Computers Do Not Have A Conscience

America in 1980 witnessed the rapid growth of huge computers throughout industry, whilst home computers and things like e-mails were yet to evolve. Unfortunately this electronic explosion had a down side as we started hearing the excuse, “Computer Error” when there was a problem. Of course, it turns out there is no such thing as “Computer Error”. It is simply an excuse to cover for human failure. Computers are very quick and obedient at doing what they have been told by their programmers. However, if something drastic went wrong, a computer would not stop and say, “Excuse me, I think I’ve been told to do something stupid. Would you like to reconsider?” It will simply race ahead at top speed doing what it has been told to, thereby making things much worse.
So, if you ever hear the “Computer Error” excuse simply tell them it is the programmer who has gone wrong. The machine simply does as it has been told.

In those days there was a famous mail order magazine that would regularly sell about 6 million copies a month. Then at one point the numbers suddenly dropped by over 1.2 million a month. Everyone at the company was confused about what had gone wrong.
One day at a board meeting the Managing Director decided that, if possible, it would be a  good idea to send a short, polite and simple questionnaire to all those who had stopped their subscription. He stressed that it must be sensitively done and wanted to know ” Is it possible for us to post 1,231,453 questionnaires?” A technician had been called into the meeting and he proudly confirmed that, with their brand new computer, it was indeed possible. All the names and addresses were stored in the memory for automatically addressing the magazines. He explained that, with some simple new programming aimed at those who had stopped purchasing, the automatic postal system could complete the task in 24 hours. He proudly boasted that, once the final button had been pressed, the whole thing would run smoothly, only needing somebody to pick up the multitude of sacks of mail at the end of the production line and take them to The Post Office.
The decision was taken and the plan was implemented. The next day the company’s mailshot got under way with each recipient being asked politely why they had stopped buying their product. At the end of the production line the letters fell into sacks which were then transferred by the truckload to the Post Office.

Now, one of those customers happened to be Beck Adams who lived in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It had a population of about 10,000. Becky lived at the end of a pleasantly scenic, quiet and winding road at the top of a hill. Three months previously Becky had cancelled her subscription to this magazine simply because she had become too busy and was not getting around to reading it.
Two days later the postman walked up the hill to her house with a sack of letters. It was full to the brim. He said there was much more to come and during the day sack after sack was delivered by newly employed, temporary staff who had been taken on just so they could get through this massive explosion of mail, all to the same house. Well, very nearly all to the same house and that was the problem. The local Post Office became worried that it might miss any letters that were for somebody else. Due to this the postman asked Becky to check the address of every envelope. He realised this was a huge task.

You will I am sure have guessed the problem. Becky Adams just happened to be the first name on the alphabetical mailing list that had been uploaded into the computer at the magazine’s headquarters. An error by the programmer on this particular mailshot sent every single copy of the questionnaire to the first name and address. As the whole system had been automated, nobody had looked in the sacks to check all was well.
You might like to know that, one week after receiving the first sack of mail and with van loads still delivering all 1,231,453, Becky wrote back to the magazine company. She wrote,

I get your point. Please find enclosed a cheque for $64.00 to renew my subscription.

 If an example was ever needed to show us why it is necessary to think first before making any decision that affect others, then this is it. The computer cannot think for itself but you can. So you need to ask, “Do I always do what my friends say without thinking? Will I be hurting somebody else’s feelings?”

Luckily human beings are blessed with a brain so we can think ahead and consider the consequences.


I have personal experience of this. A friend of mine (John) at Manchester University, studied Computer Science and was quickly given a job by the local Borough Council. His first job turned into a disaster when he sent the total rates bill for the whole of Salford to the first person listed alphabetically on the council list who also happened to be a pensioner!

In those days and even now it is common for computers to send out bills demanding that the sum of £00.00 be paid immediately. The only reason this happens is the programmer has forgotten to tell the computer that a sum of “zero” is to be ignored.
Unless you tell it the computer doesn’t know. Thankfully, people are smarter than that!