Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Technology Amok

We have the BBC NEWS Web site to thank this morning for the latest story of technology out on a rampage:

A man in the United States popped out to his local petrol station to buy a pack of cigarettes - only to find his card charged $23,148,855,308,184,500.

That is $23 quadrillion (£14 quadrillion) - many times the US national debt.

"I thought somebody had bought Europe with my credit card," said Josh Muszynski, from New Hampshire.

He says his appeals to his bank first met with little understanding, though it eventually corrected the error.

It also waived the usual $15 overdraft fee.

"It was all back to normal," Mr Muszynski told his local television station, WMUR. "They reversed the negative balance fee, which was nice."

Debt crisis

His nightmare began when he checked his online bank account a few hours after buying the cigarettes.

He thought he would be a couple of hundred dollars in the black. But his overdraft had pushed him into the red - by an amount equivalent to many times the entire US national debt.

"It is a lot of money in the negative," he said. "Something I could never, ever, afford to pay back.

"My children could not afford it, grandchildren, nothing like that."

In panic, Mr Muszynski rushed back to the petrol station, but they were unable to help. He says he then spent two hours on the phone with the Bank of America.

Eventually, it assured him it would be fixed - and the next morning, it had been.

But no-one has yet explained to Mr Muszynski how such a astonishing error could have been made.

It is unclear whether this punch line suggested that there would be a follow-up story; but I, for one, shall not be holding my breath. My guess is that we are not going to be able to find anyone either within Bank of America or contracted to them who can provide that explanation. The real punch line is that we have become a culture that is not only used to working with technologies we do not understand but also highly dependent on them. While I once believed that the semantics of financial practices were "understood by only a very elite few," I now believe that our current crisis came about because no one really understood those practices. Thus, if we now live in ignorance of our day-to-day business operations, should it be a surprise that we are just as ignorant of the technologies supporting those operations? Yet another Burn After Reading lesson has been given; and I doubt that anyone over at Bank of America has the foggiest idea how "not to do it again!"

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