Tech Complexity and the New Dark Ages

By James A. Bacon and originally published on Bacon’s Rebellion. Republished here with permission.

There are numerous existential threats to Western civilization – reckless fiscal and monetary policies leading to government collapse, vigilance that undermines every institution in our society, the rush towards a zero-carbon economy supported by a shaky power grid, and, least appreciated, the increasing complexity of technology and information systems. We have faced the first three perils, and we theoretically have the power to reverse them. But against the fourth we are powerless.

I’ve grumbled about system complexity in the past. Like most Americans, I now live on the Internet. I can’t function without them. And it’s a mess. Angry at the recent incidents, I feel compelled to escalate from ranting to outbursts of anger. Imagine me typing these words with spit on my lips and fire shooting out of my eyes.

My dismay began earlier this week while spending the night out of town on business. My old laptop was frustratingly slow and clunky so I broke down and went to Best Buy and bought a new one. When I brought my shiny new Samsung back to the hotel and tried to set it up, I got into a Catch 22. I couldn’t connect to the internet, my laptop told me, because the time on the laptop’s internal clock needed to be reset. But I couldn’t turn back the clock because… I couldn’t get on the internet!

No problem, I thought. I just turn on my iPhone hotspot and go online long enough to reset the clock. For reasons I can’t fathom, I couldn’t sync my iPhone Bluetooth to my laptop. I had done this earlier in the day at a restaurant with my old clunky laptop. But now I couldn’t connect to my shiny new laptop.

OK, that was frustrating I thought, but no problem. I’m taking the laptop to the Geek Squad at Best Buy. So I called Geek Squad to make an appointment. Unfortunately, Geek Squad didn’t want to give me an appointment because my membership had just expired. And my membership was not renewed because the personal credit card they had on file was compromised and a new card was in the mail.

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No problem, I thought. I will only use my debit card.

Then I made a mistake. I should have known better. I googled “Geek Squad” on my iPhone and clicked on the top search engine result. Unbeknownst to me, the website was not the real Geek Squad, but a double. It told me to enter my debit card number. Normally, that would have set off alarm bells. But I had received notifications that my Geek Squad subscription was about to expire and I figured Geek Squad had tried to renew my credit card and it hadn’t worked, so it seemed logical that I had to enter a new credit card Number. I have entered my debit card details. Nothing has happened. Frustrated, I punched in my business debit card. Nothing has happened. Then I realized oh no, this isn’t the Geek Squad website.

Long story short, I finally found the real Geek Squad website and connected to an agent through a chat line. I explained my problem. The agent asked – and I’m not making this up, I wrote it down – “If I understand the problem correctly, you need help with wifi poooter.”

“What is a Poooter?” I asked.

“noun, pooters (plural pooters). A glass jar used for collecting small insects, etc. It has two tubes, one (protected by a gauze) has two tubes, one (protected by a gauze) which is sucked in, the other into which the insect is drawn.”

I don’t know if I was dealing with a deranged AI program or a call center agent with an insane sense of humor, but I had never experienced anything like this before.

The Geek Squad chatbot (or whatever it was) couldn’t help me resolve my issue, but they did set me up for an appointment at Best Buy that evening. Geek Squad is a solid squad and the Best Buy guy found out my Samsung needs a huge round of updates…. like half a year worth. No wonder the stuff didn’t work properly. Thank you Not!

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Meanwhile, late in the afternoon, I received notifications that my personal debit card and corporate debit card had been compromised. You might think it would be easy to get in touch with a bank to confirm that a particular transaction was indeed fraudulent.

So I called the bank that managed the corporate nonprofit account and got into phone tree hell. I couldn’t get through because I didn’t have the credit card password or pin number or something. After enduring an endless loop, repeating the same sequences over and over again, I was finally transported to a real person. I’m sure my obscene screams into the phone were the deciding factor in the end. But the living person transferred me to another person who transferred me to another line…. where I was held indefinitely. There I spent 15 to 20 minutes listening to music that included some kind of whistling jerk that made me want to rip my eardrums out, along with other infuriating ditties. It was now after 5pm, so as far as I knew everyone had gone home. Finally I gave up and handed the problem over to Tom, our Treasurer. Turns out the cards given to nonprofit clients didn’t have passwords (or PINs or whatever) so it would have been impossible to navigate the phone tree even if I knew what I was doing. The bank is aware of the problem, Tom said, but hasn’t gotten around to fixing it yet.

Meanwhile, while trying to cancel my personal debit card, I came across a new thing – voice recognition. I was asked to repeat the phrase: “My vote is my password, please verify me.” I did as instructed. It did not work. After that failed three times, I was told to do something else, I can’t remember what – my brain was now too fried to make coherent notes. That didn’t work either.

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Somehow I managed to get the card blocked.

Then I had a new problem. I was out of town and all three of my personal and business card were canceled. I had no way of paying for dinner. Oh wait, I had cash in my wallet.

And guess what. If I paid cash… it worked! No registrations. No passwords. No phone trees. They just took my money and gave me change. Wonder!

Bottom Line: We now live in a world where everything relies on the internet, which is wonderful when it works. However, IT systems are complex and do not always integrate well with each other. They are subject to relentless, never-ending attacks and are often compromised. Combine that reality with human frailty – forgetting passwords, mistyping passwords, getting banned for typing the wrong password too many times, falling for phishing schemes coming at you from all directions, dealing with helpdesk staff with unintelligible foreign words Accents – and you have a recipe for never-ending fear.

Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics (or whoever calculates productivity metrics) account for the extraordinary amount of time we Americans lose thrashing around — teeth grinding, ankles turning white, blood pressure rising — while we’re trying to make things work? I doubt it. Things are far worse than the government knows.

Look, I know I’m getting older and it’s harder for me to follow complex instructions, I make a lot of typos when entering passwords, and I just get confused. I know that some of my troubles are my own fault. But guess what – There are millions just like me! If the system only works for cafeterias, Microsoft-certified technicians, and those under 25, it’s aiming for a Thelma and Louis-like ending.

I’m waiting for the whole thing to collapse around the same time the grid goes dark and the government is too broke to help with anything.