Men and machines: which is master which is slave?

The British public has become weary of state-run  computer projects either failing to be completed  in whole or part after immense amounts of  public money has been spent or public service  IT systems being incompetently operated  where they are put into use. Common as such failures are, the present fiasco with the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC –  the British equivalent of the USA’s IRS) attempting to recover tax from  1.5 million people that has been under-deducted in the  past two years  because incorrect tax codes were issued is probably the most spectacular operational failure to date besides having a projected final cost of £389 million compared with the original cost projection of £140 million and being introduced a year late.  It is a classic instance of IT failure. There is the cost over-run, the delayed implementation, the failure to design the system properly, the inadequate training of staff and the seeming inability of  anyone involved with the project to understand the system in its entity.

The operational failure was  unsurprising because as an investigation by the National Audit Office  (NAO) “ established that the new system was put into operation with more than 50 identified technical defects. Up to 500 staff had to be reassigned to carry out the “manual workarounds” that had to be devised to correct the errors, which included creating “erroneous work records” for many taxpayers ” and  “The [NAO] audit  discovered that data on taxpayers was loaded on to the new computer system last year without being checked for accuracy, raising the risk of workers being issued incorrect tax codes”

When the system went live in 2009 “HMRC officials expected the new system to generate about 13 million new tax code notices. In the event, it produced almost 26 million.

“According to the National Audit Office, a “significant proportion” of those codes were wrong.

“Many of the incorrect notices were generated because the new system allocated a new code for each job that a person had done. That led to many people receiving several different tax codes.” (Ibid).

The failure of the HMRC system was the result of  (1) the IT professionals who designed the system not understanding the requirements of tax collection and/or  the HMRC people in charge of the project not understanding  computerised systems  and (2) the staff running the system, especially those  responsible for inputting of data,  being inadequately trained.  The circumstances also suggest that  either the HMRC management in charge of the project allowed the system to go ahead despite knowing that there were many program shortcomings or the IT contractors did not properly inform the HMRC management of the defects in the system.

The consequences were the  diversion of 500 people to make manual adjustments and   God alone knows what further expenditure of  time and money in the future to deal with the millions of incorrect codes being issued many  simply because the system had not been designed to link up multiple employments.   Using a centralised computerised system has created a degree of chaos which no manual system could create nor in all probability that which could be created if computerised wage and accounting systems were used by HMRC  at a local level to calculate tax because with small local systems problems such as different codes issued for  multiple employments would  be almost certainly  spotted  quickly.

Such monumental  IT failures are symptomatic of   a general  problem with digital technology, namely, our ever growing reliance on it and the increasing complexity of the hardware and software   which outstrips both the expertise of so-called IT professionals and the abilities of the average person to simply operate the programs.

For the private computer  user  the frustration is even greater,  because at least an organisation of any size will either have its own in-house computer expertise or  can afford to buy in  IT expertise to deal with IT problems.  The private individual often  has no access to such expertise because the cost is prohibitive, but even where cost is no barrier the expertise of  supposed experts is often found wanting.  (I have paid for two new computer systems to be installed in the past ten years and on both occasions the supposedly simple task took multiple visits. Both occasions involved large well known retailers).

The general consequence of our ever growing reliance on digital technology is that we are increasingly being controlled by the needs of the technology rather than using technology to serve us.  It is very difficult to escape such control. If a person is in work they will almost certainly have to use it. If they are in education they will definitely have to use it. Even if a person does not encounter digital technology  in their work or education, they find it increasingly difficult to avoid it in their private lives even if they refuse to use a computer or a mobile phone, ,  not  least  because  businesses  and    government  increasingly  require those dealing with them  to  do so by computer.

But Increasing  numbers  of people do buy computers and other digital equipment for private use.  Why do they do  that  if the machines are so unreliable and demanding? Simple: once a  significant minority uses a technology it becomes increasingly difficult for  the  rest  to  resist.

We  have long passed the point where a handwritten   document  is   likely  to be read by most people  in  business.    Now, except   between  social  contacts,    everything   must   be       wordprocessed to be acceptable.   A word processor or  access to one has become a sine qua non  for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.   Even amongst private individuals a  letter   is increasingly seen as unusual or even quaint.

With  emails,  we have not come to  the stage that  telephone   ownership   reached  a quarter of a century ago when  not  to  have a phone became considered eccentric,  but we are rapidly           moving towards it.    Employers  increasingly  wish to contact employees  by  email  wherever they are and this means the choice is often  between having a computer and email at home or not having a job.

Those  with  school  age children,  whatever  they  think  of  computers,  find it next to impossible to deny their children  not only a computer but access to the internet,  both because          the  children want it to match their peers and  because  they  have  been  brainwashed into believing that a computer  is  a   necessary educational tool.

In  short,  people are increasingly being  driven  to  become   computer  owners    not because they actively want  to,   but   because   they  feel  isolated and excluded  if  they  remain        computerless.  Again, as with the analogy between  telephones   and emails, within the foreseeable future,  someone without a   computer is in danger of becoming in the eyes of the majority   as  much  as  an  oddity  as someone  without  a  TV  is  now  considered.

Despite all these pressures , there are still  a large number of people in Britain who have remained distant from the digital world. According to a recent Office for National Statistics report  nine million British adults have never been online. Nor is this simply the elderly for “Only 45 per cent of adults without any formal qualifications had used the Internet, compared with 97 per cent of those with a degree”. ( .  It is worth bearing in mind that approximately ten per cent of the British population (6 millions) have IQs of 80 or less, and an IQ of  80 is the point at which most psychologists working in the field of  intelligence testing think a person would struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern society such as Britain.

It is unreasonable in a civilised society to simply hang the computer ignorant or the intellectually underpowered out to dry as digital technology looms ever larger.  Yet that is precisely what is happening.

Technology as magic

To  master computers to the  degree where a person  does  not  lie helplessly in the hands of  experts  is a  demanding  and   continuing   task.   It is unlikely that many could or  would           manage  it  without making  computers their  profession.   In  fact,   even   supposed  computer  professionals   are   only   knowledgeable   in   their  specialist  areas:   a   hardware   specialist has no deep knowledge of software and vice versa.

The  science  fiction writer Arthur C Clarke  pointed  out  a  good few years ago that there comes  a point with  technology  when it became indistinguishable from magic  for all but  the initiates. The dangers of that are obvious: that which is not   generally understood  gives the few who do understand a great  power over those who do not.  That  potentially awards  private  corporations and governments a great stick with which to beat   their  customers  and citizens into  submission,  either  for  profit or political power.

Where the technology is as vital and central to a society  as  computers  have  become,   there  is  the  further  and  more  fundamental  risk   of society reaching a  state  where   the   technology  can  no longer be either properly  maintained  or  controlled.

Computers are like no other machine ever invented.  They have   a  unique combination of  an unparalleled public and  private    use  and   a  central importance to  economic  activity   and        public  administration.   The  potential  penalties  for  the   failure  of these machines  are vastly greater than  for  any  other  piece  of  technology.   Not  only  can  an  immediate   application  of a computer be ended,  as can happen with  all  machines,  but  computer users also  risk  losing  networking capacity  and,  if they have not useable backed up copies  of their computer data,   the loss of their entire records   and conceivably the loss of the means to continue their business.

Computer users are also vulnerable to outside sabotage though   hacking  and viruses.   No other machine has ever  exposed  a  society to such risks through its ubiquity and  vulnerability           to outside influences.

Computers are also vastly more demanding of time and  trouble  than   any  other  machine  used  by  the   general   public.   Technological  change  has been  making  increasingly  severe          demands  on  human beings for around 300 years.    There  was  change before then of course, but it was slow and most people  could live their lives without  having to adapt to  radically new ways of living.

The  Industrial Revolution changed that and arguably  someone  living between 1815 and 1914  saw  more radical technological  qualitative  change than any generation before or since.  But           that  change   was the difference between living in  a  still   largely  pre-industrial society (in 1815) and  an  industrial society  in its  early middle age (in 1914).   Moreover,  the   change  did  not require the vast  majority  of  the  population to master complicated machines at their work,  let           alone in their own homes.

In  1914 the most complicated machine most people would  have   had   to operate was probably the telephone and vast  swathes   of the population would not even have had to go that far into   the  world  of technology.  Not only that,  because  machines   then  were  either  mechanical or part  mechanical,  ie,  not  electric,   just looking at the way a machine was made  often       allowed the intelligent  observer to have a fair guess at how   it   worked  and  to  see   what   had  gone  wrong   if   it  malfunctioned.    Even  work-related machines which  required  skilled  operators,   such  as  machine  lathes,   were   not  fundamentally difficult to understand, although the dexterity  required to operate them often took time to acquire.

In general terms,  things stayed much the same until the  age  of the personal computer,  and even beyond.   Machines became  more and more predominant in advanced societies but they were           not,   in  most  instances,  complicated  to  use.  This  was  particularly  true  of those machines used in  private  life.

Telephones just required the user  to dial;  washing machines  gave  you  a dial with a program on it and  a  start  button;  televisions  and radios required simply needed switching  on;   cars were simply  designed to travel.   Even today, when they  are   increasingly packed with microprocessors and  menus  of  function “options”,  such machines are simple to use compared  with a computer.

When did the computer rot set in?  It is a stunningly  recent  phenomenon.   Most people even in the West   would  not  have  used  a  computer before 1985.  Probably a majority  had  not        done  so by 1990.  By the end of the 1980s  the nearest  most  would have got to a computer  would probably have been   bank   ATM  machines.  The internet was esoteric and laborious,  the   web barely more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.   Even  in  the  world  of  employment  computers  were  still   used  sparingly.

As  with  computers,  so with the other machines which  cause   most  grief now.   The mobile phone was  a status symbol  and  the size of a brick, while  landline phones were still phones          boringly   restricted   to   simply   phoning   rather   than   mini-computers with a tendency to bemuse.   Microwaves had  a  simple   choice  of power.  Refrigerators did  not  offer  to   remind  you  of  what needed to be ordered.  TVs   tended  to  simply work when switched on.

In  the past 20 years all this has dramatically changed.   We  are now in a world in which computers are absolutely integral  to  business and public administration and they are  now  the          norm rather than the exception in homes.  For most people, it   is  literally impossible to escape them.   Worse,  they  have  become ever more complex and demanding to use and invade ever           more  of our lives as microprocessors are inserted  into  the  most unlikely things such as clothes.  In fact,  all machines  are more and more demanding.

The constant learning process

Personal  computing  began in the mid  seventies.   A  person    starting them would have had to learn the BASIC  programming language.     By the early eighties they would have been using DOS. By 1990  Windows  expertise  was  necessary.   Since  1990  successive   editions  of  Windows  have  varied  considerably  from   the   previous version requiring further learning.

What  goes for  operating systems applies also to most  other  programs,   which   when  they  are   upgraded   often   bare  surprisingly   little  resemblance to the  version  prior  to   them.  Certainly,  if one moves from an old   program   to  a    version  which has been uprated twice,  the chances are  that  knowledge  of the original program will be of little  use  in understanding the new one.          In  addition to this burden of learning and frustration,  one  added  the need to familiarise oneself with the Internet and the  Web.

Apart from the effort needed to constantly learn new programs   and to attend to such things as installations of software and  hardware, the other great drawback of computers is the amount          of time which can be spent on purely maintaining and learning   sufficient to use them.     It is all too easy to find a  day  or  two  slip by just sorting out a single relatively  simple  computer problem or learning how to use a new program.

The nature of what is to be learned

The burden  of learning is   especially heavy because of  the nature of that which is to be learned. This  is what might be   termed   dead information.   There is no  intrinsic  interest  in what is to be learned. It is merely a means to an end.  To  operate  a program all that is needed is a knowledge of   the  menus  and  function keys.   That is precisely  the  type  of  information  which  is least palatable to  the  normal  human  mind.  Hence,  it is the least easy to learn for most people.

The  computer is in effect forcing human beings to  act  like  computers, something utterly alien to them.   Intelligence  is  of  little  use   when  it  comes   gaining  knowledge  of  the functionality of  programs (how  a  person  uses  the  program  once the functionality is  learned  is  a  different  matter).      Computers  are  information   driven   machines.  Put the most intelligent man in the world before a   computer  and  he  will  be utterly helpless  if  he  has  no   computer  experience.  Even  if the  man  has  some  computer  experience,  he will be as incapable of using  an  unfamiliar          program as the dullard.

That  computers are function rather than intelligence  driven   is  objectively  demonstrated  by the fact that all  of  what  might be called the administrative  operations of a  computer  – file management,  loading of programs etc –  could be  done  by a computer program.

The substitution of function for intellect

When I watch the young using computers,  obvious or disguised  in the shape of phones and the like,  I get a feeling of deep  unease.  They  so  obediently pull down  menus  and    select      options  that I wonder at the difference between them  and  a  robot.  The  machine is driving the human being at  least  as much  as  the  human  being is  driving  the  machine;  brute  machine functionality is replacing intellect.

There  is  only so much any human being can  learn,  both  in  terms  of time and mental impetus.  If increasing amounts  of  both are required by computers simply to operate them,  where           will that leave intellectual development?    Worse,  will the   ability  to  operate  machines become seen  to  be  the  most   important activity of  human beings?

The myth of youthful expertise

It  is true that those who have grown up with  computers  are  more  comfortable  with the machines than those who  came  to  them in adult life – the latter still comprise, incidentally,           more than 50 per cent of the population.   However,  the idea  that  the young are have any deep understanding of  computers  is  a myth.

The  young know how to use the internet and web,  can work  a   word processor and  use programs which really interest  them such as social networking sites and games. .   But  let  their   computer develop  a  fault   which  renders   Windows  unstable or unusable or  a piece of hardware  fails, and  they are,  in most cases,  as helpless  the  generations    which did not grow up with computers.

What  the young do have which  older people do not  have   is  group    knowledge.  A schoolchild of today can call  on  the   computer  knowledge of their peer group and the assistance of         teachers.  Those  a little older who are in work  still  have   their  peer  group  to  help them   if  they  get  stuck.  In  addition,  if they work for a large employer they can call on   the  expertise  of the employer’s IT  department  or  service   contractors.

Computers  have only been in schools since the mid  eighties.    Anyone over the age of forty will  not  have  a  peer group on  whom  they  can  call  for     assistance  with  computers  (and  other  machines)   because  almost  all  of  those  they  know  well  will  be  of  their  approximate  age  – few people have  close  friendships  with  those who are  much younger than themselves – and the  people  who  are  their age will have little computer  experience  or   knowledge.   The  best they can hope for is  assistance  from    their children if they have any,  and then it is pot luck  as to how computer competent those children are and how  willing   they  are  to help the parent.   If an older  person  has  no compliant computer literate children and  does not work for a  large employer,  he or she will  be utterly isolated from the  knowledge   needed   to  deal  with   even   basic   computer  developments.

The true cost of computers

The  common  arguments for computers in business  and  public   administration  are  that  they increase  efficiency  by  (1)   reducing staff,  (2) allowing faster working,  including  new         working  practices,   and (3)  producing  information   which  would previously have been impossible to produce.

Despite  the fact that experience has frequently shown  these   arguments  to  be  invalid,  they  continue  to  be  made  in  religious fashion by both the computer industry and the  many         uncomprehending executives who have bought into the  computer  dream  without  troubling  themselves  with   even  a   basic  understanding  of the subject.  (Thankfully we have at  least           got past the pipe dream of the paperless office).

When  computers first began to be generally used in  business  and   public service the overwhelming majority of the  people  making the decisions about their introduction –  businessmen,          politicians and senior  public servants –  had absolutely  no  experience of computers,  mainframe or otherwise.   Not  only did  they lack experience they were terrified of  anyone  who  did.  This meant that the snake oil salesmen of the  computer   industry could sell them  virtually anything. Things have not   changed  dramatically  even now.  That is  one of  the  prime  reasons why so many large computer systems, especially public  service ones,  go to Hell in  handcart.   (One of the  lesser           know  laws  of C Northcote Parkinson  states  that  the  time  spent on discussion of any agenda item in a committee meeting   is inversely proportional to the knowledge of those present –         discussion  of  a  large computer system  last  five  minutes   because only the one expert present understands what is going  on;  discussion  of  the refreshments to  be  served  at  the  meeting lasts 45 minutes).

Buying  computer  systems is an expensive  business  for  any  organisation. Buying a badly designed computer system is  not merely  expensive  but potentially  disastrous,  because   to         prepare   for   its  introduction   the  structure  of   the  organisation  will  have  been changed and  the  old  system,  manual or computer will have been dumped.  So,  when the  new   computer system malfunctions neither can the organisation use   it  or revert to the previous system.  The same  applies,  at  least temporarily,  when a computers system simply goes  down  for a limited period. Costs continue, but work ceases.

But  even where the computer system is properly designed  and   works  efficiently  the  costs  are  immense.    The  readily  identifiable  costs  are frightening enough.   There  is  the  initial  cost of the system (many public service systems  run  into billions),  the cost of its maintenance, the cost of its  upgrading,  the  cost in time and money of the   initial  and ongoing training of staff and  the cost of the employment  of   new people in new supervisory posts to oversee the system.

There are also the less readily quantifiable costs. Computers    generate   vast   amounts  of  data  which   is   distributed   promiscuously.      This  occupies   time  which  would   not    otherwise be spent.  Email means that substantial amounts  of  time is spent by employees  answering or even simply deleting  emails,  not  least because everyone is  much more  prone  to send an email than a letter.

More  generally,    the   structure  of  working  within  the  organisation  will tend to  shape itself around the  computer  and  employees  will begin to develop a  different  sense  of        priorities   with  the  computer  looming  largest  in  their  mentality  rather  than  the overall needs and  ends  of  the organisation.

How  often is any proper cost-benefit analysis  done  on  the utility of a computer system? Very rarely,  not least because  once  a  computer  system  has been put  in  place  with  its concomitant staffing changes,  it is a daunting and hideously  expensive  task to change matters. Nor will  those  who  have  made  the  decision to purchase a computer  system  willingly admit they were wrong.  Not only that,  but we still have the  problem,  which will never go away,  of the people  with  the         power   within  organisations  knowing   insufficient   about  computers  to  make any meaningful decision on the  value  of  computers  to the organisation.  This ignorance also robs the  powerful  of  the self-confidence to challenge the  need  for  computers  or  the nature of systems being proposed  by   the  “experts”.

The problem of long-term data storage

Data   storage   bids fair to cause fundamental  problems  in  both the medium and the long term. This is because the nature  of  the  storage  media,  both  hardware  and  software,   is          changing so rapidly.

Even in the twenty odd years of the widespread use of        the  personal computer,  we have already had storage on  hard   disks,  5.25″ disks, 3.25″ disks, zip disks of various sizes,  CDs, DVDs  and USB memory sticks,  with the  saved in a wide variety   of formats depending on the software used.)   To  the problems  of access to electronic data  may be  added   the  fact that fewer and fewer documents (as a percentage  of  the total number of documents created) are being and will  be   saved in hard copy form.

The  implications  for the future are  profound.  Until  now,  historians  have been able to look at documents because  they    were written or printed.   In the future,  historians (or any  other researcher) will find either no documents or ones which  are  inaccessible  because  they  are  only  in  an  outdated   electronic format.

There  is also  a standing temptation for those in  positions  of   power   and  influence,   especially   politicians,   to   deliberately destroy any record of their misbehaviour.   This   is  made  vastly  easier if the documents are  only  held  on  computer.

The failure of the market .

There  is no better modern example of the market  failing  to  provide what the customer both needs and wants.     If it was  driven by the customer,  the computer industry would  produce  hardware  and  software  which  was  easy  to  install,   had   continuity  of use,  was simple to use and was  supported  by   adequate help lines and manuals.  The industry signally fails to do any of these things.

Hardware and software are of course purchased in ever greater   volume    and  computer  services,   including   maintenance,     continue to swell.  But that is not an indication of computer         satisfaction.  Rather,  it  is simply  a  reflection  of  how   computers  have become an inescapable part of our lives,  not  only as obvious computers but also in the guise of   so  many  of  the  other machines we use – everything  from  phones  to   intelligent clothes.   Business and public administration has  become so dependent on their use that they cannot do  without  them.   That  being  so,   whatever  is  on  offer,   however   unsatisfactory,  is  bought  out of  sheer  necessity.    The   computer companies have the modern world over a barrel.

The  power  deriving  from the ubiquity and  utility  of  the   computer is bolstered by the fact that the computer  industry  is  in  some  respects  a natural  monopoly.  Once  a  single  operating system (OS) gained dominance,   the chances of  any  other system effectively competing were very small.   This is because  the  weight of programs available to run  under  the  dominant  OS  soon became much greater than those which could  be run under any other OS.    Thus,  it became inefficient to  choose any other OS.  That in turn meant most of the software   was  written in a way to make in “friendly”  to the  dominant  OS’s systems users.  This further excluded OS competitors and  the  software  to run under them  because  users,  especially  employers,  did  not want to spend the  time  training  their  employees on completely new systems.

What needs to be done?

In a sane world governments would act to prevent the introduction of massive centralised   networked   computer systems providing vital services  because  of  the  dangers  of  a  general  failure of  such systems from cyber attacks.  This  applies  especially in public services but also to privatised business such as the water and energy companies and to private enterprise businesses such as banks.  Governments should also take the lead in both costing their own computer projects  honestly (see above)  and encouraging large businesses and not-for-profit organisations to do the same.

As  for the private user, they will be asking themselves questions such as these: why  should  using  a  computer  be such a demanding and hit and miss business?  Why  should we tolerate a machine which is  not in any  meaningful   sense “fit for purpose”, in the words of our current consumer   protection  law?     Why do we allow  ourselves to be  fobbed  off  with  precious little information about how  to  operate   programs, both in terms of free instruction by the vendor and  in the laughably inadequate instruction manuals,  whether  in   hard copy or from the all too frequently risibly named “help”   functions?  Why do we put up with hardware and software which    go  out  of date  (and hence become unusable) in  a  year  or   three?  Why do we have to  pay an arm and a leg for computer  training   or  repair? These  problems could be substantially  ameliorated by legislation to ensure that:

1. Windows (or any other operating system) is written so that  any version of Windows will encompass every previous  version  of Windows. Users should be able to choose from a menu  which          version  of  Windows they use. The already vast  and  rapidly  increasing storage capacity on computer drives means that  an  increase  in  the  size  of  the  programmes  would  not   be          impractical.  The effect of  this would be to reduce the need   to constantly learn to use new software.

2.  Windows is  written to ensure that  all software  written  to  operate  under Windows can operate under any  version  of  Windows.  The effect of this would be to (1) reduce the  need   to  learn  new  software and  (2) reduce the  need  to  buy  new  software .

3.  Windows is designed to accept any peripheral   regardless  of age.

4.  Hardware is  designed  so that any hardware can  continue   to be used for as long as it  works.

Are any of these four things likely to happen? Sadly, no.  The problem is simple:  no single country,  not even the USA,   could   insist on such  laws globally.

There is one thing the government of any advanced country can and should  do, create circumstances in which those who cannot come to terms with digital technology can live in an ever more computer controlled world. They can do this by maintaining non-computer access to state funded organisations and forcing through legislation larger businesses and not-for-profit organisations to do the same. A good start would be to knock on the head the clearing banks’ proposal to stop clearing checks by 2018.

Robert Henderson September 2010

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: