Tuesday, 28 March 2017

It’s not algorithms that I fear so much as unimaginative managers.

Banking giant NatWest is to close branches in Stoke, Burslem, Trentham, Biddulph, Cheadle and Stone. Customers will be inconvenienced and the communities affected will be a little poorer; but hey, that's progress folks.

Speaking to the Sentinel on Friday a NatWest spokesman said they had ‘listened’ to feedback from communities and were aware that ‘not all of our customers are comfortable and familiar with online banking.’ The company has promised to put a ‘taskforce’ in place to help customers find alternative banking options.

Is there any problem these days that doesn't merit the setting up of a taskforce? It sounds good, but in practice means almost nothing.

As for listening to feedback from the community, I think NatWest are confusing that with hearing, which is not the same thing at all. You can hear something without paying it the least bit of attention.

NatWest, and all the other banks have been listening to communities in Stoke-on-Trent and countless other cities say they don't want their local bank to close, guess what happens next? They shut it anyway and the progress Juggernaut rolls on regardless.

George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm about sheep who like a ruminant chorus would bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad. They were a metaphor for the way a certain sort of communist would believe every diktat handed down by the party, however illogical or criminal it might be.

You can hear their echo whenever things like bank closures or the willful destruction of something else we the little people value is announced. It is the fanfare for a world view that sees humanity as only ever moving forward. The mere suggestion that a better route to the same destination might be the indirect one is classed as treason.

In an age when we are starting to become uneasy about automation and AI changing the world out of all recognition, what keeps me awake at night isn't algorithms with ideas above their station; its managers without a trace of imagination.

They are the sort of people who view the world through the screen of their laptop, in the way the rest of us do through a fairground mirror. The resulting distortions lead to them failing to understand some basic things about progress and human nature.

To them progress is a huge uncontrollable beast to which we can only cling helplessly as it stampedes to points unknown. The idea that in order to reach any destination someone has to take hold of the reins is lost on them.

As does the unavoidable truth that human beings often make their best journeys by following a roundabout route. Try to force change for ‘the good of all’, and you run the risk of getting mired in resistance or charging down endless blind alleys.

Just because we can do our banking and so many other things online, it doesn't necessarily mean that we want to, or that we should do so.

Change is inevitable, but continuity helps us to feel comfortable; machines have the power to make life easier, but human contact is what makes it worthwhile.

Balancing off those contradictions is going to become ever more important. Recognizing that change should never be an end in itself is a good place to start.


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