System Failure

Here are four conversations I've had recently:

Conversation #1: At a supermarket checkout

Checkout lady: You can't have those tomatoes.

Me: Why not?

Checkout lady: Because they don't exist.

Me: So are we having a group hallucination then?

Checkout lady: No, I mean they don't exist in our system.

Me: But they were on your shelves.

Checkout lady: Well, they are not in the database, so I can't charge you for them.

Me: So I can have them for nothing then?

Checkout lady: No, you can't have stuff for nothing.

Me: Why not? It doesn't exist, so nobody's going to miss it.

Checkout lady: It needs a barcode.

Me: Well ask someone to put a barcode on it then.

Checkout lady: I can't.


Conversation #2: In my bank

Me: I'd like to pay this check into my business account please.

Teller: You can'.

Me: Why not?

Teller: Because it's in a brown envelope.

Me: ???

Teller: It has to be a white envelope. Try the post office.

Conversation #3: In the post office

Me: I'd like to pay this check into my business bank account please.

Teller: You can't.

Me: Why not?

Teller: It's in the wrong envelope.

Me: But it's brown.

Teller: It's the wrong color brown. It has to be different, with the name of your bank on it.

Conversation #4: At another supermarket checkout

Checkout lady: You can't buy two packs of painkillers.

Me: Why not?

Checkout lady: In case you use them to take an overdose.

Me: Do I look suicidal to you then?

Checkout lady: No, but it's the rules.

Me: So could I pay for one pack of painkillers, then go back into the store and buy another one?

Checkout lady: Yes.

Me: ???

Checkout lady: You're not allowed to buy two at once.


All of those conversations are genuine. In fact, this attitude is so prevalent in Britain (I can't speak for other places) that there was even a television series in which one section was known as "The computer says 'no'". Here's an example of one of them:

I hate to say it, but I have had similar conversations with school technicians, and school principals!

What all these scenarios have in common is that the company representative either has, or feels she has, no power to do anything of her own volition. If the computer, or the system, says "No", then that is the end of the matter – even if the result flies in the face of common sense.

In my opinion, looking at this sort of thing in a school context, it is important to empower co-workers to take decisions. What matters at the end of the day is not that, for instance, you have taught IF statements in today's lesson, but that your students understand the concept of conditionality. It's much better to allow teachers to focus on the big picture than to make them follow a rigid plan that allows for no flexibility and no professional judgement.

Quite frankly, if the computer says "No" even if the outcome is absurd, and there is nothing anyone can do about it, then the underlying system needs to be examined as a matter of urgency.

About Terry Freedman

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT and Computing consultant in England. He publishes the ICT in Education website at