The White Heat of Technology

This joke just isn’t funny any more….Wading Through Treacle has been suffering a severe sense of humour failure lately, but can always be cheered up by news from elsewhere, whence the inspiration for this episode came. Remember, sending me stories of absurdities keeps me sane. It’s your public service.

Martin stood up. This was a fairly uncommon occurrence during the working day, and Ajay raised his head from his screen. “Come on, young’un. Time to go.”

“Go where?”

“You know, the meeting about how to use the new holiday booking system. Lecture theatre J.”

“Oh, that. I wasn’t going to go. It should be easy enough to work out.”

Martin shook his head. “That’s not why I’m going. I want to find out what’s they’re up to. I don’t like the sound of it. Come on, we’ll be late.”

Ajay was desperately trying to finish off planning a lecture, but he couldn’t think of any feasible excuse.  It seemed to take him so long to prepare teaching. He knew Martin wouldn’t think that was much of an excuse. With a sigh, he picked up his iPad. Maybe he could look up a few references or something.

Lecture Theatre J was pretty full. Martin led Ajay to a seat right in the middle, near to the front. Lots of people nodded at them as they made their way through; a few shook hands with Martin. Ajay smiled vaguely at the unfamiliar faces.

Ajay and Martin settled into their seats. Martin immediately turned to talk to the person sitting behind. Ajay didn’t know anyone except Martin. He looked forward, as though the front of the lecture theatre was fascinating.

Standing at the lectern was a man about the same age as Ajay, maybe a little younger. He was wearing a dark grey suit, a white shirt which looked brand new (the packing folds were still evident), and a brightly patterned tie. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his face.

The young man cleared his throat. There was no appreciable effect on the noise level. He coughed, then blushed deeply. Slowly, a silence rippled from the front rows to the back. The young man smiled, cleared his throat again, and then began.

“Hello, everyone, and thank you for coming. My name is Luke Price, and I’m from the employee coordination division. Today, I’m going to demonstrate the new system for booking holidays. It’s called,” he paused, and pressed a button on the keyboard. The slide behind him changed to a photograph of a cottage garden raised bed, filled with green plants, and a fanfare played over the speakers. When the music had ended, Luke spoke again. “It’s called HURB. Human Resources at Burston!” He gave the audience a happy grin.

Low-volume groans could be heard.

Luke didn’t seem to hear them. He continued. “Right! Let me take you through the main features.”

Ajay tapped surreptitiously. The iPad wasn’t the best tool for accessing tax law databases, but it would have to do for now. He was a bit bothered about being so close to the front, but he hoped that Luke would think he was taking notes. He looked up every now and then and nodded, to give the impression of concentrating.

After a while, he was aware of a certain restlessness around him. He tuned back in. Luke seemed to have finished explaining the virtues of the system and how long it had taken to develop, and was on to a demonstration.

“I’ll just take you through the process.”

He moved and clicked with great dexterity, swapping from keyboard to mouse seamlessly. Like crowds watching a tennis match, the assembled staff moved their eyes in unison as they tracked the cursor around the screen. “So, first of all, we log in to the system, using your usual BurstU username and password. Next, click on the ‘manage leave requests’ icon.”

He worked through a series of screens until they could see a short form.

“Pick the start date for the leave. Then, in the next box,  choose the total time you want to take off, in hours. Everyone has a working day of seven and a half hours, so if you are taking half a day’s leave, you put three point seven five in the box. Then, click on ‘request’, and it will be sent directly to your line manager.”

“What if you want to take a week off?”, somebody called out.

“Well, it’s the number of days multiplied by the number of hours in a day, so you put in, er, seven point five, times five, er, thirty-seven point five hours.”

Luke smiled vaguely and looked around the room. He’d been trained to look at people directly when he was presenting, but he wasn’t sure where the questioner was sitting.

From somewhere right at the back of the room, another question: “What about 13 days?”

Sniggers broke out around the lecture theatre.

Luke went pink. “Ha, ha. You’re all clever folks, I’m sure you can work it out!”

A bearded man sitting in the next row slowly raised his hand.

Luke smiled encouragingly. “Yes! Go ahead!”

“Could you just explain to us the semiotics of the imagery?”

Luke’s smile froze. He looked over at his line manager, sitting in the front row.  Finding no comfort, he looked back at the questioner. “Um. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m a business studies graduate. Could you just explain those technical terms?”

The questioner tried again, speaking very slowly, as though it was the speed of delivery which had confused the young presenter.

“Could. You. Ex. Plain. The. Semiotics. Of. The. Imagery?” There was a bit of shuffling in the auditorium. Ajay looked at Martin. “What does it mean?” He whispered.

Martin shrugged. “Dunno. Some poncey media studies jargon, I suppose.”

“Media studies?”

“Shhh. I’ll tell you later”

At the very back of the room, someone called out: “He means, what do the herbs mean?”

Luke looked relieved. They just hadn’t understood the key. “Well, parsley is for when you’re sick, chives are for annual leave, basil for…”

The man in the next row interrupted him. “No, we get that they stand for things. We want to know why you picked these particular plants.” He had continued to speak slowly. It sounded sarcastic.

Luke was also speaking very slowly, but more as though he were speaking gently to a small child who was slow on the uptake. “Well, no reason, I expect it was just to do with herbs, you know. HUman Resources at Burston. HURB.”

The bearded man subsided back into his seat with a huge sigh. Luke gave him a sympathetic look.

Martin leaned over to Ajay. “Tarquin. Media studies lecturer. Good bloke, but a bit up himself. Thinks they’re the only intellectuals in the place. Check the footwear.”

Ajay looked down. Tarquin was wearing sandals. And socks. And corduroy trousers. He raised his eyebrows. He looked like the bloke in that old film they’d been recommended to watch, on his PGCHE. What was it called? With the hairdresser…

Meanwhile, Luke had moved on with relief to another questioner. “When you were doing the demonstration, I noticed that there were some other functions. Can we use this to note down when people come in late?”

Luke smiled at her. “Well, we’re only implementing the holiday-booking part at the moment, but well-spotted, there are some other things you can do with the records. I don’t think that, er, late arrivals are quite what it was intended for, but, yes, I’d say you can. I’ll just show you. You could go to, er, belladonna, isn’t it, yes, that’s unauthorised absences,  and then just fill it in for the number of hours that they’re late. Obviously you can use fractions there, like, 0.25 hours for fifteen minutes, and so on.”

There was a rustling of movement around the room. Suddenly, Luke had everyone’s attention.

Martin raised his hand.


Martin stood up. “Martin Shepherd, UCU branch chair. You do realise that half of the staff at the university don’t have set working hours, don’t you? So how could they have unauthorised absences?”

“Well, er, I think we were just talking about unauthorised absences in general. Like I said, we aren’t implementing those functions yet, though. I was just, er, showing the,er, proof of concept.” Luke clearly couldn’t see what was coming. In the front row, his line manager slunk down in her seat.

Martin ignored what Luke had said. “And the other half are constantly asked to trade on their considerable good will to keep this institution going. And these relationships are built on trust.” Martin had switched to a declamatory style. He was no longer looking at Luke, but was addressing the whole room.

“Built on trust,” he repeated, “Not on petty-fogging obsessions with clock-punching and rule-keeping. Not on wasting millions of pounds on a system to replace a very effective existing one. Keeping a paper record of people’s holiday requests works perfectly well.” He paused.

“And that’s the only part of the academic contract you can feasibly track.” Martin stopped again, and tilted his head, quizzically. Luke seemed transfixed.  Not receiving any response, Martin continued.  “Unless there is some hidden agenda here, you can’t use the other parts of this system with our existing contracts, and surely you know it?”

Martin paused. He turned in his place to scan the audience, before delivering his punchline: “It seems as though you’re missing some ingredients for this recipe to work!”

Laughter swept round the lecture theatre. Martin grinned, and then sat down.

Luke hadn’t moved. Once again, he looked at his line manager.

She mouthed an instruction at him. “Carry. On.”

There was an increasing volume of noise in the lecture theatre. Luke looked down at his notes. Where had they got up to? He had absolutely no idea. Surely it must be the end? Yes, he’d finish the session off. He looked up. A forest of hands had gone up. He decided that he’d better take some more questions. He pointed to a kindly-looking woman on the opposite side of the room from Martin, and tried to look encouraging.

She stood up. “Mr Price. Are you sure that this system is intended to be used with academic staff contracts?”

Luke looked relieved. He knew the answer to this one.

“HURB is an inclusive service for all Burston Central staff, madam. Nobody is left out.”

He smiled broadly at her.

“Are academic staff getting new contracts, then? Ones which say that they may stop work after 7.5 hours, whatever their timetable says, or whoever is knocking at the door? And by the way, if you wish to use a title to address me, it’s more appropriate to use ‘Professor’.”

There was a murmur of approval around the room.

Luke’s smile froze. He looked wildly around the room, having given up on the hope of any support from his line manager. Finding no inspiration, he eventually picked up his pen and said “I’m afraid I’m not in a position to answer that one at the moment, mad, er, professor, but I’ll make a note and get back to you, if that’s ok.”

He scribbled on his pad. “Any more questions?”

The professor stood up again. “Don’t you need to know my name, if you’re going to,” she held a hand either side of her ears and waggled the first two fingers of each as she emphasised each the next words, “get back to me?” This time, there was open laughter.

Luke was bright red, but he managed to make his voice carry across the lecture theatre. “Of course, professor.” He stood with poised pen.

The woman spoke slowly, emphaisising individual syllables. “Pro-fes-sor Mel-issa Burton-Smith.” She sat down.

Luke wrote  on his pad, for much longer than seemed necessary to note down the name.

Finally, his line manager stood up and joined him at the lectern. “Well, everyone, thanks for coming, I think that’s all we’ve got time for.” She pressed a button on the keyboard, and the herb garden photo came back up, together with some vaguely Elizabethan keyboard music recorded on a synthesiser and played tinnily through  the lecture theatre’s inferior speakers. There was a mass exodus.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

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