How Microsoft Got to the Point it Couldn't Send an Email,
or Why Large Institutions Go Brain-Dead


Let me tell you about our latest computer woes as a way of illustrating a much larger and more important point. We decided to upgrade from our old Sony laptop running Windows 98 to a new Sony laptop running Windows XP. Both had fire wire connections, so we looked forward to rapidly transferring our files to the new machine. No joy there. The software was incompatible.

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of our troubles. We installed our old Microsoft webpage creation program, FrontPage 98, in our new computer, but it wouldn’t run. It turned out – how come these things are never clear beforehand? – that it was incompatible with Windows XP. So we upgraded to FrontPage 2003. There was no way, however, of transferring our large website from our old computer to the new one. We had to download it from our server. We had a question about how to do this, and since we now had Microsoft support, we called them. We gave them the authentification number on the upgrade box, and were informed that we really had the Microsoft data program, Access, in the Greek language! Finally, we got to tech support in Bombay, and the person we talked to knew the answer to our questions. Since it involved a series of steps we suggested that he email the instructions to us. The next day came with no email. We called again, got a verbal explanation, and a promise of another email. No email once again. Eventually the original technical support person called to check on how we were doing. It turned out that they couldn’t sent emails from their computers, and more important to our story here, clearly didn’t know it. That is how Microsoft couldn’t send an e-mail.

Then we wanted to pay online to make permanent a trial version of Microsoft Office that had come installed on our machine. But the authentification code didn’t work. We tried calling Microsoft, and you would imagine that they would be ready to take our money. That was not the case. We ended up on an open line to India, trying to talk to a supervisor, and eventually being routed back to the original phone menu we had started with. The irony here was that the question we had could have been answered in a minute.

Microsoft certainly isn’t alone in reaching this stage of size and complexity in which its various parts don’t really coordinate very well, and it begins to function like it has forgotten about the customer in the equation. Our new computer, for example, came with Adobe Premiere Pro, a video-editing program, but Adobe wouldn’t answer any questions about it unless you paid them, and Sony wouldn’t, either. Even when we had the right to tech support the support we got varied greatly from the person who actually knew very little to very knowledgeable people who helped us.

There is no need to continue with this litany of computer woes. You no doubt have many of your own. But what do they mean? One thing it does not mean is that we all are somehow dumb and need to get technologically up to speed. Rather large institutions at a certain point in their growth begin to grow brain dead. Everything gets divided into a thousand pieces, a process often driven by a desire for a few people to maintain centralized control and to accrue inordinate profits, and the result is a loss of common sense and the original purpose of the organization begins to suffer. Its head becomes unable to communicate effectively with its members, still less with its customers. Enormous amounts of time and energy are spent by everyone, negotiating the distorted social structures that surround the technology, itself. The result is that the new hardware and software become underutilized because of a failure to adequately deal with the human elements of design and support.

What happens in the field of technology happens, as well, in all large institutions from schools to religion as we have tried to show in Radical Simplicity and the Fourth Step, and The Church, the Council and the Unconscious. These problems cannot be truly solved unless we take a step back and look at their wider context, and make our institutions serve us rather than us serving them.