HOW IT HAPPENED I really don't remember and just why it happened is also beyond me but the fact of the matter is that once in my life, in an incarnation in which I worked for an insurance company, I worked with a computer. It was a nice computer, a new computer, a recently installed computer made by those nice people at IBM and one day, because I was in love and it was spring, I forgot what I was doing and canceled the policies of something like 200 people. That's how I learned about computer error.
I took those little computer cards, cards with little rectangles punched in them, cards that were not to be spindled or mutilated, and I accidentally threw them away. I was supposed to duplicate them or something and I did not. I threw them away and later the computer canceled the policies of all the poeple whose cards I had thrown away. The computer sent them a letter, a rather nice letter, actually, and it said, more or less, that they were canceled for being deadbeats. They were suitably furious.
They called. Boy did they call. I took some of the calls but the salesman took most of the calls and all of us said computer error. The computer, of course, said nothing. The computer, of course, had made no error at all. It was being framed, blamed, taking a fall. It was, like all computer error, really human error one step removed. This, I sometimes think is my little secret.
Recently, for instance, the weather services miscalculated by no more than a foot or two the depth of the February snowfall that turned out to be a blizzard. When asked how such a thing could have happened, the spokesman for nearly all the services put the blame on the Mable of this age-their computers. No one asked them who had programmed the computers or what exactly they meant by computer error and if, say, human beings had any part in the process-even if someone looked out the window. Nothing like that. No one questions computer error.
In its own way, the computer has become something of a deity, something supernatural, a force of nature, as if there is no accounting for it-like the weather or teen-age love. It's the universal response. Ask some department store about a nasty letter they sent you, and they tell you the computer did it. Ask about a cancellation and you're told the computer canceled. Should you infer, even hint, that you will hold human beings responsible for the acts of a computer-sort of like parent and child-you get the hum of silence on the other end of the phone-some clerk turning to a coleague and whispering that a nut is on the line. These people believe in the computer as monster.
This dark and menacing side to the computer is used by bill collectors the way cops used to work over witnesses in the stationhouse-the old nice-cop, mean-cop routine. What you get is some understanding, sympathetic person and then some killer of a computer. The person says one thing, the computer something else and when you complain to the person you get a shrug and the explanation that there is no controlling the computer.
Recently, for instance, the American Express Co. ("Do you know me? I'm deeply in debt.") and I had a little dispute. I talked to a very nice person and then got a very nasty letter. The person blamed the computer. I got another nasty letter. I and the person reached an understanding. The computer persisted. The computer threatened to cancel me. The person said there was nothing he-and then she-could do. After a while, I got to see the computer as this monster, green and throbbing, lots of arms and lots of eyes, that would not be satisfied until it was fed my money. I paid.
That, of course, is the value of computers. They are the enforcers of business. They make you pay. They are the only things left who can still say no. They listen to no sob stories, weep at nothing, and never fall for the old routine that the check is in the mail. You cannot get cute with them on the phone, ask them what their nickname is ("Do your friends call you Debbie, Debbie?"), but neither can you reason with them. In fact, they cannot reason at all, which is why they cannot make mistakes.
This is something I've known since I almost single-handedly wiped out a fairly propserous insurance company. When I blamed it on the computer, I felt like I did when as a kid I used to blame things on a particularly sullen and unapproachable cleaning woman. She was so efficient and so dependable that no one would dream of accusing her of breaking an occasional object for fear that she would quit. She never suffered and I never suffered and no one was accountable for anthing. It was wonderful.
It was like having my own computer.