The 100th way

I was in a bank with my accountant to set up a corporate account for my small business. I already have a personal savings account there, plus it is an American bank that has efficiency maximization ingrained in their DNA. This is supposedly all I had to do: Open a new account under my corporate name and allocate some money from my private account. It should have been processed faster than ordering a Bic Mac. I was wondering why my accountant insisted on attending me.

I understood why after my accountant exercised her supernatural ability to fast-forward everything to complete the process in…two and a half hours. If it weren’t for her, it should have taken forever. I think I am financially married to her for the rest of my life.

Criticizing the bank and its hard-working staff isn’t my intention—damn am I saying this a lot these days or not—and that’s why they remain nameless. The problem was in the “system.” What follows is a part of what happened.

The account holder had to be registered under my printed name in the passport, which was English (my Japanese name consisting of Chinese characters is printed only as a signature). Only the printed version can be legitimately registered, which made sense. But the tax authority only accepts what is printed in my company setup application form, which proudly represented my Chinese name. Again, it made sense, didn’t it?

At that point I was supposed to sent back home feeling guilty and ashamed, even half-weeping, for being ignorant of how “systems” worked (or didn’t work, in my case). But I had my almighty accountant on my side, who after an hour-long debate muscled a solution.

Then followed a series of papers to sign, “processing” time, another papers to sign and waiting period… I felt like a celebrity arriving at the gate of a movie premiere. When everything was over, I was already escaping into an imaginary cyber-zombie shootout in that bank building (System vs. Us).

Looks like it doesn’t matter if a bank has originated in the world’s most advanced financial industry. Everything still operates around papers and signatures and middlemen, which is so different from the app-centered digital world I live in. If I want to create an account in an app on my iPhone, I figure out it should take two steps and ten seconds, and the “system” responds directly and exactly with two steps and ten seconds. There is no “in-between.”

The bank administrator offered an apology for taking so long, but I was the one who wanted to say I’m Sorry. Considering the number of clients she has, she might be spending most of her time in those pitfalls. And it wasn’t just her: most of the workers, at least the ones on the service area, looked busy dealing with the “cracks” within the system.

If the world is fully converted into the app-mode, there will be no more paperwork, processing/down time, entry barriers, so on. The good news is that the world is steadily marching toward that “agent-less” utopia. I certainly want that, and I guess the bank staff too.

But in that utopia, where do all the clerks and assistants and account managers go? Isn’t the world without middle-man the world without middle-class, which is already in motion?Considering the vast numbers of banks and government buildings filling up all major streets in Taipei, I wonder what will the price we pay when the conversion to a middle-less society is completed.

I have been thinking that banks and governments intentionally keep the system convoluted with spaghetti-routed information sewage that also leaks, in order to justify their existence. Cynically talking, instead of protecting clients using employees, they protect employees using clients (and their assets). But can we entirely blame them? Everybody needs to make a living. I am sure most of the workers putting duct tapes on the “system” wants to move on to a more fulfilling life if only they see a way out.

I believe the real problem is the lack of options. Either you die a slow death out of stress or die a quick death out of hunger isn’t what we call a healthy society. From Bill Gates to Linus Torvalds, Barack Obama to Sarah Palin, everybody would agree on this.

We don’t only need a third way: we need lots of ways.