Friday, June 12, 2009

Cyber-lying in the workplace

(News-Herald, June 11) Saying that computers have changed the workplace is like observing that automobiles have changed people’s vacation planning. It’s more obvious than air.
What’s less obvious is exactly how computer technology has affected the kind of smarts needed in the workplace..
Sometimes what is needed is the ability to outsmart the computer. Last spring I made one of my semi-annual pilgrimages to Cedar Point. This trip was in the company of a group of high school students and upon arrival it was discovered that the computer responsible for issuing group discount tickets was having some sort of emotional breakdown.
In order to get us the appropriate discount, the sales rep had to tell the computer that we were not a high school group (I don’t remember exactly what we masqueraded as—a group of wheelchair bound girl scouts or geriatric hockey all-star team or something). The computer spit out some appropriately cheap tickets and all was saved.
This particular technique for dealing with reluctant computer technology is what we used to call “lying.” When you use this technique with humans, it’s generally considered Bad. But with computers, lying is often necessary, and also requires a fairly advanced set of lying skills. Every workplace needs at least one person who can lie to computers with a level of skill which, if used on live humans, would suggest some kind of sociopath.
A workplace without such workers can become even more ridiculous. I was at a grocery store a while back when the computers went down, and so could not give the usual card-swipy auto-discounts.
I watched a check-out person completely stumped by a buy one, get one free sales item. Without a computer to work out this tricky transaction, she was flummoxed, and she told the luckless customer that he would just have to pay the full price for both of his items. I don’t know if working out “get one free” manually was beyond her comprehension or her administrative powers, but it was still a sad moment to watch.
This wasn’t so much of an issue two decades ago. Back then, most software was still written by software engineers to be used only by other software engineers. Workplace desks included cheat sheets for when you couldn’t remember that getting the computer to add two plus two required selecting the drop-down menu under operants and then clicking on the base twelve tab and clicking through to the cgi bin sort descriptors and manually type in “xxC23g*vi\2.009”. You didn’t need someone who could lie to the computer so much as someone who could just talk to it.
Then workplace software evolved and software engineers learned to write software for purchasing agents. This software was also useless for the actual employees in the workplace, but it was generally much prettier. Sample conversation from this era:
Boss: How’s that great new widget software working out?
Employee: It takes me twice as long to complete the design drawings.
Boss: Yeah, but how about that cool alien ray gun effects that come with the screen saver?
In this era workplaces started needing someone who could trick the computer into doing what it had promised to do in the first place. The age of the gifted cyber-liar had arrived.
We already understand that by and large, lying to other humans is bad. Lying to animals is a bit fuzzier ethically—if I pretend to throw a stick and instead hide it behind my back, that counts as part of the game. If I trick Rover into going to the vet, that’s for his own good.
But a tool? I never had to lie to a hammer or screwdriver to make them work properly.
Of course, in my relationship with a hammer, there’s no question about who’s in charge. The new dilemma may not spring from any abilities of computers, but in the way we’ve given them authority in the workplace.
The Terminator movies imagine a future when computers become so smart and self-aware that they take over the world and start hunting down pesky humans. The scary face of the future, we’ve been told, will be Arnold Schwarzanegger coldly declaring “I’ll be back” and shooting up hundreds of hardened humans. It seems more likely that the real face of computer domination is a flustered cashier saying, “Sorry. The computer’s down, so I can’t give you your change.” Cyber-lying may be the next necessary survival skill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kinda sad to see the FDP give up the coveted spot. L

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