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The Digitalisation of Human Thinking

“I wonder if you can help me?”

“Yes, Ma’am. What can I do for you today?”

“I purchased a new laptop from your company a month ago. The goods arrived within 7 days, but when our technology expert started to set it up he found there was a fault on the device. We contacted the company to inform them that there was a fault,  asking for instructions how to return the goods and whether and when to expect a replacement or refund.

Each email received a standard reply saying that our query would be answered in 48 hours. After several days of no reply to our specific questions, my secretary tried to telephone the helpline. After two hours, being placed on hold several times, she was told that we would receive notification from a carrier to collect the item. They could not answer any questions about replacement computer or refund until after collection. They could not give us a collection date because their responsibility ended at the point of handing over collection to the carrier.

Two weeks and four emails later, we eventually received notification that a carrier would be collecting the item to return to the factory. Three weeks after receiving the faulty item it was collected but no information was provided by the supplier regarding compensation for the customer.

After 7 days I emailed the company several times to ask whether to expect a replacement or a refund. Each time I received the standard reply saying that I would receive a response in 48 hours. I did not.

I am now telephoning you to demand that I receive a satisfactory answer as the company now has the benefit of the goods I ordered and my money. I cannot order a replacement item elsewhere as your company has received the money I would use to purchase it”.

“Excuse me Ma’am, can I put you on hold for you a few moments?”

Ten minutes later,

“Thank you for your call. We cannot answer this query because we have not had information from the warehouse”.

“I am not calling about an order, but when I will receive recompense for return of faulty goods”.

“Ma’am, I am going to have place you on hold again”.

“May I speak to someone senior?”

“I am sorry Ma’am, there is no one senior here for you to speak to”.

“Then, who are you consulting when you put me on hold?”

“If you call again in four hours, someone may be able to speak to you”.

“I have clients waiting to be seen. All I want is an answer”

“ I will put a note for this to be dealt with. You will receive a reply within 48 hours”.

Two emails later, one in which I informed the company that the matter would be passed to my solicitor, I have received an email saying to expect a refund. I still have no computer.

What struck me most about the process, was the inability of anyone within the system to think outside of the box. While technology has revolutionised modern living, in many ways for the better, it is also limiting the ability to treat people as individuals and to have flexible solutions to problems.

Technological solutions and systems are set up with a finite number of possibilities. Workers within these industries are trained to use the system and if the system does not have a solution built into it, the response tends to be either “there is none” or “the problem does not exist”. This is not only affecting how people deal with problems and customer experience, it is also affecting how people think and facilitates abrogation of personal responsibility. As “Little Britain” showed through comedy, if “computer says no”, other possibilities cease to exist.

In the world of material goods this is frustrating and in examples like the one above, if unresolved, can be tantamount to theft, hidden behind a curtain of a “system” where no individual has personal responsibility for customer care or finding solutions to individual problems.

In the world of services such as health and social care, education and welfare, this narrowing down of possibilities , forces people and conditions to fit into “categories” defined by the design of a digital system and can have a profound impact on care as well as the creative problem solving abilities of the professionals involved. Add to this, the application of these technologies to limit “non-essential services” for financial reasons, then, whether we recognise it or not, we are already living in an Orwellian world.

I see examples of this every week: Children presenting with specific learning difficulties and under-achievement who clearly need investigations and treatment for hearing or auditory processing difficulties, which are interfering with attention, ability to follow instructions and to differentiate between sounds, which is needed for reading, writing and spelling. Frequently they are sent for one hearing test – not quite bad enough for referral to an ear, nose and throat consultant – to be told to come back in the spring. Audiograms vary from one test to the next, and tend to improve according to seasonal changes, and susceptibility to infections, allergies etc. If the second test is reasonable, they will be discharged without follow-up. They may continue to experience periods of intermittent hearing loss for years without being picked up. Removal of adenoids and tonsils is no longer done on the NHS except in severe cases, not for purely medical reasons, but because they are now considered to be non-essential treatments. These children may continue to under-achieve throughout their education, not because they lack ability, but because the “system” no longer recognises what could be done. The next generation of professionals come into the system lacking experience of the difference that intervention might have made, so it does not enter their thinking.

A personal example of the dangers inherent in this “tick box” culture occurred when my late husband was terminally ill. Three weeks before his death, two nurses were sent to assess him at home for additional help with care. As he struggled through the final phases of heart failure and cancer to answer their questions over two hours, it emerged that he/we did not qualify for additional help at home. He was not “sick enough”.  As medication was being withdrawn in the Hospice two weeks later, a second team knocked on the door of his room to ask me to help them complete a second set of questionnaires, to see if we might qualify for this help retrospectively. He died five days later, and some eighteen months after his death I received a letter and notification of payment for funds someone had decided we should have received at the time we really needed them. On both occasions, the interviews were conducted by qualified nurses who were not allowed to help me provide relief for his respiratory distress because, “we are only here to assess him”. At the end of these form-filling sessions, a computer score would prioritise and decide human needs.

Adults are already suffering from digitally limited thinking processes. Human beings, conditions and problems do not exist within defined categories and often need a combination of flexible, creative solutions. What is the possible impact on children and society in the future of growing up in a world in which we are all insidiously being moulded to think in these ways?

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