A day in the life of London seen through spam and weak Wi-Fi

You've read through the terms and conditions, yes?

crowds amass at london kings cross station

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I arise with thoughts of robots having sex.

Pro-spam is to blame. While Mme D receives conventional spam on a daily basis asking her if she would like to lengthen her penis (hence the folder label "Junk"), I tend to receive a more exclusive, professional class of unsolicited email advertising.

So when I roll over to check my overnight messages on my phone, still half-asleep from the night's excesses in fairyland, the subject line Your extension interface will slot into our portal conjures in my mind a picture of robots acting being bawdy. Another email has pushed its way into my inbox, as it were, to sell me custom-fit factory uniforms – an acquired fetish, I suppose – in personally labelled delivery bags referred to as "manpacks".

As I make my way downstairs for breakfast, I mutter to myself croaky impersonations of cybermen offering to rip open their manpacks so that daleks could investigate their portals while the daleks agree only on the condition that the cybermen fiddle with their plungers first.

Utterly ridiculous, I'm sure you agree: neither daleks nor cybermen are robots.

Pro-spam is a category of unwanted advertising email that comes from genuine organisations with legitimate phone numbers, postal addresses and everything. Rather than trying to sell you sleeping pills and knob stretchers, they want you to buy anything from workplace cleaning products and office stationery to SaaS expertise and reels of CAT5 by the mile.

Over porridge, I wonder why my business email address should end up in their mailing lists. Naturally I didn't sign up to receive this crap – no one does that any more – and I tread softly in social media these days lest my breathing pattern mark me out as a target for accusations of one "–ism" or another, so why would any advertiser determine that I might be interested in buying industrial overalls?

I continue to ponder this question as I wander down to my local train station in anticipation of the day's exertions. Absent-mindedly considering checking a few forums on the topic, I log in to the station's free but woefully weak Wi-Fi. Welcome screen. Cookies nag. Sign in with an email. Accept policies. Done done done. Trigger VPN and we're off…

…just as the train pulls in to the station. So I board the train and a notification on my phone asks if I want to connect to the train company's free and similarly weak Wi-Fi. Welcome screen. Cookies nag. Sign in with an email. Accept policies. Yes yes, whatever, gah it's so slow. Trigger VPN and… oh it's really sluggish establishing a secure connection. Let's try Belgium. Germany. Kazakhstan?

By the time I am finally able to load a complete web page, the train has arrived at its London terminal. My phone asks if I want to connect to the station's free Wi-Fi. Welcome screen. Cookies nag. Sign in with email. Accept policies. VPN tries to kick in but can't. Being a central London train station, the Wi-Fi doesn't work. It never does, since it's over-used and really weak. What was I thinking?

Making my way down to the Underground station, I am prompted to connect to its free Wi-Fi. Welcome. Cookies. Email. Policies. VPN. By the time I have fought my way through crappy ads for water filters and mobile handsets, I am already strap-dangling in a carriage and on my way into the tunnel whereupon the already weak signal bars vanish one after another in rapid succession and the connection is lost.

At each station en route, the free Wi-Fi becomes available again. Welcome. Cookies. Email. Policies. VPN. Tunnel. Bollocks, I'll have to wait until the next stop.

Back at street level, I am able to inhale fresh exhaust fumes at last and head on foot towards my first appointment of the day. Let's pop in to the coffee shop first, though. And as I stand in the queue, my phone asks if I'd like to connect to the coffee shop's free Wi-Fi.

Obviously in this case the answer is a definite "no". Coffee shop Wi-Fi is rubbish. I've experienced stronger throughput on 1200 baud dial-up.

Does anyone else find this odd or is it just me? I mean, coffee shops are nothing more than a generally rectangular space containing tables, chairs and machines for generating unnecessary hissing noises, and yet they can't seem to cast even the most meagre Wi-Fi coverage across the room. Compare this to my two-storey house (plus attic) which is served entirely by the single wireless router included with my cheapo standard home broadband package.

Checking alternative local Wi-Fi options on my phone, I note that I can achieve a stronger signal by connecting to the guest Wi-Fi from an office building across the street that I visited six months ago than the router on the coffee shop wall just six feet away from me at the till.

My morning appointment ticks along nicely, especially once the caffeine settles in. There was a bit of a palaver connecting to the company's guest Wi-Fi, of course. There always is. God forbid that a company should allow its customers and business partners get online without jumping through a series of difficult and evidently very glitchy hoops just to get a weedy internet connection. Welcome. Cookies. Email. Policies. VPN…

…except it doesn't like my VPN and nothing will work until I disable it. Actually, disabling VPN seems to make no difference either. An IT hobgoblin scuttles by later to scratch his head at us before slipping away with a promise to return, never to be seen again. Oh well, cross fingers and all that. Good job I brought local files with me.

Morning appointment over, I grab lunch on the way to the afternoon's. Hmm, I fancy a quick sandwich but with which filling? Cheese? Egg mayo? Roast veg?

street food sign advertising a spleen sandwich

Yes, spleen, that's the one.

Fortified with my particular choice of sustenance – yet inexplicably also feeling melancholy with no apparent cause, characterised by a disgust with everything – I march off to Client B nearby in the City for an afternoon of gothically romantic app virtualisation.

Client B is a security company. That is, it manufactures burglar alarms and keypad-operated locks. I can only get past reception after submitting two forms of photo ID, producing 18 months of electricity bills and reciting the opening monologue of Henry V.

The team has gathered in the boardroom, which means everyone is forced to connect to the company's feeble guest Wi-Fi because IT management has determined that laptop MAC codes should only recognised when plugged in via Ethernet, and there are no sockets in the boardroom.

Welcome. Cookies. Email. Policies. Then a friendly browser page that warns us the security company's Wi-Fi is insecure and we must tick "I understand the risks" before using it. And of course it's as weak as hell. Oh for a muse of fucking fire.

Soon afterwards, I note the security company's insecure Wi-Fi is blocking my email. When I mention this, I'm told "Yes, we all have that unless we're plugged in at our desks." This explains why they keep nipping upstairs throughout the afternoon "to check my messages".

As I disable Wi-Fi and switch back to 4G data, one of the team regales us with a tale of a visiting senior VP from the security company's US head office who was forced to take her laptop outside and hunt for free unsecured Wi-Fi on the street in order to sync her email. "I gave her directions to the nearest coffee shop." Heh, there goes your hopes of promotion, pal.

On the way home, I connect variously to free and appallingly weak Wi-Fi at a supermarket, a pub, the Underground, the train station, the train and the train station again. Welcome. Cookies. Email. Policies. Tick tick yeah yeah, just get on with it.

At last, back at the homestead, I can empty my pockets of work paraphernalia onto the coffee table and relax in front of recordings of our latest favourite daytime TV documentary series: Trapped! Encased in Two Feet of Blubber.

Bzzz. Mme D picks up my mobile, looks at the notification and hands it over with a poker face.

It will be our pleasure to service your manpack – with polish! We hope to handle your goods soon.

Where on earth are they getting my details from?

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He still regrets no longer receiving Korean spam, which used to arrive overnight by the heapload, filled with accidental humour, radioactive colours and disturbing photos. He considers it to have been a valid art form and wishes it could be revived in order to cheer up his mornings. @alidabbs



Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019