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I write code. I write code with a purpose: replace humans and free them up from administrative tasks, so they may do other things.
This is a noble pursuit. I free humans from actually doing the administrative work of filing, of confirming that the boxes are properly filled. I make sure tasks are done the same way, the right way, every time.
There is a System. First, the file goes to John, and then John sends it to Chris, who checks against an Excel spreadsheet. After the right notation is made, Chris sends it to Angelina, who edits a row in a different spreadsheet. Angelina goes off and makes a note in the latest report and sends the file (and report) on to John, who sends the file back whence it came with a note at the top: “Processed.”
Let’s imagine there actually is a system that works this way. Wouldn’t it be nicer if a computer did the work instead?
John could receive a file and click a button marked “Process.” The computer checks for problems. The computer notes the relevant Excel spreadsheets, makes changes, and adjusts the reports. All the while, it looks for any problems Chris and Angelina have been trained to flag. Life is good, Chris and Angelina are off doing other things instead of the white-collar equivalent of plunging a toilet.
What if there are any problems? Don’t worry. John’s manager is sure the process is perfectly defined. The person who wrote the “Process” button is similarly certain; nothing can go wrong because every contingency has been planned.
This Global Eyes will be comparatively brief because I had to write off yesterday and most of today (and formally declare them “Admin days”) because I’ve been engaged in the kind of quest Captain Ahab would recognize to persuade the organs of the French bureaucracy of this fact: J. Claire Berlinski and Claire J. Berlinski are one and the same woman.
I’ve explained now until tears rolled down my cheeks that no, there are not two Berlinski women, sharing the same date of birth and the same apartment, both of them missing a critical year in their tax files, but one, and were you to merge them, voilà!—a single, dutiful, filer of the paperwork, nay, a perfect one!—would emerge. There she is: Exactly the kind of woman one would like to allow to continue to live in France!
What if there are any problems? What if the report Angelina prepares takes the name of the person who submitted the file, and the computer takes that at face value?
If John is still working there, John could probably realize what happened. John could reach in, tweak some knobs, and then the system will continue to work. In this way, the automation is saved from itself.
John won’t be working there forever. John will retire, and now the job is much simpler. You can now get some guy named Gerald just out of college, who has not worked in this office for 30 years. Gerald can press Process just fine, thank you very much. The job, as described, is simple. The system, as described, is perfect.
But one day, someone will have the wrong initial in the wrong place. The system will break. Gerald will click Process, and the system reports a problem. Not with itself, mind you; the system is perfect. The problem is with a tax evader. Gerald knows the system is right, or perhaps he sees that the system made a mistake. Gerald can’t do anything about that though. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I can’t help you.”
The mortgage system is broken. People who can make rent of $2,000 every month can’t show the federal ratings standards they can afford a mortgage at $1,000. The system as described has very specific things it wants you to demonstrate. Specific documentation, with certain possible alternatives. If you can’t show that documentation, you can’t get a mortgage.
Air travel is not necessarily broken. If you don’t have ID, and can’t get validated in the TSA background check system before you fly, you can pass a 10-30 minute screening when you pass through security. You can be quizzed on your neighborhood, and the TSA official right there gets to decide if you are who you say you are.
I have a noble goal. I free humans from actually doing the administrative work of filing, of confirming that the boxes are properly filled. I make sure tasks are done the same way, the right way, every time. Computerization makes this possible.
Computerization also makes lives worse. Sometimes, the system as described, the system that is encoded in software, is wrong. The day you find out a system is wrong can be years after the system was implemented. The people who can fix the system might never realize the system is broken, or might never be able to fix it.
Look out for computers. Make sure they never become our masters. For many aspects of our lives, we’re already too late.Published in