Computer Says No

James Bennett

Contributing Editor

Anyone who has gone through the process of getting a work visa for a foreign country is familiar with the labyrinthine nightmare of bureaucracy that this entails. Recently, I found myself knee-deep in forms, authorisations, checklists and little tiny pictures of me. All this because I had the audacity to want to enter the United States. When I found out that one of the forms I needed had to be obtained from my own university, it nearly finished me off.

This should not have been such a daunting prospect. At least in TCUD, I would be navigating a system that I already knew, right? Wrong. Nobody knows The System. You can never know The System. What goes on in the Academic Registry of TCUD is beyond human knowledge. It is a cosmic omnishambles. Not even the people who work there really understand it, and to question its machinations is forbidden. This is what happened to me last Friday in the shiny new Academic Registry:

I went in. I marvelled at the colours, the shiny surfaces, the groovy couches. I wondered how many tutorial hours were cut from the Spanish department to pay for all these wondrous things. Then I sat down. There was one man ahead of me. When he was finished I would be seen. Or so I thought. The System had other ideas.

As the man in front of me was finishing up his business, another man walked into the room. The agent of The System then looked at me and said: “You have to take a ticket.” But it was too late. The man that had just walked in pressed the button on the ticket machine, which lovingly tongued a piece of paper into his hand. It said 101. I did the same. Mine said 102.

I looked in disbelief at the man who had just walked in. He refused to meet my eye. There was no way he was giving up that ticket. I looked at the agent of The System behind the shiny white counter. She looked back at me, empty of sentience or sympathy. Then a faint wave of pleasure ran across her face like a spider. I could understand the motivations of the man with ticket 101. It was pure self-interest. Why wait longer than you have to, even if it means somebody else suffers? But the agent’s detached satisfaction troubled me.

I was the only person waiting for at least ten minutes before the other man came in. Everybody in the room knew this. So why didn’t she just tell the other man that she would serve me first? He wouldn’t argue. It would not affect her day in any way whatsoever. And it would be fairer for everyone. The agent of The System, who resembled Terri from The Thick of It more than a little bit, did not share my logic. If you press the button first you are served first. It doesn’t matter if you are in the queue for days: if you didn’t know you needed a ticket you go all the way back. These are the rules of The System. They are inevitable like death.

“What goes on in the Academic Registry of TCUD is beyond human knowledge. It is a cosmic omnishambles. Not even the people who work there really understand it, and to question its machinations is forbidden.”

Eventually I reached the counter. After first shooting me a tight little grin to hammer home my humiliating defeat, Terri asked me what she could do for me. I told her I needed proof that I was a student of TCUD. She wrote my name in a book and told me to come back the next day.

“Is there any way you can give me the letter now?” I asked. “It’s for an appointment at the US Embassy early tomorrow morning, before this office opens.”

“No, I’m sorry, there’s no way I can do that. We print the letters outside office hours,” replied Terri.

“Please can you make an exception? It took me ages to get this appointment. And I might not be able to get another one. I might lose my visa.”

“No. I am sorry. We print the letters outside opening hours.”

“Is there really nothing you can do?”

“If you print the letter yourself from your online student portal, I can stamp it.”

“And that’s basically the same thing?”


“So you are telling me that the letter is available, but you just will not print it?”


“But you will do everything else, except print it?”


“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Unfortunately, the last line of this conversation only happened in my head. But the rest of it is true. I went and printed my letter, which Terri dutifully stamped and signed with a passive-aggressive flourish. I left the Academic Registry feeling drained of all life and hope. The System had played me. And I had danced to its tune like a good little boy.

This university is infamous for its inefficient bureaucracy. We all complain about it. Usually it is in relation to our courses. Last week I went to the Spanish office to collect an essay from Michaelmas Term and was told that the lecturer had “just picked a random few and corrected them”, and that there was no way to know when the other essays would be back. However, there is a difference between this and what occurred in the Academic Registry. The Spanish department, like many others, is an organisational shambles. But they have no money, and very little staff. Also, in return for our patience, they are flexible with students on academic matters. If inefficiency is the order of the day, then this is the way to do it.

What happened to me in the Academic Registry is completely different. It was bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. The rules were adhered to because they were the rules. There was no room for the human dimension in mine and Terri’s interaction. The System came before everything. We could make everyone’s experience here a lot happier and easier if everyone just took a second to remember that this is a university, and not a legal firm from a Kafka novel. Why this hasn’t happened yet I don’t know. Maybe the rules don’t allow it.