"We do not recognize that as a valid date," snapped the automated voice on the other end of the line (wherever that is, a location you will never discover). OK, I had heard and understood that the format was XX-XX-XXXX, and entered it again in case my finger had slipped. Nope, still "not a valid date." Oh, and the social security number was "not valid" also. And no way to discuss the matter, of course. The nationwide company seems to have no discernible location or address. And you already know the drill: call the 800 or 888 number, wait anywhere from five to 120 minutes, then respond to a numbered menu of choices which so often do not describe the simple problem you're trying to resolve. The old movies' Robbie the Robot was always competently helpful and discreet -- but the electronics-based future arrived not in that amenable form, but as a labyrinth with a Sphinx at the end, ready to devour you when you can't answer its riddle.
Welcome to the brave new world of boiling frustration we're going to be living with as more and more everyday actions and interactions take place between you and some digital monster that manages quite well to hide itself. All we were trying to in this case was update an address. And there lies the difference between a real person doing his/her job by solving small daily difficulties and a corporate personhood: the debit card the company inexplicably sent to a very old address was delivered to us by the local mailcarrier who recognized the name and delivered it here. The more automation that creeps into every little aspect of our lives, the less this sort of simple human correction will take place.
Automated telephone "answering" (that's the last thing you'll find!) has an equally dysfunctional brother. As you know, some websites work, some work about half right, and some, like all those of our state agencies, really don't work at all. You could blame the sun-starved necktie-strangled 8:30 - 4:00 minions in the Jurassic bureaucracy, but for the heavy lifting the state employs hundreds of very expensive consultants from DeLoitte and the other premier services at fees you would choke to see in print. So one would expect something so simple for 2013 as web sites that actually work. Nope. Soon enough you're right back on the home page, not where you were going, and soon after that frozen out with an error message. I'm not making this up.
I tried to make an online submission to a state agency recently, was stopped dead numerous times by such a message, and directed to call the regional center. After of hours on hold, I gave up. The next week I had to drive to a satellite agency, use their phone to contact the regional one, and thus found a real breathing person who was willing to push a few buttons and solve the problem. That is, after signing up to use said germy phone and waiting over 30 minutes in line. Probably no one, not even one of their gold-plated consultants or $160,000/year managers, has yet noticed that their main website has a major problem. They probably welcome the decreased incoming workload and chalk it up to an improving economy or something.
The PA Turnpike and others are moving to all-electronic toll collection; Social Security will be issuing very few paper checks soon, and other governmental programs which affect millions of people of very differing abilities and resources are rushing toward a paperless future. Other than gutting the Postal Service (forcing it to automate beyond what's reasonable, becoming ever more expensive and less responsive), the supposed savings has to be weighed against the clear fact that these electronic systems are rife with problems and dead ends that won't be fixed. People, especially those who can't understand these systems or afford to maintain their phone and internet services (i.e., those who don't count), are going to give up. It's like riding the Carousel of the Damned.