Those Darned Computers

These newfangled “computer” thingamajigs are the most mysterious of all machines. Despite our stubborn Luddite tendencies we have figured out how to turn the contraption on, play chess on it, “surf the ‘net” for news and nudity, and even post these daily rants with properly indented paragraphs, but we have no idea how the darned things work. Our more technologically-savvy friends assure us that it has something to do with binary codes and silicon conductors and assorted other gobbledygook, but we cannot shake a suspicion that black magic is involved.
It is good to know, then, that the putatively brilliant boys and girls of the federal government are every bit as baffled by computers. Even our limited abilities in operating computers are sufficient to have brought us a slew of recent stories on the internet that document the government’s inability to run their multi-billion dollar super-computers.
The most prominently featured stories have been about the “glitches,” “bugs,” and other bad things that have bedeviled the computer system intended to enroll a grateful public in Obamacare-approved health insurance policies. No less an Obamacare enthusiast than The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has declared the system “really bad,” and other reliably administration-friendly media mavens at the MSNBC staff have been forced to offer even harsher reviews. Things have gotten so bad that even Jon Stewart, the snarky “Daily Host” who usually reserves his wittiest mugging for Republicans, was obliged to skewer a blindsided Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the fiasco in a recent program. A friend who occasionally ventures on to Facebook tells us that the Obamacare page is full of comments from presumed “friends” unanimously griping about the frustrations of trying to navigate the web site.
Those who are paid to do so directly by the administration are still arguing that it’s all a matter of too much traffic and therefore proof of Obamacare’s overwhelming popularity, but more objective observers have offered two plausible explanations for the problems. The admirably geekish writers at the web site blame it on cronyism, citing a number of computer experiences who contend that the companies awarded the contract to devise the site are better known for their political connections than their technical expertise, which strikes us as entirely believable. The writers at the usually-reliable Forbes Magazine theorize that the program was deliberately sabotaged by its all-too-shrewd designers, lest the folks trying to log onto the system discover that their health care costs under Obamacare will be far greater than they had been led to believe, and this also seems well within the realm of possibility. Some sorry combination of both explanations could also be true, given how often the government is both inept and nefarious.
Ineptitude seems the more likely explanation for the second slew of stories about governmental computer problems we’ve recently noticed, which involve the government’s Electronic Benefits Transfer program. Also known as “EBT cards” to those in the know about such things, or “Food Stamps” to those of us still stuck in pre-computer era of the welfare state, the program maintains computerized accounts for its ever-expanding number of beneficiaries which have lately gone awry. On Saturday the program shut down across the nation, leaving countless of would-be shoppers stranded at the check-out lanes of their local grocers without means of payment, and later that night at least two Walmart discount stores in Louisiana went back on line to find that there was no limit on the EBT purchases. The latter foul-up set off a social-media-fueled shopping frenzy at the stores, as even the most Walmart-shopping EBT-dependent people now have computers or fancy cell phones, with hundreds of shoppers filling carts to the brim in hopes of getting out of the store before the computer error could be rectified.
None of these stories inspire faith in the government’s ability to run these ambitious social programs, nor the programs themselves, but we find that slightly reassuring. Having grown up in the era of the dystopian futurist movie craze we well remember a nightmare-inducing thriller titled “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” about a government super-computer that threatened to impose totalitarian control over the entire world, as well as any number of other sci-fi yarns set in the far-off 21st Century about computers conquering mankind, and it is good to see that such scenarios remain far-fetched. Thus far these computer thingamajigs seem to do more to subvert totalitarianism than to advance it, and we’re certainly trying to do our part here, and it would seem that the putatively brilliant boys and girls of the federal government aren’t the equals of their counterparts in the private sector.

— Bud Norman

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