A memorable moment from Dickens’s Little Dorrit:
‘May I inquire how I can obtain official information as to the real state of the case?’
‘It is competent,’ said Mr Barnacle, ‘to any member of the — Public,’ mentioning that obscure body with reluctance, as his natural enemy, ‘to memorialise the Circumlocution Department. Such formalities as are required to be observed in so doing, may be known on application to the proper branch of that Department.’
‘Which is the proper branch?’
‘I must refer you,’ returned Mr Barnacle, ringing the bell, ‘to the Department itself for a formal answer to that inquiry.’
‘Excuse my mentioning — ’
‘The Department is accessible to the — Public,’ Mr Barnacle was always checked a little by that word of impertinent signification, ‘if the — Public approaches it according to the official forms; if the — Public does not approach it according to the official forms, the — Public has itself to blame.’
One can discover the proper branch of the Circumlocution Department to address one’s inquiries if one goes to the Circumlocution Department and asks. Assuming, of course, that one addresses that inquiry to its proper branch.
Recently I had a medical problem that needed attention, and so — naturally enough, one might think — called the clinic that handles my primary care. I was (a) told by a robotic voice that I was caller 17, that is, that they would get to me only after they had handled the inquiries of sixteen other people, and (b) asked by a different voice whether I knew that I could make an appointment online.
I hung up and got online, where I requested an appointment. Several days of silence ensued, at the end of which I got a message telling me that if I wanted an appointment I needed to call the office. I did, and heard a robotic voice telling me that I was caller 23….
Two weeks later, I discovered that a member of my family, who has a serious medical condition, was told at the doctor’s office that she had no health insurance. I called the Benefits department of Baylor’s Human Resources — though later I discovered that I was not talking to another Baylor employee, but rather to a representative of a company to whom Baylor has farmed out such responsibilities — and was told that I could not be helped over the phone, no matter how urgent the situation, but had to submit a request for clarification (and, ultimately, coverage) to a particular email address.
I dutifully took down the email address and sent my inquiry. The email address did not exist.
I called back, got from a different person a different email address. That address too did not exist.
I went online to the company’s website and found a chatbot that gave me a third email address. This one worked. Indeed, within seconds I got a reply email telling me that if I had an urgent request I should call at a particular number — the number I had originally called.
It’s important to recognize that what I went through in both of the circumstances did not result from bugs in the systems, but from features — from purposeful design. The goal of all our contemporary Departments of Circumlocution is simply this: To make us give up. To bring us to the point of shrugging our shoulders and crossing our fingers in the hope that whatever illness we have will somehow get better; or to the point that we pay for medicine ourselves because we can’t figure out how to get our insurance to cover it, and don’t dare try to get by without it. The object of these systems is the generation of despair. Because if the systems make us despair then the companies that deploy them can boast of the money they have saved the organizations that purchase their services.