In the Dark

I’m going to India for a conference. As a European citizen, I’m fortunate. I can apply for an e-visa. Within the application process I need to upload a passport photo of specified dimensions and file size (this takes some fiddling around), and a PDF scan of my passport. This is where I get stuck. When I click to upload I keep getting an error message “only PDF files accepted”. I check - it’s a PDF. Perhaps the system doesn’t like PDF as images without text? I use the OCR tool and convert it to readable text. Still no luck. I check the file size. It’s within their stated requirement, but what the heck. I optimise the file size again. I read everything on the page and read everything on the FAQ page, and any other page related to e-visas. Nothing. Maybe I need to wait between attempts or there’s a system glitch? I go away intending to try again later.

When I get back the page has expired and I have to start the form again from scratch. Same thing. I’m at a loss. Okay I’ll try again tomorrow. Same thing. Maybe it’s my browser? I change browser. Same thing.

Then I look at my file name for the PDF. Maybe it doesn’t like non-alphanumeric characters or spaces? I remove them. Same thing. Okay maybe it’s the length of the file name? Maybe it has an undisclosed character limit, and if you exceed it, it can’t read the .pdf file extension? I shorten the file name to seven characters. Boom, upload accepted. Submit application. Fail. I have exceeded the time limit and have to wait 20 minutes for another attempt. 20 minutes later I submit like a dream. I have figured out its mysteries. I burn with zeal to advise others and wonder if I should write the steps down so I don’t have to go through this again. Two days later I get an email informing me my e-visa is granted. Seven days later I receive 257 emails acknowledging receipt of my original application and assuring me it will be processed within two days.

I’m now in Delhi. I wake up in the middle of the night. I need to pee. I grope for my phone in the dark and switch on its torchlight. This helps me navigate in the dark the four meters to the light switches on the wall by the door. I need to do this because there is no way to control the lighting from the bed. I have to experiment with the switches before I find the one that turns on the light. This is because some switches control the ceiling fans and some the aircon, but there’s no way of telling which is which (even in daylight).

Eventually I have light and can get to the bathroom. This is a luxury hotel, and the bathroom is enormous. The light switches for the bathroom are another five meters away from the entrance, right next to the toilet. My phone gets me there (and back). By now I’m fully awake and I reflect that it might be simpler for me just to use my phone light and not bother with switches at all. Later I wake up hot and sweaty, and figure out that in messing with the switches I have inadvertently switched off the aircon.

Two days later I’m in another five star hotel. I’m hungry and tired. There’s a handy online room service menu accessible by QR code. I browse, select, my choice goes into the basket, I review the order, confirm the details, select “immediate delivery”, submit, and get the confirmation screen. Two hours later, there’s still no food.

Then I remember I’ve been in this situation before, in Manila. The app there was not connected to the kitchen, so you have to choose what you want on the app, and then call room service to place your actual order. Nothing in the app or the room explains this. In Manila a helpful staff member had explained it to me on the phone while also telling me my room had the QR code for an outdated menu (a new QR code was delivered to my room shortly after).

I go to the room phone. It’s an ordinary phone. There’s nothing on the phone to tell you how to call room service, front desk, anyone. I experiment with a few numbers, nothing. Zero appears to get me to an outside line. By this point I really don’t want any human interaction at all. I give up, raid the minibar.

These are all examples of what I call lumpy infrastructure. Smooth infrastructure eliminates uncertainty and gets you from purpose to outcome without interruption, undue effort or diversion. In fact, it’s so smooth you barely notice it. Lumpy infrastructure may have all the components in place and each component might be of high quality. But they are assembled wrongly, or they have missing links, or they rely on private rules or conventions that are not available to the infrastructure traveler. It is possible to traverse the infrastructure but only through exercise of imagination, experimentation, experience, or by enlisting the help of human assistants. In process and system design we use customer journeys to identify lumps and smooth them out, before they hit real people.

Now the examples above are very simple services that those of us nurtured in smooth infrastructures find deeply mysterious and often frustrating. Visa application processes must be traversed by millions of travellers – how could this not be fixed? How do other people cope? Luxury hotels that make it dangerous to get around in the dark or extremely difficult to access advertised (and revenue generating) services through the absence of one critical link – if not anticipated at the design stage, how do they not get fixed?

I am not sure of the answer. One colleague I spoke to speculated that India is a culture with a high sense of social responsibility to provide employment. It must balance that with the desire to appear modern and capable. A fully smooth infrastructure removes human agency from large sections of the process. Lumpy infrastructure requires human support to help travelers traverse critical gaps and dark sections. So you upgrade the components to look modern but you deprecate the task of joining everything up, to the extent that you have to lay people off. That seems reasonable in the room service case, but not the light switch or e-visa cases. On those, I remain in the dark.

However I think there is also a cultural payoff to this phenomenon. We believe that there is almost always a path through lumpy infrastructure, because it is reasonable to assume that many people traverse it successfully every day. In order to traverse it successfully we need to exercise our imaginations, improvise, and solicit assistance from people nearby, to an extent that is not normally required in smoother environments like Singapore or Ireland, where I spend much of my time.

When true uncertainty intrudes on our lives, it is not a bad thing to have such faculties ready to hand.

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