Information Technology and the Loss of Common Sense

I have a low tolerance for stupidity and waste. For this reason, I oppose unnecessary bureaucracy whenever possible. For instance, when a potential client asks me to review and sign a lengthy contract before accepting their invitation to teach a course or speak at an event—typically a one to three day engagement—I tell them “No thanks, I’ll pass.” Experience has taught me that, in addition to the time it takes to read the contract, revisions are always required. One size fits all service contracts, usually written for long-term software development engagements, don’t fit the work that I do. There are always terms that I cannot accept, which lead to lengthy negotiations. Terms typically state that I must grant to the client sole ownership of my intellectual property (for example, my course materials), require that I purchase several types of insurance (for example, millions of dollars in liability coverage, which doesn’t apply to my work), and demand that I discount the work to match the lowest price that I’ve ever charged another client, which would result in a charge of $0, because I sometimes work for free. Only in rare circumstances when terms are necessarily complex do I require a formal contract for my services, and even then the contract rarely exceeds one page. Ordinarily, I state my terms and the scope of the work in a few sentences and the client affirms them in a single email exchange. That’s it. If the client seems apprehensive, I offer a complete money back guarantee in the event that they aren’t satisfied with my work, which eliminates their risk entirely. I’ve walked away from several lucrative opportunities because the client insisted on time-consuming bureaucratic nonsense for a simple engagement. In such cases, I always explain that, because the purpose of my work is to help them use information more efficiently and effectively for decision making, by participating in mindless bureaucracy I would support the very behavior that my work is designed to eliminate.

In many respects, senseless bureaucracy—unnecessary time, effort, and expense that is required to get things done—has increased with the rise of information technology. Given the fact that computers are supposed to save us time, which they can do in many ways, I find it intolerable that the opposite is often true. Have you ever noticed that with increasing reliance on technology, businesses provide decreasingly effective products and services, despite the fact that they talk about their commitment to customer service a great deal more? What once required a simple conversation with a person can now take a series of time-consuming, confusing, and often redundant interactions, mostly with machines. When those interactions don’t work, you can eventually get to a person who, through his reliance on machines to think for him, has lost all common sense.

One of my favorite examples occurred two years ago when my new phone service failed to be activated on the scheduled date. When I explained to the phone company’s customer support representative that a technician would need to come to my house to physically connect their system to the disconnected wires at my house—wires that I was holding in my hands at that very moment—she assured me that if I merely waited until 8:00 PM that evening, my phone would begin to work without any need for a technician to visit my home. When I questioned her confident assurance by explaining once again that the wires could not become magically connected without a technician, she responded with an edge of annoyance that she was an “expert.” Apparently not. Two days later a technician eventually came to my home to connect the wires.

My most painful and costly brush with mindless bureaucracy occurred last Friday, when I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I was scheduled to teach a course. Even though I have provided speaking, teaching, and consulting services in the United Kingdom many times over the last few years, including an engagement in London only three weeks ago, the UK Border agent at the Edinburgh airport informed me that I could not enter the country without a business visa. In a surrealistic moment of disbelief, I asked “Are you serious? Since when?” I then looked into two stone-cold eyes with no trace of humor and heard his angry words “Do I look like I’m joking?” Having learned through experience that persistence greased with diplomacy can often pave a path through seemingly intractable obstacles, I remained unshaken. Obviously, the Border Agency was not established to protect the borders from the likes of me or to rob its citizens of the useful and unique services that I provide. My confidence was shaken, however, when in an effort to find a solution I asked if there was someone else that I could speak to and he bristled with anger and spit out the words “What, I’m not good enough for you?” After waiting for five hours in detention, when I was formally denied access in writing and told that I would need a Tier 5 business visa to return (this is for temporary migrant workers), I was reminded that walls constructed by small-minded people and myopic bureaucracies are sometimes insurmountable.

The next morning, when I was preparing to board the flight that would return me to the United States, I learned from another border agent that my fate fell into the hands of the only agent who would turn me away under the circumstances. The result of this bureaucratic tragedy was more than inconvenience. The course in Edinburgh and the three-day workshop that would follow in London had to be cancelled. The 80 or so people who registered to attend were denied the benefits of my courses. The nonrefundable costs of their flights were forfeit. I and the organization that hosts my workshops in the UK lost a great deal in nonrefundable venue and travel costs as well as significant revenues. This happened because a border agent held tightly to his interpretation of UK immigration policy (misinterpretation, I believe) rather than its spirit, which was never meant to turn away people who bring valuable one-off educational services to the people of the UK, and certainly not to do so without warning them of the requirement in advance. Had I lied and said that I was visiting solely as a tourist or to attend a business meeting, I would have been welcomed warmly. Honesty and integrity, which are deeply rooted in my nature, are not always awarded their due. Friends tell me that I should just lie—that the stupid system invites deceit—but that doesn’t sit right with me.

I’m not asking for your sympathy. I live a charmed life. I get to do something that I love and am well compensated for the effort. Fate throws each of us a curve now and then, while it buries many who are less fortunate in a continuous onslaught of oppression. I’m writing this to raise awareness of the fact that our lives are increasingly being frittered away by senseless wastes of time and effort—many in the name of progress. Who doesn’t roll on the floor in agony at the thought of calling a customer or technical support line? Who doesn’t spend more of their time in meaningless activity today than they did before the advent of computers? Who doesn’t feel that they are in some ways less smart today than they would be without computers? Who doesn’t feel that their constant reliance on information technology has caused them to lose touch with the things that matter in life? Who doesn’t feel that relentless social networking has reduced the warmth of human connection?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a technologist by profession, but like the wisest of my colleagues, I have a love/hate relationship with machines. Machines are great when they do something useful and do it well; they do harm, however, when they perform poorly and complicate our lives unnecessarily. As I was making my way by taxi from the airport to the hotel for my one short night in Edinburgh prior to the forced exodus, I shared my story of woe with the driver. He told me of his own efforts to speak up against the loss of common sense in the modern world. We shared stories of frustration, which eased the pain a little. It was more comforting in that moment than he could ever imagine to be assured that I wasn’t alone. We all live our lives just one small-minded person away from travail. Many organizations have woven small-mindedness into the fabric of their operations in the form of senseless bureaucracy, over-reliance on machines, and a myopic quest for the bottom line. Common nonsense rather than common sense often rules the day. I doubt that good sense was ever the norm, but I believe that former generations more routinely relied on their own brains, developed deeper expertise, and exercised judgment rather than mindlessly memorized and followed procedures. Whether good sense was more common in the past or not, it’s definitely needed to meet the challenges of the present and future. I think that taxi driver was right: it’s time to speak up. If we don’t, the brightness of tomorrow will not exceed the dimness of our atrophying minds.

Take care,

7 Comments on “Information Technology and the Loss of Common Sense”


By Tim2. May 16th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Reading this post reminded me immediately of this:
http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1243

By Paul McKernan. May 24th, 2012 at 9:31 am

Stephen,
I was due to attend the event in London, when I heard from the marketing company that you were stopped at Border control I did think it was a coverup for some underlying issue.

I do hope that the course can be rescheduled for some time soon and look forward to that time.

Great blog

By Chris. May 24th, 2012 at 11:35 am

A few years ago, I changed auto insurance companies because my family wound up saving $340 a year. I called my original issurance company 2 weeks before the change, verified they were not willing to match my new rate, and explained that I would not be continuing my services. They then told me I had to wait until the day of the renewal to not renew my contract. Knowing how machines are, I promptly log into my account and canceled my automatic bank deduction. I called on the first of the month and canceled my account. Despite canceling the auto deduction and the auto inssurance in general, I saw a charge for one price, and a refund of $33 less then charged. I called and once I spoke to an agent, I was informed the $33 charge was for no longer using auto bill pay. No matter how hard I tried expained the failed logic because the computer told him I needed to be billed the $33, I was billed the $33. I asked him for his credit card number so I could charge him for a sound system upgrade in new car he was not buying, he wouldn’t pay for it. He did not seem to understand my point…. It took me 3 phone calls with 5 people, including 2 ’supervisors’ before I was refunded the $33.

By Stephen Few. May 25th, 2012 at 9:21 am

Hi Paul,

Being denied access by the UK Border Agency was indeed the reason that the workshop in London was canceled. I’m sorry that you and many others were inconvenienced by the Border Agency’s decision. I wrote an email to the Director of the UK Border Agency in Edinburgh who was ultimately responsible for my ejection, but he has chosen to ignore me. I presented evidence in my email, based on UK Immigration Law, that I don’t need a visa to teach my courses there and asked that he tell me if I’m wrong and explain how so. Unfortunately, the Border Agency provides no point of contact for discussing problems of this nature. This is a common tactic of bureaucracies, which makes it difficult to fix them when they go wrong.

At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever teach in the UK again. If you’re eager to attend one of my workshops, for now I recommend that you do so elsewhere in Europe, such as in Vienna or Oslo in September. You can make a vacation of it.

By Paul McKernan. May 30th, 2012 at 12:52 am

Stephen,
Thank you for the response, I will definitely be looking at the courses in another Country.

Thanks

Paul

By Bruce Mitchell. June 29th, 2012 at 2:57 am

Stephen,

I attended one of your courses a few years ago in London. I work in the UK Civil Service. And I share your irritation. Bureaucracy sucks. Many systems in the modern world seen to be constructed to obstruct rather than facilitate, and certain Kafkaesque personalities within them seem to revel in the whiff of power this confers upon them. I hope you do reconsider and in due course return to the UK.

By Stephen Few. June 29th, 2012 at 8:19 am

Hi Bruce,

I’m not planning to remove the UK from my map, but I’m finding it difficult to resolve the nonsense. The Border Agency has so far refused to respond to inquiries. Companies that provide visa acquisition services don’t seem to know what kind of visa is required, assuming that one is required in the first place. I’m currently working with my sponsor in the UK to find a barrister that specializes in immigration law who can provide definitive, trustworthy answers. Once I know the score, I can take steps to visit my old friend the UK again.