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Do you agree? DIY machines in France’s La Poste are hindrance not help

Nick Inman just wanted to send a parcel to Britain but when staff are replaced by disobedient computers things get tricky

Self-serve machines in French post office likened to rogue computer HAL in the film '2001: A Space Odyssey' Pic: ricochet64 / Hethers

France always used to have excellent public services but is technology replacing human employees for better or worse?

In December, I went to the post office to send a Christmas present to my family in Britain.

The job of postal sales assistant now seems to consist of pointing at signs on the wall and telling the customer that they must do their own stamp processing by using a formidable machine akin to HAL, the disobedient computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Incidentally, in French, the computer is called CARL, the Cerveau analytique de recherche et de liaison.)

Read more: 12 things you can do at a French post office other than buy stamps

‘Five of us watched and waited’

‘HAL’ worked fine for the transaction being carried out by the lady before me, but then she received an error message. 

“Don’t worry,” declared the assistant, “it’s a bug. It happens frequently. We’ll press this and this…”

But this and this did not convince ‘HAL’ to go back to work.

She fetched the branch manager, who produced a key and rebooted HAL. 

Five of us – staff and customers – watched and waited while the machine refused to cooperate. 

Its screen went back to Basic (literally) and stayed that way. It had knocked off for the day.

Told to go home

“Can’t I fill out the customs declaration on a piece of paper?” I asked. 

The sales assistant pointed to a sign on the wall and interpreted it for me.

“The only alternative is for you to go home, fill out the declaration online, print it out and bring it back here so that we can sell you the stamps.”

Read more: How to fill out French customs form online for packages sent abroad

La Poste’s policy seems to be to make the customer do as much of the work as possible and not bother the staff, whose job used to be to do it for you.

“Shouldn’t we avoid burning fossil fuels, driving back and forth?” I said.

Staff can only point at signs and apologise to customers

This is not a uniquely French problem, I know, but I hope some bureaucrat in Paris will apply Cartesian logic and short-circuit the idiocy.

I might have previously misrepresented the job of postal sales assistants. 

As well as pointing at signs and staring at a machine that does not work, their main job is now to apologise to enraged customers for why they cannot do something as simple as sending a parcel from one place to another. 

Surely this creates a vicious circle: replacing employees with machines to save money leads to incompetence and inefficiency, which puts off customers and ultimately reduces La Poste’s profitability.

This, in turn, causes it to lay off employees in place of more malfunctioning machines…

The March of AS (Artificial Stupidity)

1. Technology is supposed to make life easier, to bring only advantages and no disadvantages. There is no other point to it.

2. It is often applied to things that work perfectly well in the mistaken belief they can be made to work even better.

3. “Even better” never means for the consumer, only for the cost-cutting accountant.

4. Things rarely work better when treated to technology, except perhaps for the young – sharp of eye, nimble of finger – who do not appreciate how lucky they are.

5. The application of technology usually introduces disadvantages that do not emerge until it is too late to correct them.

6. People who work in tech cannot admit points one to five. They always double down on their error, introduce more technology and make things even worse.

7. The people who have the power to prevent all this are incapable of putting things back the way they were when they worked just fine. They do not understand why we are not grateful to them for making improvements in the first place.

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Can I still use my stock of French red first class stamps?

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