The biggest news in the UK at the moment is all about when IT goes wrong. Well, really it’s about the appalling injustice, destruction and simple chaos that can follow when IT goes wrong and the management who commissioned it are still believers.
And that, of course, brings us very quickly to the people who use the IT in question. And who might have been responsible.
It’s a big issue and, oddly enough, one that I started to grapple with umpty-um years ago in my first single-title novel. Not that I realised that was it was any sort of issue at the time. I just had a story and some characters and a cracking setting on an imaginary Caribbean island.
When IT Goes Wrong Spontaneously
As anyone who has sat at their desk and watched the rolling beach ball of doom spin can attest, IT can go wrong at any time.
Sometimes it’s the user’s responsibility. Fat finger syndrome is common to just about everyone on the planet.
For instance, I can’t count the times I’ve pressed two keys simultaneously. The unfortunate machine freezes.
I sort of sympathise. The poor thing can’t say, “Oh come ON. Make your mind up.” Though perhaps one day it will, come to think of it.
But often it’s something else – a power surge, local overload, mice lunching on the wiring… Nobody did anything to make it happen. Nobody’s fault.
When IT Goes Wrong through Human Agency
Or – even nastier – someone chooses to launch a virus at a particular institution or actor to disrupt their business.
Sometimes it’s a Protest, aimed at getting publicity and Making The Man Sorry. Sometimes it’s pure blackmail. “You can have your records back if you pay us for them.”
Our own British Library is struggling with exactly that at the moment. What sort of barbarian attacks a library? The barbarians are through the gates now. (This is the sort of thing that gets IT a bad rap with the Luddites out there. Can’t say I disagree.)
And sometimes it’s error, conflated with error, mis-judgement, ignorance and, eventually, it leads to downright cover up. Like the UK Post Office Scandal.
When IT Went Wrong at the Post Office
The British Post Office has a distinguished history. Some brilliant innovators, including Anthony Trollope of Barchester and Pallisers fame, put it together in the mid nineteenth century. When Robert Browning was courting Elizabeth Barrett, they could exchange two letters within a day by means of the post.
The Royal Mail was hived off into an independent company and privatised in 2013; the Post Office is still Government owned. They work in partnership.
The sub post office is a national treasure. It’s often found as a one or two man counter in the sort of local shop where you buy milk, dog food and the Sunday papers. And get the gossip. The local sub-postmaster is often the owner of the shop. He or she is technically self-employed and contracted to the Post Office to provide the service.
In 1999, the Post Office started to roll out a new accounting system, Horizon, developed by Fujitsu. Immediately errors began to occur. Post Office Management took the view that these were the result of errors, false accounting and/or fraud on the part of (eventually) more than 900 sub-postmasters. The Post Office demanded “restitution” and prosecuted.
What Happens When IT Goes Wrong?
It is now apparent that in most, and possibly all, cases of shortfall, the fault lay with the Horizon system. And had done so from the first. In 2012 sub-postmaster Alan Bates reported the issues to Computer Weekly. Post Office Management continued to deny it.
By 2012 there was public concern in the media (Private Eye were particularly trenchant and persistent) and Parliament. The Post Office commissioned a report by independent investigators Second Sight. It severely criticised the system. The Post Office didn’t, wouldn’t or maybe even couldn’t understand the depth and range of that criticism.
Ron Warmington of Second Sight said in 2019 that the Post Office Board was “led by the nose by its own middle management and in-house and external legal advisors”.
Can’t Get Worked up About IT?
Well, it took much, much, too long. But this tragedy has been the lead story for 2 weeks. This is because of a television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office. I haven’t seen it yet. Clearly it focuses on the tragic personal stories of individuals and the campaign for justice by the sub-postmaster who referred Horizon’s IT problems to the computer press.
In so doing, it achieved what none of the investigative reports has managed. The 300 articles by Computer Weekly didn’t do it. BBC’s Radio 4’s award-winning 2020 series The Great Post Office Trial didn’t. Nor did Nick Wallis’s 2021 book The Great Post Office Scandal nor his on-going blog and podcasts (which I have been following and thoroughly recommend). And nor did Private Eye’s regular scathing reports, culminating in its special report of 2020 Justice Lost In The Post.
IT, when it goes this wrong, can do appalling damage.
And it is nearly impossible to get to the truth, let alone reparation, when vested interests block and protect themselves and the IT system that, against all the evidence, they have decided to believe in.
It is like the worst sort of cult.
That Novel I Mentioned…
Which brings me back to where I started. I have followed this story with varying degrees of fury and despair for a long time. When it first began to creep into the media, I was trying to revise my first full-length novel. It was already 10 years old by then and IT had moved on. The computer kept telling my heroine to press PF 16 to exit the program she was trying to use.
The lead character was a financial regulator. It didn’t find a publisher. A few people read it. One, brutal but well-meaning, said, “It’s about banking. Women don’t read books about banking. Men don’t read books with a female lead. Forget the Caribbean beaches and the hurricane excitement. You’ve got yourself a story with no market at all.”
That is probably still true. And I was new to that sort of story and quite a lot of it was a real mess. (It is genuinely beyond salvage.) Now I’m pretty certain that is because the key to the protagonist’s character is her utter hopelessness when the computer delivers answers that don’t, can’t, make sense.
It was by far the biggest problem in the book. And I left it unsolved.
I know better now.