Journal Column – Flawed Technology

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Flawed Technology

During the pandemic we had a significant increase in many retail and leisure outlets refusing to accept cash in favour of alternative electronic payment methods.  Principally done for fear that handling cash could increase the potential of spreading the coronavirus, despite most experts claiming it doesn’t really increase the potential of catching diseases.

However, ending cash has been a topical subject well before the Covid pandemic. Financial institutions and big business have been lobbying to go cashless for some years now. But many, including me, remain wary. There’s lots of reasons, but my main issue is that electronic alternatives are prone to glitches and faults.

Recently the butchers where I live had a faulty card reader, so they could only take cash. It took over a week before it was fixed.  A few years ago I remember going to the ASDA in Gosforth seeing huge queues at the cash machines.  The store manager explained that all the checkout card readers were down and they could only take cash.  This problem wasn’t isolated to just his branch either; it effected every ASDA in the country and, I gather, lasted most of the day.  So without cash these businesses would have lost a considerable amount of trade, not to mention the disappointment and exasperation of their customers too.

In many establishments, particularly smaller ones, the card reading devices are now portable and rely on Wi-Fi to work.  In areas where Wi-Fi is poor they often can’t connect and payment is rejected.  On one occasion, I was in a grocers when it took four times to eventually connect and take a card payment.  I would have paid cash but didn’t have enough on me to cover the bill. So much for contactless payments speeding things up!

While we still have cash, we have a stable and reliable alternative when the technology fails.  So I hope it stays.

Gizmos, gadgets and computers are now so much a part of our daily lives, the younger generation find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like to grow up without them. My children often laugh at how we did things thirty years ago and wonder how we coped back then without the enormous array of electronic gadgetry now at our disposal.

The Microsoft Windows PC was launched in 1983. Ever since computing power and technology has seemingly advanced at an expediential rate. Indeed, take a quick look around your room now and you’ll see many examples of technological advancements in everyday existence that were mere pipe dreams a few years ago.  Almost every business, service and household uses computers and almost everyone owns a laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Indeed, it does seem these days we are encouraged to do almost everything online, be it working, banking, shopping, communicating, research or leisure.  The flipside or ‘butterfly effect’ is a society that is fast withdrawing into itself with people who no longer speak to each other and communities that no longer look out for each other.  We’re told the technological advancements of today exist to make life easier for everyone, yet we’ve never been more stressed and overworked than before, largely in part to the fact that much of the technology we are compelled into adopting is not that secure or stable and often prone to viruses and cyber-hacking.

I have noticed that, on a regular basis, all of our technological gizmos, gadgets and apps undergo regular updates to fix a multitude of glitches, software problems or security issues. Indeed, be it the NHS, the MOD or British Airways, there is almost daily news of one organisation or industry being crippled by computer glitches and technological failure. Here are a few recent examples:

Elon Musk was forced to apologise to users and owners of his Tesla cars when they were unable to use their phone apps to start them after a software glitch. It seems, too, that in general, modern keyless cars are much easier to steal than their alternative old style key ones.

Provision of customer service.  It seems many business, institutions and public services are driving their customer service operations online.  At the same time making it frustratingly awkward and time consuming to deal face-to-face or via telephone.  Then there is the issue of security too. As the NHS seeks a digital overhaul and HMRC pushing ahead with a digital tax drive, despite admitting data security failures.

Our health is important yet, since its launch, the NHS Test & Trace app has repeatedly crashed and failed causing untold misery, inconvenience and hassle to travellers and key workers.

A recent newspaper article reported that a Russian space weapon successfully obliterated a defunct Soviet-era spy satellite.  Illustrating the ease at which Russia could do the same to satellites that underpin a huge range of western commercial activities, including telecommunications, banking, weather forecasting, GPS services and satellite television.  The vast majority of these services and technologies have no real or quick alternatives or back up should they fail.

Perhaps, when a new technological solution is being developed or promoted, we ought to pause and ask who the real beneficiary is. Will it be easier for the supplier or user? What happens if it fails and, like cash, what are the alternatives and security implications?  Balance what will be gained, against what could be lost. In other words, ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.’


This column was published in the Newcastle Journal on the 2nd December 2021 2021.