The Almighty Computer

translated by George Monteiro
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Very generously, Prof. George Monteiro gives us a translation for the ironic tale of Jorge de Sena – which has been transcribed in its original form here – published 30 years ago in the newspaper Portuguese Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, without ever being reprinted.

 

I do not know if there has already begun to evolve in Portugal that institution of the credit card which so permeates the lives of middles-class Americans. That card, usually made of plastic, is issued to a lucky mortal whose name and credit number are printed in relief in that strange design of letters and numbers that is apparently the only one that a computer of middling intelligence can read. Large department stores, airlines, oil refineries, restaurant chains, etc. (but not food stores or markets, etc., because they would otherwise lose those odd cents they juggle with on pricing) issue these cards with utmost generosity. One can buy practically anything, and spend well beyond one’s means, with that deck of cards for which one must possess a special cardholder to collect them. One can, as well, travel from one end of America to the other without a cent in one’s pocket, so long as one does not travel frugally, merely by presenting the right card for the occasion. An employee, instead of taking your money, runs your card through a small press that translates the information on the card to a charge slip. To this point, unless one has lost one’s card and it has been found by an unscrupulous person, everything works like a charm for the happy possessor of this source of such great convenience.


All those slips, charges for all companies, converge from all over America to be fed to a formidable computer, which chews them and issues a monthly invoice that the company forwards by mail to the customer, and that the latter will pay by check through the mail. Upon receiving his bill, the customer, if he is a cautious type, compares it with his copies of the slips that correspond to the various charges. And he discovers with alarm that his bill includes charges for one flight costing some 200 dollars that, through some mistake on the part of the computer or whoever feeds it, has been mysteriously charged to him. This happened to him late in 1968. Immediately, the fellow set about paying his bill, minus the cost of the trip he had neither taken nor booked, and he wrote a letter to the company in December of that year pointing out the error. A month later, early in 1969, he received a form letter from the formidable computer advising him that his account was now in arrears. A few days later, he received a letter (not from the computer) thanking him for his payment but (faithful to the computer) underlining the notion that he should pay his bill “in full.” Our fellow sent out a second letter to explain what had taken place—and he received his bill from the computer, but this time it no longer showed one airfare outstanding, but two of them, because no one had informed the computer that it should not add that amount to the bill every month. Already uneasy over the question of sanity in the Universe, the poor customer (who by now had almost ceased to be one, for he didn’t dare use such an unlucky card) paid off what he still owed, less the cost of that mythic flight which each month became still another flight—and he telephoned, from one end of America to the other, to explain what was going on. Those who answered the telephone were most courteous. They told him he was fully in the right (more than likely they had been with the company no more than a couple of weeks and that in two months they would be with a different company—what did they care?), and they sent him his January bill—now listing three airfares. The poor fellow owed the company 600 dollars, and each new bill it was another 200 dollars. Terrified and vexed, he wrote still again to insist that an error had been made, telling the full story and including with his letter copies of other letters written and letters received, etc. The company responded with a lovely letter, thanking him for the payments he had made (had not made), but warning him, this time in a more intimidating manner, that unless his outstanding account was settled, his credit card would be invalidated. In desperation the customer again telephoned, and once again it was acknowledged that he was fully in the right. Why, he was the victim of a fantastic situation… —and he received from the computer a new warning, sharply threatening him for the nonpayment of his debts. In February arrived another statement formidably recalculated by the computers 400 dollars. A correction had been made but the correction had been limited to the one month when someone had actually paid attention to the mistake, and nothing more. Insane with hatred, and already mired in fatalistic dejection, but with a faint hope that the beating had instilled in him, our fellow wrote still again. In reply, he received from the computer a warning regarding his laxity in paying his bills. In May, finally, the company responded: they were checking with the airline to find out just what had occurred with his flights. A month later, another letter declared—what a relief—that the charges were in error since it was now clear that he had not flown at all. But shortly thereafter, a new warning served him notice that his credit was now limited to the original 200 dollars that he had never paid as he should have. The poor fellow, by this time under sedation for nerves, wrote still another letter, including new copies, etc, and retelling the whole story. The company replied (by telephone) to inform him that he owed the money and there would be no more talk about the matter. Furious, he wrote still again. The company, which will deal neither with demons nor madmen, did not reply. The fellow waited, and waited, and waited, and decided finally to take up the matter directly with the airline whose flight he had not taken. The airline explained that the matter rested clearly with the two companies, and that he, a victim, was innocent. A year had gone by since this tragicomedy had begun. The fellow began to breathe easy. But then he received a notice that his credit card was now cancelled and that he was not one to whom credit was worth extending. In the depths of despair, this miserable man inundated the United States Congress with mall. Finally, in May 1970, there arrived the sweetest communiqué from the company—the company would once again welcome him among its family of customers, it apologized for everything, and it re-established his credit line—with a limit of 100 dollars, plus an additional 66 to cover those expenses incurred in the correction of the error. Yet, since companies and computers working for companies extending credit exchange all customer information, our hero—restored to the dignity conveyed by a credit line limited to the amount of a debt he had never incurred—is hardly free from the possibility of having new charges and other credit cards rejected. What if the computer decides mechanically, and secretly, without our hero’s having any way of knowing what is going on, that he is a stubborn backslider who, for months on end, will not pay for flights he has not taken and that the computer has faithfully totaled up? Or what if it decided, regarding his universal card, compiled by the gigantic computer which, for millions of Americans, centralizes that information on all public or private acts that come within the reach of computers, that he is a dangerous type, capable of exercising a computer for months and months, and capable even of complaining to the Congress about perfectly efficient computers and charging those that feed them with inefficiency?

This story was not imagined, nor is it a piece of science fiction. Even less is it a literary imitation after Kafka. It is authentic, a fact confirmed as such by the press and by those official groups who battle against the waves of irresponsible mechanization. But let it be said, since Kafka has been mentioned, that Oscar Wilde was right when he insisted that Life imitates Art. There is no doubt that Life imitates Art, and that it does so to an extent unimagined by even the most perverse inventor of delirious fictions and of oppressive nightmares. Consequently, if that convenient institution of the credit card already does exist in Portugal—so deliciously inflationary—it would be good if there existed as well someone both to monitor against the computerizing of human beings, and to implement the humanizing of computers. Or, there should be, at the least, some efficient system of commerce between computers and those beings they now serve so mechanistically.

July, 1970


                                                                                                             

* Published in the Portuguese Times (New Bedford, Massachusetts), Oct. 18, 1970, p. 27.