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Keeping a Grip on Reality

Men and Machines: Which is Master, Which is Slave?

by Robert Henderson

https://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com (September 08 2010)

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 information technology (“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 GBP compared with the original cost projection of 140 GBP 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 fifty 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 onto the new computer system last year without being checked for accuracy, raising the risk of workers being issued incorrect tax codes”. {1}

When the system went live in 2009 HMRC officials expected the new system to generate about thirteen 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. {1}



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 word-processed 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” {2}. It is worth bearing in mind that approximately ten per cent of the British population (six million) have IQs of eighty or less, and an IQ of eighty 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, that is, 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 twenty 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 bear surprisingly little resemblance to the version prior to them. Certainly, if one moves from an old program to a version which has been upgraded 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 et cetera – 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 fifty 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 the web, can work a word processor, and can 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 a handcart. (One of the lesser known 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 computer 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 are 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 misbehavior. 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 have 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 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.


{1} http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/consumertips/tax/7983495/Taxmans-new-computer-spotted-errors.html

{2} http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/7968703/Nine-million-British-adults-have-never-been-online-ONS-says.html)

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