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Technology September 2019

When the Computers Are Down …

By Arthur Vidro

“If you do that we’ll call the police ...”

“Fine. Call them. Then I’ll call the newspapers and explain how a cash-carrying customer trying to buy a loaf of bread with exact change in U.S. currency was denied the purchase solely because the computer wasn’t ready and able to do its job.

Nowadays almost any store can say “the computer’s down” and turn away its customers. It’s as if, unless the computer is operating perfectly, it’s not the store’s responsibility to conduct
business with you.

In the old days, we always found a way to conduct business.

Granted, computers are with us and they’re not going away. On the positive side, they often help a company operate smoothly and efficiently. But total dependency on a computer or any other electronics device leads to problems. Here are some examples I’ve observed.

Thirty years ago my boss nearly had a panic attack one afternoon when he went to the ATM at his bank only to learn it was on the fritz. He complained loudly and desperately to the bank manager.

The manager, unruffled, pointed to the main banking area and said, “Sir, we have human tellers too.”

My boss blushed. He was so computer-oriented he had forgotten about the human option. So for a change he did his banking with a human being. He even laughed at himself and his
dependence. But nowadays it’s no laughing matter, for we typically no longer have humans to step in when computers go on the fritz.

About 20 to 25 years ago, I presented my passbook to my longtime bank to record a deposit and update the interest. But they couldn’t do it. Why not? “The computers are down,” they repeatedly explained. I pointed out that in the pre-computer days they had stamped all the information into my passbook manually. Didn’t matter. Now they were totally dependent on a computer being ready and able to perform. Nothing I said made a difference.

To me, that was ridiculous.

About 15 years ago in a King Kullen supermarket, I tried to buy a loaf of bread. The price of the loaf was stamped on the wrapper. I had the exact change. But a cashier said I couldn’t buy it, because the power was out. (It was daylight, so no one had trouble seeing.)

That was the first time I fought back against the “computer is down” excuse. Little non-computerized grocery shops wouldn’t turn down my business, but this big chain supermarket was claiming helplessness. So I asked to speak to the manager. I explained the situation politely but firmly.

He replied there was no way the store could sell me the loaf of bread. Without power, the cash registers couldn’t operate. They couldn’t even open the cash drawer to put my payment in the till or to make change.

I told him I didn’t need change.

He pointed out that without power the item could not be electronically scanned. I asked what would be the harm of an item’s not being scanned.

He seemed incredulous. “Why, sir, every item must be scanned!”

“Why?” I repeated.

“Scanning allows our computerized inventory system to know when and where each item is checked out. Without this knowledge the system wouldn’t know when or how frequently to
replenish ...”

I cut him off. “Do you run this store, sir, or do the computers run it?”

“I run it,” he stated with pride. (The poor fool really meant it.)

“Then here is my money.” I placed it on a counter in front of him. “Take it or not, that’s up to you. But I am walking out with this loaf of bread. I understand you can’t print out a receipt, so I’ll take it like it is.”

“If you do that we’ll call the police ...”

“Fine. Call them. Then I’ll call the newspapers and explain how a cash-carrying customer trying to buy a loaf of bread with exact change in U.S. currency was denied the purchase solely because the computer wasn’t ready and able to do its job.”

The local daily newspaper served a market of more than three million people. He took my money and let me leave, but whispered a plea not to let the hundreds of other confused shoppers milling about know that I was being allowed to make a purchase, because then they would want to do so too.

That whole scene was ridiculous. But true.

But sometimes you can’t fight back. About ten years ago I walked through a blizzard to get to a pharmacy for some medicine. By the good graces, it was open. But the power was out. Because the power was out, no medicines could be scanned through the system. So even though my prescription medication was sitting there on the shelf and I was willing to pay for it in cold hard cash, they weren’t allowed to sell it to me, and I was told to come back after the power had returned.

There’s no way I can argue with rules governing the pharmaceutical industry, so I left empty-handed. Ridiculous but true.

All that, you might say, is ancient history. But the dependency pattern never ends ...

Last month at the local Sears Hometown, my wife and I purchased a new washing machine. Our old one had given out from old age. We quickly made our selection. The one employee there, a polite youngster named Aaron, ran our credit card through. Then he paused.The charge had been made, but the link between his computer and his printer wasn’t working, so he couldn’t print out a purchase receipt or a credit-charge receipt.

The credit-card charge had already been processed, and I explained I wasn’t leaving without specific evidence of what we had bought and for how much. If the wrong item got delivered, or if the wrong amount later appeared on our credit-card statement, I’d need proof of what it should have been.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Aaron said apologetically.

He was too young to remember the pre-computer days. To him, and perhaps all people his age, this was unsolvable. He felt miserable about it.

In a way I felt sorry for him, for his going through life so helplessly dependent on computers. I decided to put him out of his misery. I asked for a piece of paper and for permission to sit at his computer screen. Aaron obliged me. I fished a pen out of my pocket and wrote down all the information from the computer screen, then added onto the sheet of paper a box for Aaron to sign, showing the accuracy of the written information describing our transaction.

He gratefully signed it. Voila.

Society’s dependence on computers had not stopped us … because we transacted our business the old-fashioned way. When the computers are down, don’t let the business stop running.