Why section 3 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 has a lesson for our polarised world. And something special about the spiritual geography of offices – those places we may miss more than we know.
Short thought: I’ve rambled before on the power of analogies for advocates. I was half-convinced anyway, before Edmund King QC (RIP) pushed me all the way. It’s a bit like when I first found out about the Dunning-Kruger effect*: its explanatory power was such that examples suddenly started popping up everywhere.
(To be more precise: they were there anyway. I just didn’t have a name for them. Like that cognitive glitch when you think about red cars and then notice them everywhere. They were always there; your conscious mind simply had no reason to single them out before.)
A fresh one popped into my head when I was prepping for yesterday’s hearing. In the end I didn’t use it: the judge found for us on another ground, and agreed with us on this point without me really having to argue it. But it set me thinking, about how easy it is to overlook how different doesn’t have to be better or worse.
The situation was this. My client had bought an expensive hospitality package for a sporting event from a vendor; the vendor didn’t come through, but offered them a different package claiming it was an “upgrade”. Among several key issues was how to make clear that something can be substantially different without having to be inferior. The point was for the sake of s3 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, which means a business offering another business a “substantially different” product from what they’d promised can only rely on a get-out clause in the contract if that clause is objectively reasonable. The point being that if (but only if) the product was substantially different, I could bring in the (genuine) unreasonableness of the clause in question.
The analogy I came up with: Imagine you’re a computer vendor. Your client wants a PC. You provide a higher-spec Mac. For many people – myself included – this is absolutely an upgrade. (Don’t flame me, people. I’ve used both platforms side-by-side for decades. I’m allowed.) But that’s irrelevant. For a PC user, the higher spec doesn’t matter. There’s a material and important difference. And any customer would reasonably be entitled to a swap or a refund.
(It works the other way round, too, of course. I realised this when I first used a PC for work, after always using Macs, and got horribly confused that there was no menu bar at the top of the screen. The lack of a Start menu must do the same for PC-to-Mac switchers. I feel the pain.)
Why did this stick in my mind? Well, with polarised politics and with-me-or-against-me thinking has come, I think, a diminution in our preparedness to consider that sometimes people just see things differently – and that sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing. When that different outlook causes real harm and power imbalances, then by all means we should act. But the starting point has to be an acceptance that everyone has the filter of their own lived experience, colouring what they see and how they understand. And many, if not most, of the distinctions will be just that. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
It’s a bit like steel-manning. Start from an assumption of good faith. Try to see and understand. Test your own assumptions. We may be stuck with polarisation for a while; it’s useful for a certain type of politician who cares more about the short-term boost than the long-term catastrophe, and sociopaths like this are sadly in the ascendant. But each of us, in our private lives, can make this work. And the smallest change can echo outwards.
*I feel obliged to mention this recent piece seeking to debunk a chunk of what most people understand to be the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’m not wholly convinced; the effect’s application seems anecdotally to be too prevalent. But I’d be dishonest not to include it.
Someone is right on the internet: Calling Paul Ford a writer is like calling Thelonious Monk a musician. It’s true, so far as it goes. But that’s not very far. Paul Ford is also a software designer, and much more.
Many geeks who didn’t know of him before came to know and love him from What is Code? (on Bloomberg, so a metered paywall), a long read – in fact, at 38,000 words, practically a novella – about what coding and programming was really about, and like. It’ll take ages to read. You’ll need a cuppa, or three. But if you are even slightly interested in how the software business works, and how people write and create it – and in our world today, how could you not be? – it repays the investment several times over.
Now he’s done it again, albeit far shorter. The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office in Wired (also a metered paywall) does more to describe something essential about how workplaces function in 1,200-odd words than I’ve read in years. The geography he talks about isn’t just physical; it’s social. And it’s temporal. It’s both beautiful, and achingly painful in its sometimes uncomfortable sociological implications.
And it’s recognisable. He mentions being told of specific spots in one workplace where you can go to cry; and I remember my time at BBC TV Centre, with its dozens of sometimes half-hidden staircases, and a spot on one – just between the fifth and sixth floors – where I went to cool off after an argument. And the joy of the balcony on the front of the building, facing east across London, where on an early shift – if you timed it right between stories – you could make it up there just in time for sunrise.
It’s different now. A Chambers is more of an interconnected set of separate worlds than a single entity. Each room is distinct; hierarchy, at least in our Chambers, is far less noticeable. (It may be different in more traditional buildings on staircases like an Oxbridge college.)
But we’ve still got a back staircase. Echoing bare stone steps, worn at the edges by generations of advocates. And amid the lockdown, having been in Chambers only four times since March last year, is it strange that I miss that staircase almost more than anything else?
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