The ‘Out of Order’ Project

Published March 2003

UPDATE – See also Part II: The Humanity vs. Anarchy Project

On the eve of the parliamentary vote on the UK’s involvement with the illegal war on Iraq, I anticipated the worst and started drawing up plans for a general campaign of civil disobedience.

I wanted something that could be employed, quickly, quietly and effectively by those not able to take effective strike action. I had what I thought was a good core idea and was trying to think of the best delivery system (presenting the idea, allowing for easy print-outs, etc. etc.) but I soon came to the conclusion that a simple email would be enough.

So, I wrote up a draft email, knocked together an introductory paragraph to explain why it was only an email and asked a few folks to evaluate it via my blog. The text of the draft email appears below, trimmed neatly so its message may stand clear, even when faced with the terror of those dastardly multiple chevrons.


For action or distribution as you see fit:

If you think this war on Iraq is illegal and unjust,
then there is one small thing you can do every day
as a small but significant act of civil disobedience.

It involves the use of three little words:


Write or print these simple words onto a small piece
of paper, and you are armed with a very effective
psychological tool that can temporarily shut down
almost every mode or form of machinery, while at the
same time communicating a very important message:
that the current situation is WELL OUT OF ORDER.

Keep an OUT OF ORDER sign and a small amount
of tape or tack with you at all times – you never know
when an opportunity will arise for you to quickly &
quietly employ this simple tool to make your feelings
known – and bring one small corner of the world to a
grinding halt.

Do a quick print run now while you can, then forward
a copy of this email to anybody in your circle who you
think would be a willing co-conspirator.

This madness must stop.

Three little words – carefully placed – can help to stop it.

Did the draft stand up to scrutiny? Did people think it was a good idea? Well…

I was quite surprised by the number of replies that went beyond mere comment – a lot of people planned action for that very day. Quite a few more immediately forwarded it to large corporate and government alert lists. An estimated 15,000 people were reached in this first day.

And this was before I’d actually asked anybody to do anything. Pretty effective, if you ask me.

Once war was given the go-ahead, the email was repeatedly plugged on the blog and sent to anybody who requested it. 80% of recipients replied that they were currently printing ‘out of order’ signs, forwarding the email to any number of contacts, planning action/targets for that day/night, or all of the above:

“I am going to start at Mile End and Bethnal Green tube stations on my way home tonight – the Mayor has spent nearly two months trying to get the Central Line up and running again to there – I am now going to do my best to disrupt it! Best of luck with the campaign – I have forwarded your e-mail to a couple of ‘anarchists’ in Manchester and told them to have a look at your blog for further info.”

“I’ll be starting off at Reading station tomorrow morning, and leaving signs at Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton and Bournemouth on the way. No-one, repeat no-one will be able to take a piss on the entire South West Trains network without my say-so.”

“This… is right up my street. Gonna print me off a ream of sticky labels and hit the town tonight.”

“Excellent idea. Official-looking stickers shall be printed this evening and used promptly.”

“Consider Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch ‘out of order’.”

“Consider it done. *gets out address book*”

“We’re gonna go for it tonight. Got 100 8cm x 12cm *very* sticky stickers that just fit nicely on ATM screens and such like. Preston’s local government offices are more or less in the centre of town. Tomorrow morning, people will find that they’re going to have to walk a lot further to find a ‘working’ ATM / phone / parking meter.”

“Simple but effective – it’s brilliant. I’ll call in the troops. We cover Sheffield, Liverpool, Prague, Toronto and Blackpool.”

Then the action reports started coming in…

“I was quite startled by the number of things I could declare out of order, even in my quiet little town. I used all 20 signs in less than 10 minutes.”

“Arrived at Olympia, hid in a phonebox and prepared one for the cashpoint machine there. It must be said, I’d never realised how busy that area is. Eventually got my act together and taped on the sign without anyone noticing. Then attempted to take a photo, but there were too many people around to not appear rather suspicious. Coincidentally, as I was waiting, have a fag and pretending to write a text message, some bloke walked up to the machine, card in hand, frowned and then walked off – success?”

“i befuddled and annoyed the masses yesterday in my atm signage. sadly no one must have complained, because it was still there this morning. i also caused mayhem in the office by marking the supply closet out of order. you’d think turning a door knob is something folks would have tried, but instead three people called me to let me know the closet is out of order. i have enlisted my forces of chaos-spreading fan children to assist. i can’t wait to see the results of arming 14 year old idealistic girls with these things.”

“Had a great night on Wednesday night. Went into Preston and tagged every ATM, parking meter (inc a couple of car parks) and phone kiosk within a half mile radius of city hall…about 60 all in all. We went in at about 10pm so there weren’t that many people around…those that we did see must have been pissed and oblivious to us… Gonna get out again this weekend.”

“50 sheets of A2 signage and half a pack of bluetack later, and I am suddenly feeling much better about the world. Thank you.”

A band based in Loughborough designed a pamphlet based on the email for distribution at gigs. A report came back that the email had been translated into Norwegian.

By now, I’d been out myself a few times and noticed what so many others had – that a remarkable array of facilities can be shut down in this way and night/morning placement really is the best for maximum effectiveness. I’d placed quite a few signs at 4am that were still there at 10 the next morning. I also had quite a spooky moment where the first ticket machine and the first ATM I approached were actually out of order.

The following Saturday I marched in London and spread the message further with posters along the march and a minor installation at Hyde Park (click here for the full photo report)]. I also talked to a lot of people and found how disturbingly easy it was to convey the idea and its purpose.

This probably has a lot to do with the purpose being contained in the idea. The system is out of order. We’re just identifying the problem. Written or printed, tacked or glued, almost everybody could imagine himself or herself doing it.

I was quite secretive about this campaign at first, but it’s become clear from the enthusiastic, creative and varied way in which the idea has been treated that press attention will only serve to feed it. Report the problem, and you’ll merely infect more people with the virus. Once an enlightened soul makes the connection between the situation in Iraq and the words ‘out of order,’ we’ve got another convert.

Will the signs be less effective if everybody knows about them? No.

1. The message is still clear.
2. Take a little time to investigate such things, and you’ll find that 1 in 5 machines are actually out of order.

UPDATE – See also Part II: The Humanity vs. Anarchy Project.

Click here for more anti-war activity.

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