Friday 10 January 2014

When you lean against an Oyster machine by mistake

It struck me a few days ago, as I climbed on a London bus, how the everyday rituals of life change so quickly.

Until 2005 or so, the words "time, gentlemen, please" were pretty familiar - even if landlords tended to cover both genders by then.  But, a decade ago, would we have imagined that very familiar feeling of putting an Oyster card on the reader only to find there was not enough cash - especially if we have waited for the bus for 15 minutes or so in the rain beforehand?

This happened to me over the weekend again and I discovered, because the driver told me, that I can now pay with a debit card, swiping it across the reader.

My Co-op card didn't work (another irritation with Co-op) but my other card duly lost £1.40 in one quick sweep.

This is, of course, very convenient.  But there are a couple of worries about it, and they are linked.

The first is that our local buses are often absolutely packed on a rainy evening, and I have often squeezed in up against the card reader myself.  If I do so now, the machine is liable to debit me £1.40.

The second is that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about this.  The driver is powerless to put it right because the infrastructure is extremely distant, opaque and unresponsive.  We know how often the software makes a mistake, and of course you can get it put right - but the prospect is exhausting and it is intended to be.

This is true in so many areas of modern life.  There are complex systems between us and the organisations we use, and the drivers or conductors or cashiers are now powerless machine minders, trusted to do little more than press go and stop.

This is fine most of the time, but we have all had infuriating experiences when it is not fine - and nobody is able to put things right, as the bus conductor would have been able to do in my youth.

It is hard to underestimate how much this trend has alienated us from the faceless, unresponsive agencies that now dominate our lives.  It is important, a major barely-debated shift.

Is there a solution?  In the medium-term, software is going to be more flexible for all of us - or so I believe - and the concrete, McKinsey-style systems of control will begin to look like dinosaurs.

In the meantime, we need to find ways that intermediaries can over-ride these systems immediately, easily and transparently.  If only for the sake of human dignity.


Anonymous said...

Great post - thanks David.

But is this problem really anything more than the acceleration of technological development? New systems and practices have usually been alienating, distant and unaccountable, ever since the Industrial Revolution (or possibly the Roman Invasion of 43AD). It's just that these 'updates' are more frequent now.

(From Iain King)

Dave Birch said...

Actually I think the more common problem is that people put their bank card in the same wallet as their Oyster and as a consequence neither of them work. Will e-mail.