A small personal story: Last week Boots the chemist rang through to my home that antibiotics for my bedbound mother were ready for delivery. As sometimes the way, I would be out with shopping and other business over some of the following two days. An older mind like my mother’s might imagine a note for the driver to call at one of the times I would be in would suffice. Not so fast. As soon as medications are ready, all is passed on to the computer which works out the route(s) the drivers have to follow. Delivery times are set as 8-1 or 1-6, and no further detail can be guaranteed.
In the event, this particular little saga turned out well, but it does illustrate the inflexibility that comes with systems used by organisations of all kinds. If I ask a human being to make a special arrangement, she may well oblige. If I ask a machine it won’t recognise the request without extra subroutines in its program. We are used to government IT schemes running into trouble, but one finds the rigidity of machine systems across all types of business, including ones with a good reputation like Boots (a private sector business; with, of course, shares quoted on the Stock Exchange to make it a ‘public’ company). Meanwhile, Volkswagen (a business with a foot in both public and private camps) have just shown us that special arrangements via computer program can be a real hazard – after all, would a human being dare offer so much?
Just a thought: should we care less about whether activities and organisations are ‘public’ or ‘private’, especially bearing in mind the complexities of defining either of those terms, and more about how we deal with large institutions and their computer systems?