Ghost in the machine

I want to let this one go but I can’t; it’s stuck in my head.

I was at Home Depot for the third time in 72 hours or so at lunch. On Friday I picked up the wrong module for the media distribution center, and when I went in this morning to return it and get the correct one, I picked up the right box. But when I got it to the car and was driving to the office, I opened it at a stoplight and realized there was no module inside—just a punch-down tool.

I thought, Great. Not only would I not believe myself if I went back with the opened box and told them there was no module inside when I bought it, but I had used the self-checkout and so there wouldn’t even be a cashier to vouch that they had seen me.

But I went back and stood in the return line, and did a slow burn as I waited, and waited. And when I explained to the return cashier, whose first language was not English, she called over the MOD, and then the head cashier.

I started telling the story to the head cashier, but she cut me off. “You were here this morning, weren’t you? I saw you.” Yeah, I said. “Go ahead and get a correct module. Sorry for the trouble.”

I had set myself up for nothing but trouble: go in first thing in the morning, take the purchase path that involves no human contact, walk out with no proof that I hadn’t just taken the module out of the box. But because someone happened to see me and vouch for me, the system made an exception.

Hugely important, that human ability to make judgments and to decide that there should be exceptions. It doesn’t get implemented in code that way, and we forget about it all the time. But we are more than just ghosts in our machines. Sometimes we’re here to make decisions they can’t, so that people who need help can get it.