April 5th, 2023
Computers are wonderful things. I’m using one to write this article, so they must be. As computer technology becomes more and more commonplace, our dependence on it grows accordingly. I can remember, when I was at West Point back in the late 1970’s, how the school’s computer (yes, I am using the singular here), was an electricity-devouring behemoth that took up an entire floor of Washington Hall. The smart phone in your hand has exponentially more power and speed than that monstrous anachronism had. The computer at USMA was only used for science or engineering projects, so if it went down, that kind of sucked, but only for the students who were struggling to design a howitzer. For the vast majority of people, it didn’t matter. Now, if our computers go down, it matters, and it matters to everybody.
About twenty-five years ago, I was a supervisor at a trucking company. I used a computer to organize incoming shipments, and to set up delivery routes. The system I used was internal to the corporation. I had a green screen monitor. We did not have Windows at work. I don’t think we had access to the Internet at all back then. I planned my operation with a technology that was slow, clumsy, and often unreliable. However, at that time, this software was hot shit. It let me know what freight was coming to me from faraway places. It also told me when the shipments would arrive at my facility. It allowed me to devise efficient ways to deliver the shipments with the labor I had available to me. It was a crude method of doing things, but it is far better than trying to plan everything with a stubby pencil and a Ouija board.
As I mentioned, the internal computer system was not always accessible. That being the case, we backed up everything we did with a paper trail. That was cumbersome and redundant, but sadly necessary. I am convinced that our use of paper decimated entire forests. We made copies of everything imaginable.
For instance, when a driver in another city, say Chicago, picked up a pallet of freight from a customer, he or she would have the shipper fill out a bill of lading, a shipping order. Once the pallet was at the Chicago facility, a copy was made of the billing of lading, a “Copy of Shipping Order” or “COSO”. The driver who brought the shipment on his trailer from Chicago to my dock in Milwaukee would bring a bundle of COSO’s with him, one COSO for each shipment on his trailer. Normally, I could print delivery receipts from the information on the COSO’s (the information having already been entered into the computer system), and I really didn’t need these copies that came with the freight.
But sometimes I did.
One night, all those years ago, the corporation’s computer system failed, utterly and completely. This was bad, very bad. Suddenly, every supervisor and manager at every facility was blind. That night, I had no idea when a shipment would arrive, or who was bringing it, or even if it was coming to my facility at all. I wasn’t just clueless about one shipment. I knew nothing about at least four hundred of them. I couldn’t organize anything at all until each trailer showed up and I could examine the COSO’s. It made for a long night, and a brutal morning.
I got it done, but it was ugly, oh so ugly. I couldn’t plan ahead, so I had my dockworkers do “shotgun loading”. If a shipment arrived that was going to a customer in a certain part of town, I had the forklift driver put it into a trailer with other shipments going to other customers in that same general area (kinda sorta). There were no effective delivery routes that day. Each delivery driver was going to put on a lot of extra miles. I had a lot of angry questions directed at me. I was kind of busy with the endless chaos, so I was not a good listener.
The discussions usually went like this:
Unhappy driver: “Hey, Frank, what is this skid doing on my trailer? This customer isn’t on my normal route.”
Me: “It’s not a normal day. Get rid of it.”
Very Unhappy Driver: “I don’t even know where this place is.”
Me: “Buy a map.”
Pissed Off Driver: “Did you see how those idiots loaded my trailer? I will be going back and forth all day! It will take me forever to deliver all this freight.”
Me: “Then you better get started.”
The driver took his paperwork and walked away. As he passed a coworker, he glanced back at me and snarled, “No point in talking with that guy! All you get is smart answers and dumb looks!”
It went on like that for hours.
The drivers had to deliver their shipments suing the COSO’s. I couldn’t print them any official delivery receipts, so I had to make copies of the copies. They needed two copies for each customer to sign upon receiving their shipment. The customer kept one copy and the driver returned home with the other copy. When I wasn’t arguing with a surly employee, I was standing at the Xerox machine making a seemingly endless number of copies. It incredibly tedious, but it had to get done.
Our customers were also seriously inconvenienced by the system failure. We tried to deliver almost all of our shipments overnight. The customers expected us to do that, and they wanted to see their shipments the day after they ordered them. They wanted their stuff, and they wanted it right fucking now. At a minimum, they wanted to know where their goods were and when we could deliver them. Nobody in the office knew any more than our loyal customers, the people paying top dollar for our prompt service. I told the clerks to tell the customers that they would probably see their freight by noon. We almost delivered everything by that time anyway, so it wasn’t a lie. Most customers grudgingly accepted that, but not all of them.
As I was feverishly making copies, one of the clerks came to me and said,
“Frank, this customer was told that he would get his shipment early this morning. He hasn’t seen it yet. Do you know where it is?”
Without looking up from the copier, I replied, “No.”
She exclaimed, “I haven’t even told you who the customer is. Could you have somebody look for it?”
“No! I have four hundred shipments and I don’t know where any of them are at this moment. I don’t even know where to start looking for the freight.”
“Well, what should I tell him?”
Still not looking up, I told her, “I don’t know.”
She kept going, “Frank, that is not acceptable to the customer. We have to do better than that.”
I snapped, “Goddammit!”
I slammed my right hand on the top of the copier. The glass shattered from the impact and there were shards all over the floor. I stared dumbly at my right palm. It was beet red, but I wasn’t bleeding. I glanced around and noticed that I was all alone. The office was completely empty.
There was another Xerox machine in the office. I picked up my papers and walked over to it in silence. I made more copies.
I had no more questions that day.