Computer says no. (Little Britain/BBC)

February 5, 2024   4 mins

An older relative of mine — I’ll call her Jan — moved house a couple of years ago. She’s in her late seventies, and technology scares her: she doesn’t like the fact that everything is done via app or website. When she moved, she had to go online to switch energy provider. This was the beginning of what we refer to as The Bill.

A couple of weeks after the switch, a bill of around ÂŁ1,000 arrived on her mat. She had only been living in her new home for a few days. For weeks, then months, Jan emailed and phoned. She spoke to customer service bots, payment teams, even engineers. She created accounts and new passwords. At one point a new customer account offered hope, before another ÂŁ1,000 bill was autogenerated. The Bill remained; nothing could shift it.

The case is unresolved. One computer-literate family member has dedicated dozens of hours to The Bill, but still it looms. Nothing and no-one can win an argument with the automated system. Months of Jan’s life have been consumed by this; and her confidence in dealing with any kind of technology is now irreparably damaged.

Jan is a victim of “techno-admin”: it’s a pervasive phenomenon, whereby we customers are forced into infuriating, confusing, absurdly time-consuming and bleakly unrewarding tasks by a machine. You probably have a similar story. How many incorrect bills, unprocessed address changes, reminder notices printed in error? How many sleepless nights? It is the scourge of our age.

It’s all over the news, too. The energy company EDF recently issued artist Grayson Perry with a ÂŁ39,000 monthly electricity bill, which to a machine seemed like a perfectly normal ÂŁ38,700 increase on the previous one. Perry spent three tedious hours fixing it. And of course, there is the Post Office Horizon scandal: techno-admin at its cruellest. At the sharp end, postmasters were incorrectly told by Fujitsu’s accounting software that they were in arrears, and the Post Office subsequently hounded them, ruining hundreds of lives, careers, and reputations. At the softer end, thousands endured hours of stressful, fruitless phone calls and complaints. All because the people in charge found it easier to trust a machine than ask difficult questions of their own organisation.

We are all sub-postmasters these days: each of us daily dealing with computer systems which make our lives harder. How much of your workday is taken up with tasks like the following: filling in a lengthy online form, which crashes just as the finish line draws near; spending hours trying to cancel an online subscription; coming face-to-face with the dreaded “Schrödinger’s account”: you try to sign into an it using your email address, only to be told there is no such account; you try to create a new account with the same email address, and you are told one already exists.

These are rarely the consumer’s fault. Companies make errors, which you end up paying for. When Hackney Council was the victim of a ransomware attack a couple of years back, the service disruption was well-documented. Less discussed is the amount of techno-admin imposed on the borough’s 250,000 residents as a result. The fact that legitimate organisations routinely make such enormous mistakes makes it a lot easier for criminals to operate. I know of one person whose number plate was ‘cloned’: someone is driving around with his registration on their car, and this poor chap has spent hours appealing fines because ‘the system’ can’t or won’t recognise that it is not actually his car.

And last week, I spoke to a fraud professional who told me his son-in-law’s identity was stolen by SMS fraudsters who pretended to be his phone provider. They re-registered his number, got into his mobile banking and tried to take out loans in his name. After two months of effort, he still hasn’t got his old mobile number back. It’s unfair to blame the victim: many banks insist on some text-based communications, although they aren’t as secure as people assume. It won’t be long before everyone is terrified of answering their phone, lest it be a sophisticated scam.

Could the UK’s productivity problem, which has flatlined since 2010, be partly caused by the surge in techno-admin? Large firms use automation and digitisation to cut staff and reduce overheads, especially when it comes to customer service — but what they have actually done is outsource the admin work to us, the customer. We are the ones now form-filling, changing passwords and fixing mistakes. We are the ones paying to sit in a telephone queue for an hour. And don’t forget techno-admin has to be carried out during work hours, because lines close at 6pm.

Forcing us to do techno-admin doesn’t even save the companies much money. One business processes specialist I spoke to explained that the moment things are automated and digitised, complicated software is involved. Which means that whenever there is a problem, you need high-skilled and, therefore, well-paid staffers. Or you need to call on the software providers — the Fujitsus of this world — which just adds more layers and delays and expense. This is probably why the UK’s chief auditor recently claimed that the government could save ÂŁ20 billion by — among other things — modernising its IT systems. In the NHS, outdated IT systems are thought to have contributed to multiple deaths.

“Automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency”, claims Bill Gates, but “automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” In other words, automation mostly works when you can standardise inputs and outputs. But humans aren’t a Ford factory production line: we’re messy and things go wrong all the time.

In the coming years, more decisions and tasks will be outsourced to ever smarter AI: decisions relating to spending, sentencing, military tactics, housing allocation. But ever fewer people will understand how any of these systems actually work. Staff won’t dare to question them.

Picture the frictionless future of ubiquitous smart machines: you head downstairs in the morning to make a coffee when — oh! The smart coffee machine needs a software upgrade! Unfortunately, you’ve lost your account details, and cannot recall which of your 25 email addresses you signed up with in the first place. But no time to fix that now, because you are struggling to log into the kids’ remote homework platform. Apparently, your laptop needs a new app, which will only work if you download some other software first. In the meantime, the bank’s been in touch with an urgent fraud warning — at least, the voice on the line sounded like the bank, but who can really be sure these days — so now you need to change all your passwords.

It won’t be long before simply living will be a full-time job. And at that point, UK productivity will finally hit zero. Then, and only then, when the economy has collapsed into a black hole of rage and wasted time, might we rebel against the pointless, painful scourge of techno-admin.

is the author of The People Vs Tech (2018) & The Dark Net (2015)’.