27 April 2017
Slaves Of The Machine (Part II)
An epic and extraordinary journey through a hostile sci-fi universe.
By Neil Tidmarsh
I’ve seen the future, and it’s a right cock-up. Machine-driven, yes, but get this – the machines have turned into humans, and the humans have turned into machines.
Strictly speaking, I haven’t seen the future – I’ve heard it, I’ve spoken to it. Anyone can – just ‘phone 0343 2222222. Some of you might recognise that number (yes, I can hear your moans of anguish and screams of terror), but for those of you who don’t know it, who even now are reaching for your phones to experience the future in all its weird science-fiction madness, I should warn you. This is the number of none other than (I hesitate, trembling with horror as I brace myself to spell it out) – Congestion Charging London.
I drove in central London last Friday, so I owed Congestion Charging £5.75. (I live inside the zone, so I get a resident’s 90% discount; that should actually translate to £1.15 for one day, but understandably they don’t want to mess around with such paltry sums, so the resident has to pay for at least a week – that’s £5.75 – even if he drives for only one day. I have no complaint about that – I’m well past caring about such trifling injustices – £5.75 is still less than the £11.50 non-residents have to pay for a day, and much less than the £57.50 they have to pay for a week).
So I phone that number and follow the familiar route through the many-layered and many-optioned menus of its automated system. Yes, I want to pay the charge. Yes, I am registered. I input my account number. I input the pin number. No, I don’t want to pay for today only (spot the logic-gap there; I do want to pay for today only, but if I choose that option here, the system will calculate the sum owing as £1.15 and then collapse into a hissing, sparking, smoking heap of over-heated silicon chips when it tries to process the payment). No, I don’t want to pay for tomorrow. No, I don’t want to pay for yesterday. Yes, I do want to pay for some other period. Yes, I do want to pay for a week. Starting today, Friday 21 April.
A moment’s pause while the machine calculates the amount owing. Nearly there now. In just a moment, I’ll be free. I’ll be £5.75 poorer, but I’ll have paid my debt and I can move on.
The machine speaks. “£57.50” it says.
What? No, that’s wrong. That’s the weekly rate for a non-resident. This hasn’t happened before. What’s going on? I must have made a mistake. I must have pressed the wrong button, chosen the wrong option…
I hang up and try again. Account number, pin number, yes, no, no, no, yes, etc, etc. And the amount owing is…
So I haven’t made a mistake. The mistake must be elsewhere. It must be the machine’s mistake…
It’s then that I have that revelatory glimpse of the machine. I see him cleary, in my mind’s eye. He’s no longer a machine, oh no, he’s a human being at its most human – lazy, stupid, inefficient. He’s slouching in his chair, his are feet up on his desk. He can’t be bothered to get this right. It’s Friday evening, he’s pissed off that everyone else is down the pub and he’s still stuck here, on the last shift of the week. There’s a fag in his hand, the top buttons of his shirt are undone, his tie is hanging loose, his eyes are on the clock. No, he’ll be buggered if he’s going to make an effort at this end of the day.
I hang up and try again, this time choosing an option to speak to a real human operative.
“No-there-is-no-fault-on-your-account,” I am told. “You-are-still-registered-as-a-resident. Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system. No-I-cannot-change-the-system. No-I-cannot-help-you. You-owe-£5.75-but-you-must-pay-£57.50.”
What? Can’t you just take payment for £5.75?”
Ok. I wait to be connected. It’s getting late, I’m tired, I’ve been on the road all day, there’s washing to do, ironing to do, food to buy, a meal to cook, the last episode of Decline and Fall to be watched (already two weeks old and about to disappear from catch-up for ever). But I wait, patiently, because we’re nearly there…
Connected at last. But my heart sinks when I realise that I’m back in the automated system. Never mind, it’ll be different this time. I go through the menus again, and at last the automated voice tells me that I owe
The machine takes a drag on his fag. His feet are still up on his desk. He looks me straight in the eye, and a ‘give-a-shit’ smirk spreads across his stupid face. He blows out a cloud of noxious smoke and slowly raises his fag-free hand to give me the middle finger.
My whole being begins to throb with fury. I hang up and try again, once more choosing to speak to a ‘human’ operative.
“Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system. No-I-cannot-help-you. No-I-cannot-change-the-system. The-payment-lines-are-no-longer-open. Call-back-tomorrow-and-we-will-take-payment-then.”
Hang on a second, I say. I have to pay today or I’ll be penalised for late payment. If I leave it until tomorrow, I’ll be charged an extra ten quid, nearly, for being overdue. I’ll have to pay £14. And that will cover just the one day itself, not even the full week.
“No. I-assure-you-that-will-not-happen. I-have-put-a-note-in-your-records. You-will-have-to-pay-only-£5.75.”
I phone back the next morning. I explain the situation.
“You-are-one-day-overdue,” the ‘human’ says. “You-must-now-pay-£14. For-the-day-only. The-resident’s-weekly-charge-is-no-longer-available-because-you-are-a-day-late.”
I want to scream, shout, kill something. But I bite my tongue and sit still. Don’t lose your temper with them, I tell myself. They can’t help it. It isn’t their fault. You are a victim of the machine, but they are its slaves. They’ve been its captives for so long that they’ve turned into machines themselves. Poor bastards. I explain everything again to this particular poor bastard, as clearly as I can.
“There-is-a-fault-in-the-system. I-cannot-change-the-system. I-cannot-help-you. You-must-now-pay-£14. You-can-write-to-us-and-appeal-for-a-refund-if-you-wish.”
An appeal? I see the machine – the system – the master of the poor human-turned-robot I’m talking to – standing bleary-eyed and naked in a bathroom. This is Saturday morning, after all. He’s pale-skinned, pot-bellied, skinny-shouldered. In one hand he holds the first fag of the day – he takes a drag on it and convulses in a bout of gut-wrenching coughs – and in the other he holds a sheet of paper. It’s my appeal, which I’ve submitted in an alternate reality where I’m even more naïve than I am in this one. He reads it slowly. He scratches his head, ignorance and stupidity furrowing his primitive brows. Then he wipes his backside with the appeal and flushes it down the toilet.
Is there someone else I can talk to, I ask? Your supervisor, perhaps? Your manager?
A pause, then a team leader comes on the line. “I-cannot-help-you,” he says. “There-is-a-fault-in-the-system. I-cannot-change-the-system. You-must-pay-£14.”
Something explodes in my head. I’m blinded by a red mist of rage, deafened by a blast of anger. I don’t know what I say (I fear the worse, but my wife – who couldn’t help overhearing – assured me later that I was spookily calm and polite, perfectly coherent and articulate) but there’s a pause as the team leader goes off to confer with yet another poor bastard.
“Someone-will-call-you-on-Monday” he says when he returns. “We-have-your-land-line-number-and-your-mobile-number.”
I breathe out slowly. “Thank you.” I’m about to hang up when one other thing occurs to me. “By the way, when the automated system asks for my pin number, it won’t accept my pin number. It will only accept my wife’s pin number, presumably because she is the actual account holder?”
“Ok. Then perhaps that option should be changed so that it does accept any valid pin number on that account? Or, if that’s too complicated, then surely it would be simple enough to change the message from ‘Now enter your pin number’ to ‘Now enter the account holder’s pin number’ ?”
“No. I-cannot-help-you. It-is-another-fault-in-the-system-but-I-cannot-change-the-system.”
I hang up quickly before another explosion can tear my head open.
Monday morning. No call. Monday afternoon: silence. What’s going on? Amazingly, they are trying to call me – but, predictably, they’ve got the wrong number. I learn later that they input one digit wrong in our land-line number when setting up our account. But late afternoon an urgent message does reach me in a round-about way too complicated to go into here. Someone called Richard (name changed to protect the whatever) – didn’t give a surname – from Congestion Charging is trying to contact me. He’s left a number for me to call back. Oh good, a direct line number? No. An extension number? No. Oh God, no, it’s that 0343 2222222. Nevertheless I grit my teeth and make the call. I fight my way through the automated menu. And then:
“We’re sorry to keep you waiting. Please continue to hold. We expect to answer your call in – more than ten minutes.”
I wait. The minutes grind by. The message repeats itself a dozen times, two dozen times. And then a real human voice:
“Our-system-is-down. I-am-unable-to-open your-file-while-system-updates-take-place. I-can-only-answer-general-queries.”
But I have a specific query, I say. An urgent one.
“Then-I-cannot-help-you. You-must-ring-back-in-an-hour-when-the-system-updates-have-completed. Good-bye.”
The machine – the system – has passed out after a three-hour lunch-break down at the pub. There he is, under his desk, snoring and farting away, flat out in a puddle of vomit.
I hang up. An hour passes. My blood-pressure rises. I phone again. I fight my way through the automated menu. Again. Then “We’re sorry to keep you waiting. Please continue to hold. We expect to answer your call in – more than six minutes.” Oh God. And then, finally, I’m through to a human being. “Richard” I gasp. “I must speak to Richard. He asked me to call back. It’s urgent – ”
“Who-is-Richard? I-do-not-know-Richard. There-are-many-people-working-here. Which-one-is-Richard? I-cannot-tell-who-is-Richard.”
I ask – none too politely, none too quietly – to speak to a manager, a supervisor, someone who might know the names of the people who work for him.
“I-cannot-transfer-you-to-a-higher-level-without-authorisation. The-system – “
I hang up before I can say anything I regret, though I suspect I’ve already said it. I wait, calm down a bit, then phone again. I am at least calm enough to give my account number and pin number to the woman who answers. She examines the notes on my file and puts me on hold while she makes enquiries. I wait. And wait. She returns. Richard, she has discovered, works in another department, in the payment department. She transfers my call. I wait. And then;
“ – – – – – – – – -“
Someone – Richard? – is trying to talk to me, but I can barely hear him. The line is too faint. He raises his voice until he must be shouting, and I can just about hear him apologising for the bad line, telling me to hang up and he’ll call me back. And indeed he does, straight away.
No. Stop. That isn’t right. I don’t want to take the piss any more. Richard isn’t a robot. He’s a human being. In fact, he turns out to be a representative of humanity at its very best. Caught between an enraged and deranged customer shouting at him on one side, and an inefficient, inflexible and yet unchallengeable Stalinist system on the other, he remains miraculously calm, polite, efficient and helpful. He’s ready to take my payment. But:
“That’ll be £6.90” he says.
What? But I only owe £5.75!
“I’m afraid the only way to get it through the system now is to pay £1.15 for last Friday, and then £5.75 for a week starting today.”
For a moment I’m tempted. What’s an extra £1.15? Isn’t it worth paying, just to get this over and done with? To escape from this nightmare? To stop losing time? God, I must have wasted whole days on this farce… But then the red mist rises. No! Don’t let them get away with it! It’s a matter of principle! I owe no more than £5.75! I will not pay more than £5.75! I will not give way to extortion!
I’m aware that I’m shouting again, and I suspect that I’m barely coherent.
“All right” Richard says uncertainly. “Let me discuss this with someone else. I’ll just put you on hold for a moment.”
He puts me on hold – and the line goes dead. I stare at the phone in disbelief.
The system grins drunkenly, and gives me the middle finger again.
That’s the last I hear from Richard, I think.
But the phone rings almost immediately. It is indeed Richard. He apologises, and says “Right, ok, I’ll take your payment of £5.75, if you’re ready.”
At last! At last! A miracle! But he doesn’t sound too sure of himself. Am I about to fall into a trap? The machine – the system – has turned his back on me. I can’t see what he’s doing but I can hear his imbecile giggling. I suspect that he’s preparing a nice juicy penalty notice for me, which he’ll hit me with in a week or two’s time, fining me hundreds of quid for late payment, or incorrect payment, or…
Are you sure? I say.
He’s not sure. Wait, he says, I’m just going to put you on hold while I double check.
I wait, on hold, and then he returns.
“All right” he says. “This is what we’re going to do. We’ll take a payment of £1.15 off you – that’ll pay for last Friday. But last Friday only. You’ll have to pay separately for this week if that’s what you want.”
I think about it as it slowly sinks in. That’s fair. That’s reasonable. And I’m not really bothered about this week, only last Friday. I’m willing to pay £5.75, but if there’s no other way…
So I pay £1.15. He takes my card details and we’re done.
I thank him and say goodbye, but he has one last suggestion. He recommends that I sign up for Autopayment. For £10 a year, the system would automatically take payment whenever it saw my car out on the street in the zone. I wouldn’t have to bother with paying by phone or on-line; I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to pay and incurring a penalty; and best of all it would charge by the day, not by the week.
I’m tempted. It would save me a lot of money and bother. And then I catch one last glimpse of the machine, the system. He’s nodding eagerly, grinning and leering at me, his eyes gleaming with a stupid peasant’s greed and cunning. With one hand he’s giving me the thumbs up, with the other he’s gesturing to me to give him my credit card.
I laugh. How can I trust a system which has been fighting me tooth and nail for the last three days, trying to take money off me which I don’t owe it? No thanks. Goodbye.
And that was that. At last. Unless of course a penalty notice hits me in a week or two’s time, fining me for not paying the full £5.75, or being late, or…
The irony is that I approve of congestion charging. I’m one of its few champions. I live in central London so I support anything which might improve the air quality here. I hardly ever drive; I travel by bus (which congestion charging subsidises) or by that other miracle of Transport For London, Santander bikes. By the way, it always amazes me that those two bodies – congestion charging and bike hire – are complete opposites as organisations while both being under the same Transport For London umbrella. If you phone up bike hire with a problem, they’ll solve it straight away. They’re efficient, enabled, flexible, customer-leaning, service-oriented. Whereas Congestion Charging is… well, don’t get me going again.
I caught that last episode of Decline and Fall on the BBC iPlayer in the end (there – not all machines are bad, are they?). I was pleased that the TV adaptation had more heart and warmth than the original – I’ve always found Waugh’s humour just a bit too cold and cruel. But then I wondered what that savage bad-tempered old satirist would have made of congestion charging for London.
He’d have torn it to bits and buried it six feet under. And it would have served it right.
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