In praise of slowness

by @edent | , | 650 words | Read ~155 times.

Sometimes - only sometimes - slowness is a feature, not a bug.

A few weeks ago, I was reading about a purported use for "smart contracts". If your plane is cancelled, a smart-contract could automatically pay out your travel insurance, the millisecond the cancellation was reported. Nifty, right‽

Slowness for crap reasons

There are plenty of processes which are slow for annoying reasons. The insurance company is slow in the hope that you won't pursue your claim. That's good for their business (fewer payouts) but has a negative effect on you.

Some insurers still use paper-based processes because they under-invested in technology. Their departments don't communicate with each other, so they need your details in triplicate. Again, passing the cost and effort on to you saves them money.

But not all slowness is so hostile.

Slowness for practical reasons

Was the plane really cancelled? Or was it a computer blip? Before automatically paying out thousands of pounds, perhaps the insurer wants confirmation. That seems sensible.

Did the claimant cause the plane to be cancelled - perhaps by calling in a bomb hoax? Perhaps the insurer wants to investigate your culpability. Sure, they could pay out and then sue you for the money later - but that's expensive for all involved.

Have your details changed since you registered for the insurance? Do you want to be paid out to a different bank account? Did you lose the password to your old crypto-wallet? Did you die before the cancellation? Perhaps there are some legal reasons that an insurer needs to confirm.

I'm sure you can think of a few more.

Slowness for sociological reasons

Most jurisdictions insist that couples can only sign a marriage contract after a delay of a few weeks. Society realises that marriage isn't something to be entered into lightly. Or you can fly off to Las Vegas and hope that your impulsive elopement lasts!

Slowness to prevent scams

"Slamming" is a persistent problem in the UK. Because it is so quick to switch ISP, phone provider, bank accounts, etc - some unscrupulous people try to switch you to their service without your permission. So most of these services have a mandatory "cooling-off" period. Even in cases where there is no fraudulent attempt, most important contracts have a mandatory reflection period. Is this occasionally annoying? Yup! But it seems like a sensible trade-off.

Chesterton's Pocketwatch

Chesterton's Fence encourages people to understand why a barrier exists before removing it. I think it's also a good idea to understand why slowness may be desirable.

Sure, a lot of the time it will be because of shitty processes and indifferent staff. But not always.

Context matters

In the UK, the process for claiming a refund from a delayed train used to be slow and crappy. Download a form, fill it in, print it off, send it in, wait ages, then get a refund as train vouchers. Yuck!

A few years ago, Delay Repay was introduced. Click a couple of buttons on a website, confirm some details, and a few days later a cash refund would appear in your bank account.

Now, many train companies are using Automated Delay Repay. When they detect that your pre-booked train was delayed, they will automatically email you to confirm the refund details. Magic. The world gets slowly better.

That's something which can be done seamlessly with reliable technology. It is fast where it can be, and has humans in the loop to prevent things going too fast.

I've seen variations on this meme before:

Tech-solutionism is infuriating. Not everything is as slow and crap as the services in the USA. It is possible to look outside your bubble to see how the rest of us experience the world.


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