Reading a piece in The Guardian
newspaper in mid-October, I came upon the following statement: 'In grand bureaucracies such as the health service or social care, the citizen confronts what can seem an overwhelming power. Each edifice is barricaded behind zombie phone lines of recorded voices and websites awash in codes and passwords. All are designed to deter any but the most determined assault. The modern state is an electronic fortress'.
Never before have I experienced a eureka moment of such intensity. Never before has an inchoate range of thoughts and feelings of my own, been defined and clarified with such striking precision, as on this occasion. 'The modern state is an electronic fortress.' Yes, yes, exactly, exactly! But before returning to the central contention, let me reminisce over what on the face of it seems like an irrelevant memory of my own.
As a young driver in the 1960s, I have a clear recollection of what happened when my car was low on petrol. Turning in to the nearest garage, I'd be greeted by a cheerful attendant who, while I was turning down the driver's window to tell him how many gallons I wanted, would pass the time of day, and probably wipe down my windscreen, before unscrewing my petrol cap and filling up my tank. Service with a smile…
But by the end of the 1960s, things were changing. Years earlier in California (where else?), someone had come up with the idea of the self-service petrol pump. Initially, an attendant was still required to activate the pump, but in time an attendant inside the station was able to activate the pump outside.
Eventually, by the 1990s, even payment was being made at the pump. Attendants were no longer required. Great news for the petrol station owners whose profits rose accordingly. Now the driver did all the work. And a model of self-service was firmly established – and soon in no way restricted to drivers and petrol pumps. Supermarkets, for example, were virtually defined as shops where check-outs scarcely existed and customers did all the business of paying for their purchases. However, it was the emergence of the new technology that established self-service as universally the new order of the day.
Today's smart phones, tablets, and apps mean that the individual now has almost unlimited power over how much they choose to do for themselves. Online banking, online shopping, online healthcare – for the millennial generation in particular, who have grown up knowing or experiencing no other world than the digital one – the level of personal freedom seems unlimited. There is no denying there is much to admire and wonder at in all of this. It is in many ways a brave new world.
But there is a but. Which takes me back to the 'electronic fortress'. All this self-serving is about taking back control, saving time, and getting things done. But for some of us at least the reality is very different. What should be an easy way of doing things all too often turns out to be a series of hurdles with which one struggles to cope.
In his Guardian
comments, Simon Jenkins perhaps goes too far in suggesting that the fortress is designed to deter, but its existence is all too true a reality. Over and over again, on all kinds of issue, I find myself with a question to ask, or advice to be sought. But when the phone is answered, it is never by a living person. Instead, a disembodied voice tells me to listen carefully and choose from the following list of options the one relevant to my query. But, as it happens, none of them are. So what am I meant to do? Give up? Or choose at random, and hope a live person answering will be good enough to help me out? (To be fair, often they are.)
Worse still are the many occasions when I'm seeking help or guidance from an institution or organisation, and what comes up on my screen are the dreaded words: 'Please enter your password'. Needless to say, I had no idea I had or needed one. Still all is not lost. Up comes: 'Forgotten your password? Click here to create a new on'. So begins another attempt to breach the electronic fortress. I suggest a word. No that won't do – it has too many or too few letters – or it must include a number – or at least one capital letter. And so it goes, and rather than feeling that I'm taking back control or saving time or feeling any kind of freedom, I'm feeling frazzled, worn out, or needing a drink to recover.
Then again, the password issue is not the sole form of defence. Responding to my plea for help, the disembodied voice will inform me that the line is so busy at this particular time, that I should consider calling back at a later time. On the other hand, if I don't mind waiting, I can be added to the list of would-be callers. My position on the list is seventh. The voice is now succeeded by soothing music. The music stops and another voice apologises for the delay. The music returns. So it goes on. Slowly I move up the list. But 10 minutes later, I'm still only number four. Do I concede defeat? Almost certainly. I hang up the phone and remember the good old days when real people answered the telephone.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow