die in our mid-sixties, because none of us has a pension), I realise that I am becoming predictable. I’d like to think, because I don’t work in an office, and have never owned a suit, that I am a piratical spirit, unbound by convention, one eye better than the other, and with a predilection for parrots; but the truth is, I live a life of ritualistic behaviour, because I like to do the same things over and over again, and get the same outcome. A bit like a lab rat, but without the sugary treats, or the surprise electric shocks. I come from a long line of people who fear change – my grandfather never really came to terms with colour television, and my grandmother used to eye my laptop fearfully, as though it might suddenly shoot out homicidal lightning, like the tetchy Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones film. In fairness, being Flemish, she would probably have applauded the subsequent melting of Nazis.

Nowhere am I keener to preserve status quo (the situation, not the band) than online. I like Amazon, for example, because when you order a book, they pretty much always send you a book. But I eschew online grocery shopping because of their jaunty belief that it is morally acceptable to substitute mushrooms (the fungal embodiment of evil) for potatoes, (which would never hurt anyone, unless thrown with both force and accuracy.).

I’m more ambivalent towards eBay. Although not a regular user, I’m aware that my life is better for it: it used to be so much harder in the old days to get hold of signed photos of Dick Van Dyke. Plus they score highly on my getting-what-you-asked-for index. You order crime scene tape, send someone a pound, and it arrives the following morning (I needed it for a photoshoot, I should explain. Not an actual crime scene). Admittedly there was then a tiresome email from some hapless policeman, explaining that this was an illegal sale, for which I didn’t have to pay, but he didn’t seem remotely annoyed when I said that I’d sent the money already. Hell, if the facility existed, I’d have sent the seller a tip.

Perhaps that’s what happened in Norfolk earlier this year. A 16-year-old boy ordered a Playstation 2, and two games, from an eBay vendor. The games console arrived, but no games. On the plus side, someone had added €65,400 to the parcel, which would pay for several games. But, very sensibly (and I’m using ‘sensibly’ there to mean ‘legally’), the boy didn’t race to the shops to buy 2,200 games; he instead told his parents. They contacted the police, who are now trying to trace the owner of the cash, with the assistance of eBay, who heroically pointed out that their website was really a very good place to pick up a bargain.

Which bit of this story do you find most bizarre? Is it the fact that the police were alerted on March 20, and that eBay presumably had the vendor’s address - electronic or real - and/or bank data, but after four months, no-one’s found him? Is it the part where a teenage boy, on receiving 44,000 unexpected pounds through the post, told has parents, instead of shrieking, ‘I’m rich! Stinking bally well rich!’, and emigrating to Rio? I think for me it’s the tableau of a vicious gangster asking his elderly, short-sighted mother to post a parcel for him, because he’s just too busy extorting shopkeepers and being known as Scissors McCready to do it himself, and her gazing vaguely around the room, then thinking that funny old monopoly money would be the ideal packaging material. Lucky they love their mothers, or aged Mrs McCready would currently be swimming with the fishes.

But if eBay is behaving unexpectedly, it has nothing on Facebook, which this week has transmogrified from social network to crimebuster. Oxford University has set its proctors to trawl around the site, finding photos of student misdemeanours, and fining them for, amongst other things, being covered in shaving foam (while not actively shaving). This costs you a mighty £70. I’m not sure what the fine is for being fully shaven, probably £80 at the very least. The Student Union is predictably incensed at the invasion of privacy, having bafflingly failed to grasp that the internet is a pretty public place, and that one might more successfully avoid detection if one placed photographs of oneself misbehaving in, for example, a bin instead. One student expressed her astonishment that staff were being paid to sit around, surfing the net all day. Proving that in spite of their prodigious learning, students know almost nothing of the world of paid employment. At least that was predictable.