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Chapter 1. Riddles for the Information A... > What Do You Get When You Cross a Com...

What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with a Bank?

A computer! Whenever I withdraw cash from an automatic teller machine (ATM), I encounter the same sullen and difficult behavior so universal with computers. If I make the slightest mistake, it rejects the entire transaction and kicks me out of the process. I have to pull my card out, reinsert it, reenter my PIN code, and then reassert my request. Typically, it wasn't my mistake, either, but the ATM computer finesses me into a misstep. It always asks me whether I want to withdraw money from my checking, savings, or money-market account, even though I have only a checking account. Subsequently, I always forget which type it is, and the question confuses me. About once a month I inadvertently select “savings,” and the infernal machine summarily boots me out of the entire transaction to start over from the beginning. To reject “savings,” the machine has to know that I don't have a savings account, yet it still offers it to me as a choice. The only difference between me selecting “savings” and the pilot of Flight 965 selecting “ROMEO” is the magnitude of the penalty.

The ATM also restricts me to a $200 “daily withdrawal limit.” If I go through all of the steps—identifying myself, choosing the account, selecting the amount—and then ask for $220, the computer unceremoniously rejects the entire transaction, informing me rudely that I have exceeded my daily withdrawal limit. It doesn't tell me what that amount is, inform me how much money is in my account, or give me the opportunity to key in a new, lower amount. Instead, it spits out my card and leaves me to try the whole process again from scratch, no wiser than I was a moment ago, as the line of people growing behind me shifts, shuffles, and sighs. The ATM is correct and factual, but it is no help whatsoever.


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