Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Speak Out against Defective Technology!

Having just written about the impact of technocentric ignorance on the environmental movement, I feel a need to present San Francisco readers with a fascinating instance of the "infantile tenacity" of an IT project gone painfully wrong. The project is that of the new technology deployed at the Main Library branch of the San Francisco Public Library for checking in books. The basic idea is that you now put a book to be returned on a conveyor belt, which directs the book to a barcode reader, records that the book has been returned, provides you with a receipt (if you want it), and then moves the book to a back room where it is prepared for re-shelving (supposedly more efficiently, since the books can now be sorted). The system has been "running" (intentional scare quotes) for about a month, providing me with an opportunity to observe a variety of problems.

Most important is that the reader assumes that the barcode is on the outer cover of the book. While this is consistent with the current practice of adding books to the collection, many of the older books in the collection have their barcodes on the inside; so not all books can be properly processed by the system. I have been told that there is a major effort to update these old books, but I have no data on how that process is progressing. Suffice it to say that the system can "consume" a book, even if it lacks a bar code. (For a while I saw the system rejecting books by reversing the conveyor belt, but it was doing this for books where the bar code was in the right place. Since I have not seen any rejections lately, I assume that this "feature" has been removed. However, this means that the system will now accept books that are not library books, placed on the conveyor belt by mistake; and, as far as I can tell, if you make such a mistake, it may take a fair amount of time before the book gets to a human being who can return it to you.)

More interesting is the episode I experienced today. My wife had forgotten to return one of her books on time and asked me to take care of it for her. Sure enough, there is now a place where you can see a human being about paying the fine for an overdue book. What interested me from a human engineering point of view is that this site was not equipped to check in the book in order to calculate the fine. In other words you have to feed the book to the automatic system, which updates the database and then determines the amount of the fine (after which you can then go over to the fine-paying desk). This revealed two problems:

  1. Consistent with the preceding paragraph, the software does not always read the book properly (due, in part, to poor instructions on how to position the book on the conveyor belt); so the database may not get updated according to plan.
  2. I was told that my wife's record could only be consulted with her library card (and its barcode). Since we were about to leave town, I was not going to leave the Library without paying the fine and getting a receipt. This required "escalating" the problem to a supervisor who knew how to examine my wife's record, compute the fine, and provide the receipt. (It looked as if a second escalation was going to be necessary; but that "second level" was "in a meeting." Since I was trying to settle a debt on my wife's behalf, I figured I could exercise a bit of my own tenacity; and, sure enough, the supervisor had the resources to resolve the matter.)

I have now had several experiences with this technology. I have met with several people who keep assuring me that the problems are being resolved but who firmly refuse to admit that, in its current state, the technology is defective. (If it was not defective, why are problems being resolved?) Since I tend to come away from these encounters feeling as if I am the only one running afoul of this technology, I figure it is about time to suggest to any Library patrons reading this who have been "bitten" by this technology to let the Library know about it. It is not difficult. The Web site for the Library has a "Your Comments or Questions" page. I have no idea how many incidents of defective behavior arise every day; but the "party line" seems to be to persist with the new technology in the face of evidence of its defects (which, as I recall, is a working definition of psychotic behavior). Perhaps, if more of us report those incidents, the Library will return control to the human beings while the technology developers proceed with all the troubleshooting that still needs to take place.


America Jones said...

Because I don't have a car, last week I asked my mom to drive me to the nearest Apple store to pick up a copy of the new Mac operating system. When we were ready to check out, we looked around somewhat confused, unable to locate a cash register. So we went to the Genuis Bar in the back of the store, where a genius informed us, with perhaps a small bit of pride and derision, that there are no cash registers ("didn't you know, you un-hip fool?"), and that all sales are handled by sales representatives on the floor. So we found a sales representative in the front of the store, who used a fancy wireless device to process the transaction. He asked if I wanted a receipt, and I said I did, whereupon he walked to the Genuis Bar in the back of the store to print out a receipt and bring it back to me.

Of course, the new Mac Operating System would install on my older laptop, because it is 300 MHZ shy of the minimum processing requirements. With a little finageling, I got it working quite well. But I discovered in the process that installing it on my newer desktop machine would spell professional disaster for this poor artist: my most useful applications will not run - that is, unless I go a couple weeks without eating in order to pay an additional "good customer fee" to upgrade my software.

Which reminds me of something I've been thinking about for a while: in high school economics I was taught that when something goes into mass production, the cost of production decreases. So why is it that software keeps getting more expensive as more people but it? Either it's new rules for the new economy, or extortion...

Steve Klein said...

Writing about the new Mac operating system, America jones said " in high school economics I was taught that when something goes into mass production, the cost of production decreases. So why is it that software keeps getting more expensive…"

Ironically, the very software to which America refers, Mac OS X, sells for $129, the same price as the previous five versions. If we take inflation into account, the price in real dollars has declined.

Jiri said...

@America Jones: this is what we call "monopoly rents". Apple has a government-granted monopoly ("copyright"), so it can extract monopoly rents for its product, which tend to be higher than market price.

Other operating systems, like Ubuntu and various other flavours of Linux, are available for the cost of P&H (free, during promotions or if you do the P&H yourself). The marginal cost of producing a copy is negligible, so the market price tends to zero.

To the extent the products are not substitutable, Apple can continue to extract monopoly rents.

As you write, high-school economics...