Almost Grown

When a big small business grows into a small big business, many things need to change. Management needs to stop doing most of the work that gives the company its edge and other folks need to take care of that.

Think of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who in 1975 founded a two-person software shop called Microsoft—by the mid-nineteen-eighties, Gates was no longer coding at Microsoft—for someone as obsessed with computer software as he was, that must have hurt.

Another major shift when a company grows is that you need a lot more process—and by that I mean administrative procedures. If you grow big, you’re soon in the realm of HR departments, procurement, and various other support structures—what worked for a handful of people doesn’t work for a planeload.

In other words, bureaucracy.

The main thing about bureaucracy is that it must be constantly challenged—when it is not, the following happens.

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

Jerry Pournelle, who I have previously quoted in these pages, formulated his iron law (is there any other kind) of bureaucracy some decades ago.

And this week it finally struck me that the iron law has taken over the internet. Or it is well on its way. Put another way, the net is almost grown.

When a manuscript is submitted for publication, the author must provide a cover letter explaining the relevance of the work. If you want to publish a novel, you send your pitch to an agent—actually multiple agents, if you’re a new author, and an agent in turn will pitch numerous publishers—J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers.

Scientific manuscripts go through a somewhat similar process—and they too require a cover letter.

However, nowadays this has turned into a boilerplate form to be submitted online—this is wholly unnecessary and yet it is now mandatory for ass-covering reasons—and that got me thinking about how much form-filling I now do online, particularly as I once again travel to weird and wonderful places.

And how much of my internet time is tied to bureaucracy, be it on a ‘traditional’ platform such as a laptop, or on a cellphone.

The short answer is: way too much!

Looking at this through the prism of Jerry’s law, I conclude that admin is taking over the web—I fill in more forms than I did in the days of pen and paper. And here we need to split things into good form / bad form.

For instance, in trips to both The Netherlands and Portugal, not to mention numerous UK journeys, I filled in countless passenger locator forms, most of which were unnecessary—no one ever wanted to see them. The same applies to repeat data requested by airlines, government sites, and a range of other form-hungry entities, including petty rules such as the maximum size in bytes that a passport photo can be— this would perplex most ordinary internet users, who would consider themselves to be Bill Gates if they could store a photo of themselves of any size on a hard disk.

The other characteristic of bureaucracy, which is what makes it so horrible, is that it’s mandatory—there’s no choice.

In Heathrow, I was not allowed to check in for a flight because my vax certificate was out of date—a new EU regulation that citizens were not advised about. I hurried off to the appointed office for an antigen test.

“No walk-ins, you need to register on our website and book an appointment.”

“But I’m standing here in front of you, why can’t you book me in for now?”

“It needs to be done through the app.”

That was it, no sorry, no fuck-all!

As I sped through the app in order to book my appointment for five minutes hence, an endless form needed completion, along with an authentication email, details on the color of my underwear, and other salient (excuse the pun) facts.

Every time I was close to completing the form, a pop-up window appeared telling me that I was now too close to my appointment and couldn’t complete the form in time. After I closed it, the form returned to the previous page.

Well, if you fucking let me I can, I cursed.

I finally beat the system. A QR code was supposed to emerge. I used to be agnostic about QR codes. Then I saw their value during the pandemic—you could order food. Now we live in QR code bureaucracy and I’m beginning to loathe the ugly little fuckers.

No QR code emerged.

“Look,” I told the girl. “I got no code, but there is a registration number.”

“That’s fine. Just go down to level zero to the test center.”

We were on five.

“Zero? Why the hell are you even here?”

My suitcase and I adjourned to the car park floor, where carbon monoxide and COVID appeared to live in perfect harmony. Then thirty-five minutes pining for an email to tell me the result.

You get a lateral flow test kit result in two or three minutes—I know, I’ve shoved more stuff up my nostrils in the last two years than Maradona and Whitney Houston combined.

So why can’t I wait five minutes and get something printed? Yes, I know, it’s so last Tuesday!

As I rode the elevator back up for a thirty-minute pre-check-in meditation session, I considered the options for someone who might not be net-literate—not steeped in the art of Grand Prix form-filling, for instance.

How about the poor immigrant without a smartphone? Or someone who did not have a UK dataplan? Who doesn’t use email on their phone… who has a disability…

The internet, and that includes the Internet of Things, is a machine. More and more, the minions that mind the machines are impotent to change or reverse processes—and much like the bureaucrats I grew up with, in banks, hospitals, or government agencies, they seem to take a perverse pleasure in serving the software—their new master.

Improving quality of life is not some kind of elitist game—be it an age, knowledge, or wealth elite. A better society supports the disenfranchised, rather than excluding them. That means older people. Folks (and I know many) who although well-educated, are unable to distinguish between the consequences of a single or double click. People who have never bought anything on line. Who are stumped if the video camera is frozen or won’t start, if the wifi stops working, or if Windows curses them with the blue screen of death.

The infamous blue screen of death at Milan’s Malpensa airport.

One of my airport hobbies is spotting a Windows terminal displaying a cryptic message—I’ve seen them all over the world.

I use the net all the time—without it I couldn’t reach you with these words. As with so much else, I love the good things about it. I’ve never warmed to the social media side—it’s much like the rumor mill in a large company, yet more evidence of the way the internet has ‘matured’.

The cruel and sadistic side of humans turned social media into hate platforms, fake news sources that unquestioning minds happily assimilate, ways to denigrate science—tools that surely would have empowered society, were they not placed in the hands of humans.

So much of the internet can significantly change society for the better, but so much of the internet needs to change in order to build a better society.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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