I recently had a long and painful dispute with my mobile network provider (no, sorry, I can’t say which one – they’ve bought my silence, I’m afraid).  I won’t bore you with the details, but it ended with a genuine offer on their part for me to pick a tariff of my choice which I could then have for half price.  As professional habits die hard, I spent several months engaged in a benchmarking study and conducting focus groups to decide which deal would best meet my needs.  Eventually, I rang back the customer services manager and told her which package I would like.  A brief silence ensued, as I heard the tip-tip-tapping of her fingers on a keyboard.  And then (fans of Little Britain are one step ahead of me here) came the response: “I’m sorry, the computer won’t let me do that.”

It could have ended there, but the coda was just as telling.  She started tapping away again.  Ten minutes later, I had the package I wanted – but only because she had managed to fool the computer into thinking she was giving me something else.  (Had the computer been made of sterner stuff, it would presumably have sealed off the exits and shouted “Boss, Boss!  Sandra’s trying to make me do something I don’t want to!” while she could only plead “Open the pod door, Hal”).

The story of mankind’s relationship with the computer is in essence the story of a battle of wills.  I have a vivid memory from college days of a guy with thick glasses (I’m sorry, but every cliché has a reason for its existence) sitting at the Space Invaders machine in the bar for hours night after night.  Not because he had no friends (well, OK, maybe, but at least his mother loved him. Maybe) but because he couldn’t bear the idea that artificial intelligence could be better at the game than he. 

Back in the office, we shy away from the battle and roll over instead.  Can you imagine someone in ancient Greece saying “Sorry, one of the beads on my abacus has got stuck, so today 3+3 equals 5.”? (Unless it was my accountant in a previous life.)  But how often do you find yourself accepting that kind of answer when it comes from a PC?  You don’t drive a car by waiting to see which way it wants to go (apart from men with leather driving gloves having illicit affairs with the female voice on their SatNav – oh, and the person who successfully sued the Ford Motor Company because when he fell asleep at the wheel of his 4x4 and crashed, it didn’t roll over like the advert said it would); but on a daily basis we let lumps of metal filled with blobs of silicon decide at random to make our lives easy or difficult.

I remember ringing a Dell helpline once; the ‘expert’ on the other end had a strange intonation to her speech.  Then I realised: she was reading the answer to my problem off a computer screen!  What’s the point of that? We all know how bad computer help menus are.  How can Microsoft seriously expect us to believe that that the PC can be the centrepiece of our living rooms when just getting it to talk to a printer requires a free day, four calls to the helpline, five visits to internet forums and a gross of beta blockers - a concept known to the cognoscenti as ‘Plug and Pray’?

But, hey, I’m a consultant: I’m obliged to ask, “What can we learn from this?” (By the way, wouldn’t it be a better world if computers used consultantspeak?  Every time you started a document, a cartoon paperclip man would appear holding a koosh ball and saying “Let me play back my impressions and check in with you; I’m sensing you’re trying to write a letter – can we explore that further?”).  Well, for one thing, it’s a golden opportunity to practise rejecting assumptions.  The willingness to believe that a computer knows best is symptomatic of this fatalist age we live in; whereas a PC operated by someone who knows what they want it to do and isn’t prepared to compromise is a thing of wonder.

More importantly, my get-rich-quick scheme this week is to provide a counselling service to help you over the difficult points in your relationship with your PC.  If you’ve grown tired of trying to be understanding when night after night it can’t boot up from floppy, give me a call in confidence.

A final thought: one interesting innovation in later versions of Windows is the facility, following a problem, to roll back the operating system to a date and time before the problem happened – now if Microsoft could find a way to make your whole life like that, I’ll be first in the queue for shares.


© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.