Computerised systems may be useful but they can also get things very wrong, says Clive James in his weekly column.
I have been registered for VAT 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.
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A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT
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 organisation 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 organisation, 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 organisation 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.
Man and machine conflict is a global problem
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 the US'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 punch line 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 one. If your call is about how to secure a flood relief poster for your front window, press two. If your call is about advice on how flood relief could relate to your sex life, press three. And finally, after you have pressed all the buttons as far as eight, if your call is about how we can help you if your house is underwater, press nine.
If your inquiry is about difficulties in sending letters overseas now that your local branch has been turned into a kebab house, press seven. If your inquiry is about your desire to meet Kristin Scott Thomas in private circumstances, press eight
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 that it 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 inquiry is about difficulties in sending letters overseas now that your local branch has been turned into a kebab house, press seven. If your inquiry is about your desire to meet Kristin Scott Thomas in private circumstances, press eight. And finally, if your inquiry is about the redelivery of a parcel, press nine.
While you were out...
So I press nine 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 realise 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 rewrite 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 realisation of that fact might not lie behind last week's announcement - a very quiet, oblique, shuffling announcement - that the great computerised 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.
Perhaps the most famous example of 'computer says no'
My scientist daughter tells me that there are huge and vital advantages to a centralised 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 hi-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 piece was relevant to you, press one. If you thought this piece did not have enough jokes about Tiger Woods, press two. 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.
Below is a selection of your comments.
It's not the fact that you get a menu of options when you ring a large organisation, it's more the matter of each option having it's own sub-menu which irritates me. Having progressed through the various options/menus and then forgetting or being confused by which category I should choose only adds to the complication. AND... that message which interrupts the hold music (annoying in itself) stating, "Why not consult our website" which itself states "If you cannot find what you are looking for and wish to speak to an agent, call..." Grrrr.
Peter , Southampton
My new favourite automated system, employed by my bank, is the voice recognition system. I no longer have to enter my date of birth and account number followed by the hash key, I have to say them - goodness only knows what it makes of some of the more colourful UK accents. After that rigmarole you hear, "Now, briefly say why it is you are calling". Oh goody. After a good five minutes of attempting to get through to a person I exclaimed, "I just want to speak to a human being". The irony of the response "I'm sorry, I did not understand that" wasn't lost.
1. Make it law that all VAT registered businesses that operate CRM systems must do so in compliance with a new British Standard.
2. Part of that standard shall ensure that The Architect of the system must listen in to incoming calls for the first 5 working days of it's implementation, 8 hours a day.
3. A failure to correctly connect more than 5% of calls user error-free means back to humans until The Architect can come up with a compliant version.
4. Three consecutive failures as above and The Architect shall be taken to Tower Bridge and shackled, where Members of the Public are free to hurl telephone handsets at him, free from all risk of prosecution, for a period equal to that of the average wait time x 40.
Beating the phone "system" is easy - just press 0 and a human will respond. Sometimes it takes two or three repeat zeros but it has never failed me yet. I have more trouble with the voice activated menus but find if you just curse at it, it usually defaults to a human.
Billtils, Auchterarder, UK
Often, if you just refuse to press any buttons at all, they connect you to an operator, on the assumption you don't have a touch tone phone. At least, this used to happen, and it's worth a try. I still find it amusing that Mr James can both laugh at his scientific/technical incompetence and feel qualified to comment on the status of the scientific debate on climate change in previous blogs. I studied engineering rather than English literature, so whilst I can read a scientific paper, you don't catch me joking about how little literature I read whilst 'knowledgably' joining in conspiracy theories about who wrote Shakespeare's plays.
Daniel Summerbell, Cambridge
If you wish to connect to a human, always press the number to connect with subscriptions or something where they get money. There will always be a human option and they answer PDQ. They will deal with you or quickly get you to someone who can.
Alan Dixon, Muscat
The classic menu system for me is our teleconferencing system, the final set of menus of which go something like this: "if you want to start your telecon now, press 1" (on pressing 1) "if you want to start your telecon now press *" (pressing star) "if you want the options press 2, if you want to start your telecon press #". I kid you not. Our voicemail service is very similar.
This article suffers from a syndrome oft contemplated in the wider online community. TLDR. Too long, didn't read. This is nothing more than a montage of the self-certainty that is your sense of observational humour, and the clarity of your modern social perspective.
Marek Chodnik, Glasgow, UK
In defence of the menus: they are, in reality, a much faster way of getting to the right team who can handle the query/problem. If you call to change your address, and press the buttons for the complaints team, you WILL spend an extra two minutes waiting while they transfer you to the right team. And it's naive to think that large companies (esp banks) can have one team that does everything. Frankly put, they're just not paid enough.
Elizabeth, Dubai, UAE
The modern call centre or "helpdesks" might have humans at the other end but they are, usually, no better than the poorly programmed machine. Having said that this can, all too often, apply with shop assistants. Point out an error to one of these humans and the thank you and state your point has been noted. All too frequently they have no understanding of your comment. The people who design these systems simply demand that all contact with the public must be forced to fit into one of a handful of "pigeon holes". They fail to think about the occasions when this simply does not work, so the muppets at the coal face dump these contacts into the "too difficult" box - the one nobody looks at.
Jonathan Lodge, Slough, UK
For the last few years I have not participated in "phone menu torture" practised by major companies. I refuse to call them. I e-mail their complaints department on their website or will write a letter closing my account instead. I will not phone them - and soon (due to the persistent unwanted sales calls) - might give up the landline altogether.
Andrew Clifford, Saffron Walden
You should try e-mailing the BBC - oops, I mean a well known broadcasting organisation. Go to the bottom of this very page where it says "contact us", which is clearly the last thing it wants you to do, and your evening in begins. Two hours later after wading through hundreds of nonsensical questions, you eventually get to a form where you can put your own query, such as why did Ryan Giggs get put up for Sports Personality 2009, only to discover that the BBC doesn't even control who is nominated for its own awards, but that is left to "over 20 newspaper and magazine sports journalists", only 18 of whom are football obsessed and think Beth Tweddle is a village in North Wales.
Paul Buckland, Glenrothes
The purpose of the telephone systems now installed with most major companies is to lose your call with the least possible friction. The idea is you contact them via the internet where the efficiency is much higher and they can choose what kind of response is required if any. Now isn't that clever.
Bertie Somme, Norway
Increasingly I realise that if a company is big enough to have a call centre and/or an automated telephone system, then it is too big to do business with. I am thus prepared to pay a little more to do business with any company that is prepared to notice that I am a human being.
Brycchan Carey, Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, UK
The company for which I work have a helpdesk. I am somewhat relieved that I do not work for the helpdesk, but I do occasionally have to call it. The message begins "Welcome to the [company name] helpdesk. Please listen carefully to the following options as they may have changed". They have had this announcement now for about three years, and no options have changed since the message was originally recorded. However, I am dutifully given five options, with the invitation to press 1, 2, 3, 5, or 6. Having not listened carefully enough, I press 4, and get disconnected. The curious thing is, however, that whatever option I do select, I invariably get connected to some helpdesk agent called Trevor, who states that he knows everything there is to know about my problem, everybody else's problem, particle physics, maritime history, and cheese manufacturing. Upon explaining my problem to him, for the fourth time, after I have given up trying to tell him that I have already done all of the sensible things any sane person would do if having trouble with [insert faulty device here]. What I would like is some kind of certificate or passport to get past the level one helpdesk that proves to them I am not at the same technical level as someone who cannot put paper into a printer without seriously injuring themselves. My wishes, however, are yet to be fulfilled by the company. As for 'Trevor', the name has been changed to protect the guilty.
Jim, Portsmouth, UK
I do know how computers work - I know exactly how they work, and I've worked with them for almost 40 years. And I can advise you that if anyone ever tells you that a new computer system will make everything work smoothly, and will be much easier to deal with, you should immediately take steps to have that person certified under as many Mental Health Acts as you can find.
There is clearly only one way to fight back. Get your own simulated, voice-controlled, recording-for-training-purposes-enabled telephone system. This enables all marketing and direct sales organisations to talk to your voice-mail. And cut them off after a brief, pre-determined period. Never (ever) telephone an outfit which attempts to drill you in options: write to them (recorded, signed-for), and make sure your letter looks like a computer-generated form letter, and provide a number of options for the outfit to select and detailed instructions for its return. You may be able to sort the problems this way, or it might go on and on: make a chart to keep track of progress. Soon you will have a stack of documents which show that they never provided adequate information, or in some other way failed to act on information you have provided on request. If Large Outfits and MegaMe corporations want to communicate with us, they will have to do away with the boilerplate "deniability T&C for you, the Bahamas law courts for us" mentality which shelters corporate management from the infuriating steeplechase they expect us to tolerate. In other words, one must carefully construct an appropriate interface if one is to defeat the vast private bureaucracies which fund these systems.
Bud Butley, Cardiff, UK