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Incensed and Censoring the Census

Wednesday, 25th April, 2001

Well, they finally found me.

I was beginning to wonder if they ever would, but last night I saw a young lady wandering as if lost around my courtyard. She had a large fluorescent bag hanging from her shoulder, similar to the bag I used when I had a paper round. Hers, however, carried census forms. They'd found me.

It turns out that they'd lost me before being able to find me, as semantics would decree. My house is the sole house in the entire postcode, for reasons that are unclear, and it prompted the census organisers to file me under a totally different area, thus making me rather hard to find to those who knock on doors and dish out the things. It doesn't inspire a whole heck of a lot of confidence in a government who are adamant that my data will be safe. Sure it'll be safe, but who with?

I've been hearing about this census for a while. It dates back a few centuries and I've used the data myself on occasion - to chart the rise and fall of population in Barkisland, the village in which I grew up, for instance. As a primary source for historical data, it's a Good Thing.

I knew that one is conducted every ten years, in the year ending in a one, but it's not something you mark on a calendar and wait around for. Thus, as quite befits the twentyfirst century, I first found out about it through urban legend.

Urban legends are fascinating creatures. They probably tell as much about attitudes and cultures to someone who can analyse the data as the census itself. Everyone online will have seen a bunch of these, as e-mail and instant messaging systems enable 'word of mouth' to be pretty damn quick.

Ever had one of those e-mails suggesting Microsoft want to give you $1,000 if only you'll forward this to all your best friends? Beware doctors slipping mickey finns into your cocktail glass at a nightclub, because you'll wake up in a bathtub of ice with a note on your chest saying 'I stole your kidneys. Ring 911'? Bill Gates is actually Satan himself? Just translate the letters of his name into numbers through the art of numerology and add them up. You'll get 666, the number of the beast. Or was it former President Reagan? After all: Ronald, six letters; Wilson, six letters; Reagan, six letters.

These aren't viruses. They don't affect your system in any way, let alone to cause damage. They're not spam, as they're forwarded to you by people you know. They're urban legends, and define the hopes and fears of a generation quite superbly. I'm sure there were urban legends flying around at the speed of gossip in 1600, or 1200, or 2000 BC, but they'll have been dealing with very different things in very different time-specific ways. All things are relative.

The urban legend attached to the census is this: certain fields in the census form are open to a choice of 'Other', which you are then asked to name. If ten thousand people choose the same thing in, say the field dealing with religion, then it'll appear as a choice on the next census. So hey, why not put Jedi? Why not tell everyone you know so that they can put Jedi too? And they can tell everyone they know...

I haven't checked the truth of this (hey, I'm just ranting here, I'm not reporting with journalistic integrity) but it smacks of an urban legend to me. What if thirty other people start up different but similar urban legends suggesting people put in Gnome Worship or some such. What if, when the survey is tallied, there are more than ten thousand people in a whole host of religions. Do you think every one of these imaginary religions will appear on the next survey? Do you think that the government will take Jedi seriously enough to add to the list, even if a million people choose it? Do you think the established organised religions would stand for it either?

I seriously doubt there will ever be another census anyway. By the time 2011 comes around, we'll be following European directives to be individually recognised by an ID card. This will contain all key information and it will be held in parallel in a massive government database system which can therefore can be datamined in any way required without needing an expensive census to be taken. No census, no fields, no Jedi.

Whether or not there's a 2011 census, I should be living in a different country by then anyway, thus making myself ineligible. So this one will be my last, and it'll also be my first. I vaguely remember the last one, which my dad dutifully filled in for the household. Unfortunately, I don't remember any details.

This time, I'm intrigued about various details. I haven't seen inside a census form yet, as mine should be delivered tonight, but it apparently contains a lot of information of a personal nature that goes beyond useful government statistics. What's more, I will be legally required to fill in every relevant field, or be liable to a fine of up to �1,000. Privacy has a price?

The young lady last night confirmed the procedure to me. She takes the surname of the household she delivers a census to, and ties it to a reference number on the list she has been given. If fields are not filled in correctly, she will then return to the house and ask why.

This then is official procedure. I have it on good authority, however, that this is nonsense. An online contact of mine actually rang up the powers that be and spent quite some time finding out whether he actually needs to put his name on the form. Apparently he doesn't - all data is non-personal and required only for general statistical purposes. He pushed it further. Could he remove any reference number or bar code from the census form? Apparently he can - for the same reason. All they require of an identifying nature is your post code, as that will constitute one of the statistically tallied fields.

So, essentially, the government says no information in any survey will be used against any individual. Hands up, anyone who believes that.

I'm reminded of some of the chaos surrounding the US census last year. My girlfriend reports that the US government promised the same thing, that no information would be used against any individual. Of course, there were fields asking if any occupant of the house was an illegal immigrant?

'Hi, this is my name and address. I'm an illegal immigrant. I realise, of course, that you're not going to arrest me or deport me, because I've told you this information on an official census form.' And if you believe that, I have some beachfront property in Arizona that you may be interested in.

I haven't committed any crimes, as far as I'm aware, so I ought to be able to fill everything in with a clear conscience. There's a little angel on my left shoulder saying exactly that.

'It's perfectly safe, you know. Nobody's going to get back to you about any of this. It's all for statistical purposes.'

Then the little devil on my right shoulder joins in.

'Safe? How can it be safe? Do you trust the government?'

'Of course I trust the government,' says the angel, indignantly. 'They're freely elected by the people. It's the epitome of democracy in action. All those MPs are there to represent your views and wishes. They don't have any ulterior motives or hidden agendas.'

'No, no, no!' cries the devil. 'How many scandals have you seen in the last thirty years? How many MPs have been exposed as corrupt? How many have been proved to be lying, even on official business? How many have had to resign? How can you trust any government?'

'Oh, you scaremonger!' the angel shouts, tut-tutting away. 'If you don't like the government, then vote it out. We'll have a general election soon, once this foot-and-mouth thing clears up.'

The devil laughs. 'And elect who? Yes, we need to get rid of this gang of inveterate thieves, but do you honestly think that any other party would be any better?'

'All politicians are honest, upright citizens!' screams the angel, going purple in the face.

The devil speaks no more. The paroxysms of laughter sent it rolling off my shoulder. The angel grins.

I look up. I look down.

I do apologise! I got the angel and the devil mixed up. Hmm.

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