Too late now… We have already turned our world over to computers

Science fiction has loved to project a future world where computers have taken over… well it is no longer fiction. It is fact – here and now.

Recently I was shocked to hear from a company that charges me for storage that my credit card had been declined. My first thought was that the card had expired, but then I saw that it didn’t expire until next year. So I called the bank that issued the card (TD) – which led to four hours of hell. In the process I learnt, the hard way, that TD had multiple layers of defense against their customers (i.e. human beings).

The first layer is that the phone rings and rings until answered by a computer voice telling me “they are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls..” and that I should expect to wait up to 40 minutes… The next layer is that the human voice that finally answers is totally clueless and impotent. Which eventually leads to the person saying I will transfer you to somebody that can assist you with that…

After the long wait listening to computer generated music, I learn that my card was charged by an organization that they had recognized as fraudulent – so “they” (that I later established was actually “it” – the villain of this story, their computer system…) had blocked the charge – so then I had to be transferred to the fraud department. Another seemingly endless wait for a voice… then I am asked to confirm that two charges the day before were unauthorized. Then, I am told that the card has been blocked – and therefore a new card will be issued within two weeks to replace it.

At that point I decided to make a stand… I said “no”, I don’t want it to be blocked and explained that there was a small army of people/merchants that had the card paying for future purchases/services. If the card has been used by a fraudulent organization that is the bank’s problem. And why didn’t they tell me it was being blocked? Answer “we have been very busy – we would have told you when we had cleared our backlog…” The human underling then explained (reading from a computer screen) that it was to protect me. That it was “the only way”. The card must be cancelled, and a new card issued. When I persisted that this should be my decision, I was told I would be transferred…but first the person had to complete a computer form detailing my complaint… I wait until the voice returns and tells me to wait until “I transfer your call…”

This sequence is repeated three more times as I ascended TD’s corporate ladder. By that time, I must confess that I was verbalizing my frustration at high decibels… “Don’t you have any human beings in your organization that are able to override your computers!” I was furious.

Finally, I heard a female (human) voice that said she was the “Operations Manager” and that she could unblock the account with the inevitable “but” that first she had to fill out a computer screen, basically saying that she had told me that I shouldn’t do this and that I understood that I was creating the nightmare situation that the computer’s wishes were being violated. “Would I accept that an electronic communication will be sent to me to confirm that these horrific instructions had been given by me?” I accepted, and dutifully read the computer disclaimers… Finally with an audible sigh by the suffering human being at the bank I was told “the block has been removed”. It was clear that I had put her through hell by forcing her boss (the computer) to yield to a mere customer. I almost felt sorry for her… But if I didn’t make a stand who will?

Of course, I know that my victory was hollow. Somewhere (in a credit bureau?) there is a computer that is now aware of my obstinate refusal to accept computer authority. There will be a price… It is a computer world now.

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