Solutions in search of problems
( June 2006 )

Science fiction writers and aficionados used to amuse themselves by speculating as to what would happen if the world were to be taken over by robots.

Here's the bad news - it has.

"Computer says no."

I recently had an experience which confirmed my worst suspicions. I was in an electronic shop, one of a very large chain which you now find in every large shopping centre in every town in Britain. They sell everything from computers to washing machines to microwaves.

I took my purchase to the checkout and was bombarded by demands for information of a personal nature, like my postcode and telephone number, entirely unrelated to and unnecessary for my purchase.

I protested and refused to give him my postcode. I was then informed that he was unable to complete the sale without this information. I asked why.

"The computer won't let me."

It was a mandatory field in the programme's input routine and the computer would not allow him to close the input routine until mandatory fields were filled in correctly.

"The computer won't let me."

So why didn't he just override the computer and take it as a straightforward cash purchase?

"The computer won't let me."

At this point, I suppose a lot of people would cave in and provide the information. I bear the genetic inheritance of generations of rebels. I told him to keep the item and that I'd take my money elsewhere. Which I did, resolving never again to purchase anything from them as a result of them having wasted my time.

The sales assistant was not inclined to worry about the loss of the sale and future business. He was being paid a small pittance for sitting going through an absolutely precise pre-determined sequence of events; he was not allowed to think or to engage his intelligence in any way. He simply punched information into a keyboard and then either handed back a credit card receipt or else took cash and handed out the amount of change the screen told him to hand out. He was merely a robotic interface between the computer and the customer. In the case of credit card sales, his involvement was even less. He didn't even handle the card; the customer swiped the card, entered a PIN number when the computer commanded them to do so and all the assistant did was to take the slip and give it to the customer.

The point is this - the entire process had to be conducted precisely according to an absolute, inflexible series of events which was dictated by a computer programme. The flow of events was outside the control of both the sales assistant and the customer. Any variation unforeseen by the writer of that programme caused the entire transaction to grind to a halt. The wishes of - even any inconvenience to - the customer was completely irrelevant. Any intervention by human intellect was impossible. The entire process was under robotic control, from start to finish.

"I'm not prepared to give you personal information which it is not necessary for you to have - all I want to do is to give you my money in exchange for an item you have for sale, just as the human race has done for millenia. Why can that not happen?"

"The computer won't let me."

There are a variety of reasons why it has come to this.

Let's look at one of them.

Many retailers have realised that they can make a bit of money by selling on databases of contact information to junk mailers so they have quietly made the accumulation of such information a mandatory part of the sales routine. I have no objection to them making it optional, that leaves me the choice of whether I want to give it or not, but many have either not seen, or don't care about, the long-term consequences of failing to do this.

Let's say the item I wanted to purchase would have cost 100.00 pounds sterling. And let's say that their overall profit on that sale would have been, a completely arbitrary nice round number for the sake of this argument, 10%. They lost 10 pounds because I refused to comply. And let's suppose that there are another 99 awkward b*stards like me in the UK who in the course of a year do exactly the same. That's 100 people refusing to give them 10 pounds each. That's 1000 pounds in lost profit on sales.

Now, I do not imagine that the payment they would have received for selling the contact info of 100 people would gain them 1000 pounds. Let's say it would gain them 10 pounds, probably a ridiculous over-estimate but a nice round number. So, by my fictional numbers, they just lost 990 pounds profit because they have an inflexible robotic system which does not allow for any unexpected variation. If their system had allowed a workaround to cope with awkward b*stards like me, they'd be 990 pounds better off. For simply getting a programmer to change one line of code in the programme to switch a field from "mandatory" to "optional". Should take a novice programmer, what, about 15 seconds?

But that never occurs to them. We are so locked into a cultural change which has stood on its head the relationship between operator and tool. We no longer use the tool to solve a problem, we adapt the problem to suit the tool.

Why have we abandoned the old "here's my money, give me the goods" approach in favour of this convoluted, inefficient, obstructive, intrusive, user-hostile method?

Because we can. Because we're obsessed with gadgetry. Because there's no point in having technology if we don't use it. Everywhere. Not just where there's a clear benefit from using it.

This is manifesting itself throughout our entire culture.

The ingenuity of the Victorians was that they would perceive a problem and then work to discover a solution to that problem. Computer technology has dramatically altered that balance. We now develop technologies for which there is no clear application. And then hunt around for a problem to which to apply them. Developers are becoming a bit like a bunch of kids playing with Lego bricks - "Hey, look at what we can do, isn't that clever? Now, what can we use it for?"

When the first home computers came on the market, there was a warning often given by those who understood them - beware the temptation to use computers simply for the sake of using them. Never use a computer to do something which it is easier to do without one.

It is becoming a modern obsession to waste vast resources and time in trying to fix things which aren't broken, tinkering for the sake of it. We are now creating problems which are essentially trivial, or in fact not problems at all, merely because we have a solution and need a problem to justify the existence of that solution.

For fun sometime, try spotting them. See how many examples you can spot in one day of cases where something is being done for no real reason other than that we have the ability to do it.

If you want to let me know of some good ones you've found, I'd love to hear about them.

Feel free to email them to me at the address:

Celtic knotwork

Top of Page