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  • Jerry Schuitema

Digital tyranny

A personal reflection on the human crisis produced by the 4th industrial revolution.

It is common cause that the real crisis to humanity on many fronts of the explosion in technology is the impact on human relationships -- between individuals and between individuals and institutions. So much so that we are witnessing a serious re-write of classic economic- and organisational theory.

At the forefront is perhaps the most important sector of our transactional lives: banking and financial services. It has a lot to answer for: not only for its global handling of money which arguably led to the great depression ten years ago, but that has still left the world in a precarious position. It is a moot point whether the next major crisis, bigger than any experienced before, and closer than many may believe, will again not be sparked by a big banking collapse.

But that rash arrogance encouraged by size, U.S. deregulation, and reckless pursuit of self-gain by the lowest value-adding sector in economics, has not been confined to the investment sector. It has spilled over into what used to be the bread-and butter of banking – retail and everyday banking. What is remembered with deep sadness by those of my generation was the personal touch, easy access to authority and an adherence to the most basic unwritten contractual principle: that of institutional custodianship of your money. In that, it was implied that the bank would act as protector of your financial interests within the confines of the services they offer.

Of course that was largely counter-intuitive to the growth of technology, which created self-help banking and could by-pass much of the personal contact and personal service that was the hall-mark of “good banking” of the past. Most South African banks until fairly recently failed to recognise that despite the advantages to clients of the self-help revolution, there was and still is a deep nostalgic void in “we genuinely care.” Some have recognised that and have been trying to ensure that innovation does not mean dehumanisation. Capitec, for one deliberately addressed that void and quickly made ripples in the industry to become the country’s largest bank in terms of clients. The new entrants to the sector no doubt are a further response to that.

It is not easy for technology driven institutions to avoid seeing themselves simply as managers of that technology for “outside parties”; moving money from those who have to those who want to use it, or as an instrument of facilitating transactions -- milking innovation as much as possible for maximum self-gain, and reducing accountability for anything else than a failure of the technology itself. Gone is any semblance of custodianship of the financial well-being of clients. Clients are held virtually fully accountable for managing sometimes complex, obscure and confusing terminology and processes. Criminals, on the other not only fully understand the technology, sometimes even ahead of the institutions themselves, but – and a very important but – they understand the emotional make-up and vulnerabilities of clients far better than the banks themselves do.

There can be little doubt that the success of retail banks in future will depend largely on their ability to inject a much bigger scale of sound personal relationships with clients. One that is arguably very far behind in this evolution is ABSA, having lost hundreds of thousands of accounts over the past few years to fall from the country’s biggest bank to number 4.

Much of what went wrong with ABSA has been captured in a Moneyweb article by Hilton Tarrant (see here). What caught my eye was the following: “The principal challenge for Absa is that most of this ‘struggle’ is internal. Most of this change is ‘cultural’ and will need the bank to change from an ‘authoritative culture’ almost entirely reliant on the ‘back-office’, to a ‘market-facing one defined by results, learning, enjoyment and caring’. Plus, the bank has always been focused on products, not customers and their actual needs.”

I recently had a personal insight into this. My Absa Credit card was cloned in November and drained to its limit. A few weeks ago my nearest neighbour had the same experience, adding to others in this area recently. In each case, the bank rejected any liability at the outset citing client disclosure of critical information. From a legal perspective this may be true. But what I found quite astonishing is the automatic reverting to fine print T&C’s without exploring some highly relevant extenuating circumstances: robbing the bank of an opportunity to understand their clients better; becoming more familiar with the increasing sophistication of the criminals themselves and, of course, demonstrating genuine care.

I’m not going to use this column as a client’s grievance against a supplier, or as a defence of my own naiveté. Rather, it should be seen as a caution how easily a “reasonable person” can be duped and how defenceless some institutions will leave you.

But it does raise some issues that have emerged in this age of digital tyranny. I accept that not all banks are the same, and the remarks below may be somewhat over-generalised and perhaps overstated.

  • In largely abrogating their role as custodians of clients’ financial welfare, the banks have exposed clients to inordinate risk while shouldering no risk themselves.

  • The industry by and large does not understand their clients well enough to appreciate the emotional position they are put in and how a “reasonable person” would react to such incidents.

  • They have not done enough to ensure that clients are fully equipped to deal with highly sophisticated criminals beyond their self-preserving fine print T&C’s.

  • The default position of passing the buck in most cases to clients, simply discourages the banks from ensuring greater awareness promotion. They should consider shifting some of the billions they spend on marketing to ensuring client preparedness.

  • Notwithstanding the mistakes clients can make – small ones with big results – the routine response converting clients from victims to perpetrators while the real criminals go scot free unless hopelessly pursued independently, leaves one with a deep sense of injustice and outrage.

  • This default position is counter-intuitive to thorough forensic investigation in bringing the real perpetrators to book and curtailing cyber-crime.

Our economic evolution has to find a way of embracing technology without disrupting healthy, empathetic human relationships. It has to at least be a joint journey between institutions and clients. Technology cannot leave our humanity behind. That will tear society apart.

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