Books: A Point of View: Option Swamp |
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Option Swamp : on the benefits of human contact

(S06E09, broadcast 18th and 21st December 2009)

"Automate at your peril"

I have been registered for Value Added Tax since 1973. Great stories are often introduced by a sentence similarly factual, bald, terse. Gaul is divided into three parts. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. I have been registered for VAT since 1973.

This story I have to tell is not a great story, but the first sentence is pertinent. Annually, during the whole of this period of being registered for VAT, I have had dealings with a certain broadcasting organization which must remain nameless, except to say that it girdles the earth and is much loved by peoples of many nations, not just this one. It is also much loved by me. Proud to be a contributor, I admire every part of this organization, including the accounts department. Or at least I admired the accounts department until about seven years ago, when there was a change in its behaviour. And even then it might be only one small part of the accounts department which bothers me. That small part might even be a single machine, or a small part of a machine.

In which possibility lies my theme. Every year, at tax time, the accounts department of this beloved organization gets in touch with my accounts department, namely my wife, and pronounces itself ready to send the documents required for my accounts department to fulfil the demands of the revenue service. But before it sends the documents, it sends a requirement of its own. It requires a copy of my VAT registration certificate. When told that it has already been supplied with a copy of my VAT registration certificate, indeed has been supplied with a copy of my VAT registration certificate every year for seven years, it replies by saying that it requires a copy of my VAT registration certificate.

The reason I guess that it must be a machine doing this is that no human being could be so mechanical. Beyond annoying, however, and getting into the realm of the truly disturbing, is that there seems no way to communicate with a human being in order to point out that the machine needs to be fixed. This year my accounts department had to go through the same time-wasting farce all over again and once again I found my accounts department, normally quite cool under pressure, leaning its forehead against a wall and beating the wall slowly with its fist.

To have any hope of getting the machine fixed, you have to be able to make contact with the human being behind it. But maybe there isn’t one there. It’s been a couple of decades now since one of America’s most famous magazines, let’s call it Famous American Magazine, automated its subscription service. Such was the level of efficiency attained that every subscriber’s weekly issue of Famous American Magazine arrived a day early, anywhere in the world. But one subscriber, living at number 312 Somewhere or Other Street, Something, New Jersey — the name of the street or district doesn’t matter, but the number does — started receiving 312 copies of the magazine every week. Each copy was wrapped separately. His house was already half submerged in a drift of magazines before he managed to get in touch by phone with the head office of Famous American Magazine, after which weeks went by while they got in touch with whoever had designed the new system, so the glitch could be fixed. By that time the subscriber’s house was invisible and they promised to send him a truck to take the magazines away. The punchline of the story, in which 312 trucks arrive, is probably an embellishment, but all the rest of the story is true.

That story contains the core, or kernel, or festering seed, of another problem: how to get in touch by phone. Getting in touch with any large organization by phone has got harder and harder as the system for getting in touch has purportedly been made more efficient by the provision of options.

Options is nearly always a bad word where the telephone is concerned. On a computer screen, you can see the options and scan them. But on a telephone you have to wait while you listen. If your call is about how you can help in the latest appeal for flood relief, press 1. If your call is about how to secure a flood-relief poster for your front window, press 2. If your call is about advice on how flood relief could relate to your sex life, press 3. And finally, after you have pressed all the buttons as far as 8: if your call is about how we can help you if your house is underwater, press 9.

Finally, if you’re lucky, you get to it, but only after a lot of listening. Combine the telephone with the postal service and the result can be a deadly cocktail. At my office, I frequently get a white card through the door telling me that there was an attempt to deliver a parcel but it would not fit through the letterbox. The correct wording of the card should be, ‘Would not fit through the letterbox under the large hand-printed sign saying: please leave parcel outside door if too big for letterbox.’ But at least they tried, and presumably it was an actual human being trying.

On the card, however, the machines have begun to take over. There is an instruction saying that if I want the parcel to be redelivered, I can phone this number. Making the huge mistake of phoning the number, I run fill tilt into option swamp, a version of terra firma that could be called quicksand if only the word ‘quick’ were not so obviously wrong. Because the number doesn’t get me to the relevant department, it just gets me to the post office. If your enquiry is about difficulties in sending letters overseas now that your local branch has been turned into a kebab house, press 7. If your enquiry is about your desire to meet Kristin Scott Thomas in private circumstances, press 8. And finally, if your enquiry is about the redelivery of a parcel, press 9.

So I press 9 and get an actual human being. His voice is remarkably firm for someone who might have played a post office official in an Ealing comedy in the 1950s. After we have established that the parcel can be delivered only in hours when I am out, he advises me to come and get the parcel myself, at the depot. Only at this point do I realize that his voice has the dulcet undertones of a woman in Bangalore.

I have been the route to the depot before, but nevertheless when I have a spare day I gladly go that route again. Only a few miles away, the depot is just off Mandela Road, a thoroughfare marked by the guardian presence of a Russian T-34 tank painted pink, as a memorial to the politics of the council that built the area. They could have done worse. Most of the houses are fit for human habitation and beside the back door of the depot, which is the entrance to the parcel-redelivery area, there is a pot of geraniums. Here I find out that the parcel is the manuscript of a novel written by an old friend who thinks it might have a better chance of publication if I rewrote it for him and put my name on it as co-author. It’s flattering, it’s even heart-warming, but it’s time-wasting. And time, at my age, is what I’m running out of, so it can be frustrating when the devices meant to save time actually fritter away more of it.

There ought to be a rule, oughtn’t there, that if the new machine, along with all the wonderful new things it can do, can’t do what humans used to do, then we should be able to opt out of using it. I wonder if a sad realization of that fact might not lie behind last week’s announcement — a very quiet, oblique, shuffling announcement — that the great computerized central information system for the entire NHS, so very long in the works, has finally been, well, sort of postponed: not exactly abandoned but deliberately left incomplete. With untold millions spent on it to date, it’s now not to be, or not immediately, pushed through to an all-encompassing conclusion. Areas will be left open for local systems to contribute. Those local systems sound as if they might have human beings in them, sitting at desks.

My scientist daughter tells me that there are huge and vital advantages to a centralized system of information about the nation’s health, but somebody else might have concluded that the thing just wasn’t going to work. I myself am not qualified to have an opinion. How computers work is beyond me. I use my computer to run my website and do my e-mails and I feel pretty high tech as my fingers fly around the keys, but sometimes I hit the wrong key, or squeeze the mouse at the wrong angle, and a whole new universe opens up on the screen that I didn’t even know about. Clearly the machine can do practically anything. But it can’t really imitate a human being. The man who wrote the original scientific paper that led to the computer, Alan Turing, proposed a machine that you would think human if you fed it lines of dialogue through a screen and it fed all the right lines of dialogue back. How could you tell the difference?

Ah, but there is a difference. The machine doesn’t care. The accounts department of a great broadcasting organization doesn’t get angry. My accounts department does. If you thought this broadcast was relevant to you, press 1. If you thought this broadcast did not have enough jokes about Tiger Woods, press 2. If you would prefer to revert to a pre-industrial society and so regain the purity of authentic human relations, build a fire and send a smoke signal.


I was behind the times. A few days later, a young man who had listened to this broadcast came up to me in the street and told me that when the voice at the other end of the telephone gives you a list of options, your best chance of talking to an actual human being is to choose the option that has something to do with taking your money. Since then I have employed this method with some success. The awkward truth, for any curmudgeon who prides himself on his awareness that things are getting worse, is that they generally get better, but faster and more completely than he can cope with. If your computer catches fire, a telephone call will most likely bring you an engineer, and it will seldom occur to you that he might have arrived more slowly if the telephone call had not gone via Bangalore. The late Bernard Levin used to make part of his large salary by continually retelling the story of the old lady for whom the gas man either never turned up or else turned up with the wrong tools. Nowadays Levin would find it harder to tell the story, and the old lady would find things a lot easier, although probably more expensive. The equation, or rather the non-equation, can be simply stated: though our expectations go up geometrically to match the capacity of available services, our anger increases only arithmetically when they don’t work. On the flight to Australia, if my aircraft gets held up for an extra hour at Dubai, I get merely twice as annoyed as Captain Cook did when it took him a week to get out of harbour and start his voyage. Only twice the anger, whereas the voyage is a thousand times as fast.

Rather than say the modern world doesn’t work, it would make more sense to say that our expectations of it are absurd. The performance of which mankind is capable has accelerated out of reach of the imagination. On the other hand, the moral framework in which Western man must live remains largely as it was. In Samson Agonistes, Milton says that Dalila must be of feeble understanding because she is only a woman. It is a misogynist statement now and it already was when Milton made it, because Shakespeare had already shown that a man could think of women as being the equals of men, and that there was an injustice in thinking otherwise. (At the end of The Taming of the Shrew, we know that she will educate him, and that his real life has only just begun.) Today, in this respect at least, we have caught up with Shakespeare and left Milton behind. Nevertheless, for all the progress that has been made, women are still more likely to find themselves exploited by men than vice versa. It’s a natural result of women being defined by men, instead of being defined by their jobs. To be defined by his job is a man’s privilege, and frequently his salvation. When the story broke about Tiger Woods and his various concubines, the press was full of stories about how he might never win at golf again. But he was a golfer, not a clergyman.