The System Won’t Let Me

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The System won't let me do it AI
My dad was on to something, years ago. These days he is semi-retired, intentionally has a ‘dumb’ phone and has no email address. But way back, he worked in financial services and dealt with people who had computers.

One of his pet peeves was when someone complained they couldn’t do something and blame the computer. “I’m sorry sir, but the system won’t let me.
What he drummed into my head as a young person about to enter the working world, was that the systems are designed by people. And if people designed them, then people can fix them to do the work that is required by the people.

Many years later I worked as, what I called, an ‘interpreter’ between the administration department of a cutting edge financial company and the IT software development department designing the new systems required to run these new financial instruments.

I learned first hand how complex it was to satisfy both the user requirements as well as the software architecture. My job consisted of negotiation, seeking to find short term wins for each side while keeping track of changes that would take much longer.

Admin needed to understand why certain fields were requirements and not just nuisances to them: that another department needed that code or calculation. IT needed to understand what the process of loading information involved and why new fields were critical to reporting or could at least save a user from hours of frustration. When an admin requirement clearly meant some fundamental changes to the architecture or a development time line of a few months, then we had to craft some work-around solutions that would patch up the problem in the interim.

This was some of the most satisfying work I ever did.
How I see it play out these days is just an extension of that. When users have no idea of what has gone in to create a system, then they don’t understand why it works as it does. All the user can do is what is obvious, without understanding what else is possible, how to address what is not satisfactory or even who to communicate with to make the system better. The more removed the user from the creator, the more often they are going to say, “I’m sorry sir, but the system won’t let me.”

At the same time, there are the most amazing, flexible, responsive, adaptable and useful systems available to do almost everything that a user needs in their particular field.
One of the tenets of futures thinking is that the future is not coming fast enough. If it did, we could do away with some outdated software, outdated approaches, values and models that hamper huge parts of the world while others have the benefit of newer options.

But taking this conversation one step further, is the understanding that we are, as humans, busy creating systems that we do not understand ourselves. In my former life, the IT department had a really good handle on what was going on. Today developers creating artificial intelligence systems feed them good content and then step back and let them learn on their own. When the human asks the AI for results, the human is not able to say with any certainty how the AI came to that conclusion.

Now it is the developers who are becoming as inarticulate as the regular users when it comes to what happens inside the black box. They are still responsible for the input into the algorithms. I only hope we don’t get to the point where the developers or AI say, “I’m sorry sir, but the system won’t let me.” Not because I fear any roboapocalypse but because I fear the abdication of responsibility of the humans.

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