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Balance of the force – the Open Source Column

Human beings are still worth cherishing, even if the computer can do it all, argues Simon

there’s something to be said for a low-tech approach to life. I once worked in an office where, frustrated at the lack of work being done by his sales staff, the managing director ordered excel to be uninstalled from all of their machines. He also insisted they have days where they switched the computers off. They weren’t popular, but almost inevitably, when the numbers came back (calculated on a computer, of course), they were up.

Conversely, there are jobs that computers are very good at complicating. Just this morning, I left a shop without the morning paper, because it wouldn’t scan at the till. The assistant gamely battled on for a good minute or two to find the right code, but without the magic elixir of numbers, she was unable to register the sale in the till. I gave up, left empty-handed, but with my coins still rattling around my pocket.

My favourite example, although this is a lesser problem in these more sophisticated days, was when pubs and restaurants started to migrate over to computerised ordering systems. If ever you wanted to cause wholesale confusion, all you had to do was order yourself a pie and chips, but ask for it without peas. Sadly, computerised systems in days of old didn’t have a button for no peas, and so a traipse to the kitchen ensued, to deliver the vital message in person. Greenery was thus kept at bay in a way that probably took more time than if the whole system had been human-driven in the first place.

The computer as the scapegoat, of course, is nothing new. Ever since legions of office workers realised that you could blame ‘the system’ for sitting down and doing sweet nothing for a couple of hours, it’s usurped whatever the previous equivalent of the dog eating your homework happened to be.

However, what’s interesting about modern- day computing, outside of the palaces of Microsoft, is how broad the scope of change is happening to be. The big evolutions are all but gone, and so it’s more lateral little moves that continue to take place. As such, especially given community-driven development, small problems – such as a desire to pass on some healthy vegetables – can be quickly fixed. It remains staggering therefore that proprietary system manufacturers still struggle to wrap their heads around a satisfactory way to ensure that the machines they sell can cope with the nuances of the jobs they’re intended to. Granted, there are more pressing concerns than ensuring a newspaper scans at the till, but where’s the contingency? Where’s the methodology by which this can be quickly addressed? And on a smaller level, isn’t it just possible to accept cash, without every system needing a full dose of product information before proceeding with a sale?

The one feature of technology, ultimately, that tends to be overlooked is that it arrives with an off switch in place. Every now and then, there’s no harm pressing said off switch and appreciating some of the jobs that human beings can do better, without glaring at a touch- screen interface in the vain hope of hitting a magical combination of buttons to thus unlock something relatively simple.

Fortunately for me, I never really wanted the newspaper anyway…

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