For a while last week I was having nightmares about being surrounded by cartons of books, unable to escape from a shop filled with boxes, and more arriving every minute. Normally dreaming of a room full of books, cartons of new treasures to unpack, would cause me to awake with a smile. Now I was filled with dread; what would UPS surprise me with today?
It began, as these events do, with a relatively simple problem. In late June, as I opened my expected order from Baker & Taylor, I found a small box with four books I had not ordered. On closer examination, I realized that they were part of a shipment of “NPR Featured Reads,” a program for booksellers that Baker & Taylor had offered over a year earlier. The plan was that a shipment of books featured on NPR would be sent every two months with promotional materials such as shelf-talkers. The bookseller was committed to a full year of the program, but unsold books were returnable without the usual restocking charge. The program did not function as advertised; the first shipment was two months late, the second arrived four months later, and after a third shipment in January, there were no more. I received no information about the program, and assumed it had been discontinued. I had returned most of the books unsold, and guessed that others had had as little success as I.
When I e-mailed the contact for this program, I learned that there had been several notifications sent about the status of the program, which I had not received. I was asked whether I was still receiving other e-mails from Baker & Taylor. I have been, from accounting to marketing to data base changes. Apparently “the computer” had a problem, and so I was unaware of the new shipment and changes to the program. I was assured that I would be removed from the program, and sent a return shipping label. I was also assured that the rest of the total shipment for June, which was again delayed, would be cancelled. The next week I received a large box, more NPR books. And two days after that, another carton. My contact was on vacation. Although I e-mailed the “alternate” person named in the auto-reply I received from the vacationer, and the vacationer picked up my original request and copied me on a memo to a third contact requesting assistance with this problem, nothing was done.
Two days after what I fervently hoped was the last of the NPR books arrived, my cheerful UPS delivery man entered with a hand truck fully loaded with six large cartons. They were from a publisher in Florida with whom I have never done business. A bit of detective work with the enclosed packing list revealed that they were destined for a school in California. The shipping labels, however, were correctly addressed to my shop. You may now understand the basis of my nightmare.
When two days later UPS arrived to pick up the California-bound volumes, the driver laughed and said, “Somebody pushed the wrong button.” I’m not sure if that was exactly the problem, but obviously there was both a computer and a human error. The publisher in Florida promptly dealt with the problem; I am still trying to get credit for the NPR books, although they have been returned.
Modern life seems to be filled with these “computer glitches,” some more irritating and time-consuming than others. When I moved several business and personal back accounts to a small local bank in town, (after the other small banks I had dealt with had been bought up by the impersonal monsters that are more interested in marketing their investment programs than providing customer service), it seemed that the system could not handle sending my personal account statements to my home and my business statements to my business. If I changed the address on one account, it was changed on all. The branch manager did some digging, and found out that their IT department had decided that it would be convenient for customers to have their accounts “linked,” whether the customer wanted that or not. The branch manager also found a way to work around the system, and I am happily getting my paper (Luddite that I am) statements at the proper location.
Lately I have been irritated with “autoplay” videos on websites. I flip to CNN during the day to see what’s happening, and it seems every article has an accompanying video of some talking head telling me what I would just as soon read (and the written material has more detail) and with no way to stop it. I e-mailed CNN one day in a fit of pique, complaining. I received a reply telling me that they “appreciated my input” ending, with a statement that translated to “By the way, dummy, you can turn off autoplay.” OK, I admit that I’m no techno-whiz. I did a little research, and actually found something on Google that told me how to fix my default settings on Facebook so that I didn’t have to watch a mother cat retrieving her kittens from a sliding board over and over while I read another post. But no luck with CNN. So I e-mailed again, asking, politely this time, how to turn off autoplay: Was it done on the website, or was there something I could do in my browser? The response this time informed me that there was no way at this time to turn off the videos in CNN. Two enquiries, two different answers; which is true?
It may surprise those who know me and my love-hate relationship with technology that I spent the first decade (and a bit more) of my working life as a computer programmer and then system designer. That was back in the day when we had several large rooms devoted to containing what I now carry in my pocket. But some things haven’t changed. Every program has just one more “bug” in it. The system isn’t any good if the user’s needs haven’t been taken into account. And when the “bug” manifests itself, it takes a human to figure out what went wrong – and fix it.
The examples I have cited are minor irritations and part of modern life. None of them have earth-shattering consequences, although trying to get the errors corrected consumes time that could be used on more productive endeavors. The human intervention in solving the problem makes the difference between a quick fix and an ongoing problem. The bank manager wants my business and took the time to find out what had to be done; the publisher in Florida has an employee who cared about getting books to the right customer. In contrast, the contacts I have at Baker & Taylor don’t understand how their system works or how to fix it and don’t want to invest the time in figuring it out. Likewise CNN: some IT genius decided that autoplay was good for their viewers, and it’s not clear if it can be disabled or not.
Time Magazine’s July 21 Cover Article “World War Zero” points up that the same type of erroneous assumptions in systems design, mistakes in implementation, and lack of concern or understanding by the people responsible can lead to severe consequences when they involve software that controls our financial, utility, military and other critical systems. Reading how hackers are exploiting that “one last bug” while technology companies put out barely tested software planning to patch it as the problems become evident (if the right person gets the complaint!) gave me worse nightmares than the room full of book cartons ever did!