Please have a look at these pictures, taken in November 2010:

The first two show the check-in area of the Emergency Room and, respectively, the counters where citizens can book specialist check-ups of one public hospital in Rome. The third picture is a communication from a public school in Rome that says, more or less: parent candidates for the school board must submit a list with their names using the paper form available in the secretary’s office. That form is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy… all made by hand that’s almost unreadable, to the point that it would have been worthless to put a picture of it here.

Even if not all of them are visible in the pictures, in the Emergency Room there was (1) more or less the same number of people that were waiting in line at the desks of the other room, in the same moment, just a few meters away. The announcement in the third pictures says that, in order to get a mere sheets of printed paper you should go in person to another desk (but still a public one, that is running off taxpayer money).

What do work and labour mean?

Italy is, according to its Constitution (check by yourself at page 5 of the official English translation) “a democratic Republic founded on labour”. Tradition also says, here in Italy, that “il lavoro nobilita l’uomo”, that translates to “work nobilitates/dignifies man” (labour and work both translate to “lavoro” in Italian). But what is the real meaning of labour and work ? What should it be? According to some dictionaries, work may be just a synonymous of “employment”, indicating, more or less “whatever you do (only) to get some money”. I’ve always suspected, however, or at least hoped, that what the authors of the Italian Constitution meant something more when they spoke of labour or work. Something more similar to the b-1 definition provided by the Merriam Webster dictionary:

b (1) : human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy

where it is implicit that goods and services have some usefulness to society.

OK to spending, but only when it is useful or, at least, harmless!

Those described in the first part of this page are not examples of labour. They are public procedures that are both useless and harmful and should disappear as soon as possible, in any sector. If an organization has any possibility at all to have an Internet presence, all its forms should always be downloadable from the Internet. Payment, delivery of documents that don’t need authenticated signatures, check-up booking… this are all procedures that should be moved online, and good riddance go desks or call centers. Those should be closed as soon as possible.

But these you’re talking about are real people…

If, at this point, you’re thinking “how dares he insult honest workers who do their job in the best possible way, and say that they should be left in the streets?” it means that you weren’t really paying attention. Certainly all the clerks behind all the desks I’ve mentioned are honest people and it’s certainly possible that they are all very competent and committed to their job. But I was speaking about PROCEDURES, not people (or jobs). If labour is labour (and dignifies man) only when it provides actual goods or services, then what we’re looking at in those pictures is not labour.

What will senior citizens and people without broadband do?

Two objections to an approach like this for “First World” countries may be the fact that in many areas there still is little or no broadband connectivity, and the fact that many senior citizens have little or no familiarity with computers and the Internet, or can’t afford to buy a computer. When it comes to services like these none of these excuses is valid. First of all, filling a form via the Internet is stuff that was doable with 14.4 KByte modems in the 90’s, from every place reached by any phone network.

In the second place, one doesn’t even need to own his or her personal computer for this: people could ask their geek nephew to fill the form. Parishes, Senior Citizens clubs or many other organizations may set up one computer kiosk in their premises, using recycled computers. Internet and computing can greatly reduce costs of many public services without reducing their quality today. Let’s use them!

(1) what I mean here is that almost all the people visible in the first pictures were there because they had driven to the Emergency Room some friend or relative that had already checked in, but was behind the door, waiting to be seen by some doctor.