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A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Mister Minster: God versus the spreadsheet

Neil Pickford is increasingly convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart
Now then, everyone who knows me is fully aware that I’m an optimistic ‘glass-half-full’ type of person, not a ‘glass-half-empty’ pessimist. I believe that things have got better over the years in so many ways.
However, in one particular area I see only badness happening and I conclude that Bill Gates is actively in league with the devil, successfully working to destroy humanity.
I accept it might be inadvertent and the man himself probably thinks he’s on the side of the angels, but you have to judge actions by their consequences.
About Bill’s Microsoft Corporation itself I have no opinion. There is a vaguely anarchist tendency in me that cheers for the plucky free software program (sic) Linux against the mighty Windows Vista, but not enough to make me purge my hard drive of any of Bill’s stuff that I’ve paid for.
And I’ve had sufficient history with computers to remember life before Bill – kids, you just can’t imagine how difficult it was in days of yore to get anything useful on that funny black screen with the green blinking hyphen in the corner. Then you multiplied those difficulties one hundredfold when you tried to get that thing to communicate with another thing to do something useful with whatever it was you’d typed in.
Oh, you can’t measure my happiness when the universal communication system pioneered by Windows 3.1.1 started to take off and suddenly, for instance, you only had to type letters once – no more duplication of effort in the simple task of producing editorial for publication for me. I was delighted, and cared not a whit for the highly qualified and experienced typesetters who were increasingly cast aside.
Little by little the machine became increasingly helpful to me in my role as a publisher and I got quite nerdy, while the BBC and Alan Michael Sugar were also persuading families all over the country that everyone really wanted a big, hot and noisy box in the house that would do simple sums and shopping lists for them.
What fools we all were – the devil was quietly laying the foundation for his or her masterplan of bringing the mass of humanity to the brink of despair.
The next stage was introducing spreadsheets more widely onto an unsuspecting and naïve world prior to stage three.
And I, yes even I, succumbed.
I laughed in a patronising way at the silly, deluded idiots burning their eyes red during the small hours to produce a list of the LPs on their shelves, while I burned my eyes red doing something important and cutting edge in desktop publishing.
I admit it, I became a spreadsheet junkie. I became an expert, I could make the spreadsheets sing and dance for me – yeah, I was thrilled as my elegant constructs instantly updated themselves and calculated factors to the nearest penny for hundreds of operations.
One change of a figure in a single frame could transform uncounted totals and formulae throughout dozens of pages. The smoothness of the changes, the beauty of the finished item with all numbers identical and neatly displayed, the joy of creating a complete world…..
And there lies the rub and the trap.
The reality as portrayed on a spreadsheet is a world, of sorts, but it’s not a Real world.
In Spreadsheet World everything is equal, every single multiple of one or zero has exactly the same value whenever it appears throughout the whole spreadsheet, but Real life is different.
In Real World one person such as, for example, William Wilberforce, a forner MP for Hull, is actually worth something completely different to, let us say, John Prescott, another former MP for Hull.
Another illustration: compare and contrast your own GP with Dr Harold Shipman GP, a mass murderer yet fellow swearer of the Hippocratic Oath.
As you can see, in the real world One does not always equal One, but in the world that Bill Gates has been so successful in developing, such complexities do not exist.
Managers with non-existent people skills (or without even true managerial abilities in many cases) are able to sit behind a screen and produce petty Powerpoint presentations that seem to argue cost-cutting decisions of irrefutable common sense. Because the numbers add up this way “we can simply get the same amount of work done with fewer people working different shift patterns and save the company X pounds.”
No matter that this involves, for example, condemning individual members of staff to commute an additional 60 miles a day in their own time, seeing five hours less of their families each week and arriving home twice as uptight as they did before. No matter – there are no figures for this so they don’t count, or even exist.
Or take my own former world of publishing. I watched as the spreadsheet-ists measured how long it took ‘X’ number of newspaper subs to produce ‘Y’ number of pages. Then they simply averaged the two figures and there it was, your new working pattern – one full page every 15 minutes. Then they cut it to 12 minutes.
Doesn’t matter if it’s the TV listings, classified or a feature section full of photos – the numbers show it can be done and so it must. A friend of mine died as a result of the additional stress this put on him and countless others had their working lives ruined. What had once been a demanding but pleasurable and satisfying job became an endless Red Queen’s Race, a never-ending chase after the previous deadline.
Christianity is the exact opposite of the spreadsheet. In Christianity we all have value, but those values change, depending on time and circumstances.
In Christianity one lost sheep can be worth more than 99 safety gathered in. Yet also Christianity shows us that one lost son who has squandered his father’s money is worth as much as one diligent son who has stayed at home and worked hard to build the family business.
Spreadsheets might record Value (although even that is debatable in a lot of cases) but it can never record Worth. Christianity is all about the latter.
Bill Gates has given away hundreds of millions of dollars of his fantastic fortune. That’s all very laudable. However he has earned his billions by making tools that enable managers around the world to devalue and dehumanise the working conditions of hundreds of millions of people.
And yet, if Bill Gates truly repents of his actions then God will forgive him and give him a fresh chance to make things better. That’s what it’s all about.
But don’t start me off on the new Google Diary we’ve just introduced to the Minster under the excuse of ‘improvements’ – making working conditions for the information inputters less flexible, the information in the system much less useful and the whole lot considerably less accessible. And there’s no useful trade-off that I can see.
The information is still as riddled with errors as the old manual systems and it’s not just the same errors – there’s a brave new world of additional errors which the system has created for us to trip over without noticing.
Bring back the quill and the abacus and save humanity.
First published October 2009 
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