Essay by Kay Matthews
Modern Life – September 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine
WHEN I TOLD CHELLIS GLENDINNING my terrible tale of trying to help my neighbors register their small business on a centralized government website, she said, “That’s techno-fascism, and it’s rampant.”
Techno-fascism is imposing a one-size-fits-all centralized bureaucracy on a diverse population of multiple-sized businesses comprised of people just trying to do their jobs. In this case, it was my neighbors, who contract to drive the buses that deliver Forest Service firecrews to forest fires, which is what they’ve been doing, quite successfully, for almost 20 years.
This year, however, the first thing the Forest Service supervisor’s office tells my neighbors is that they have to have a DUNS number, an official number assigned by Dun and Bradstreet, before the business can be listed in the official Forest Service file of available contractors. OK, they call the toll-free number and are assigned a DUNS number. Then the Forest Service gives them a website address where they must register their business in a centralized system (a system run by the Department of Defense) that lists every contractor in the country who does business with the government.
My neighbors do not own a computer, have never used a computer, and certainly have never registered for anything, bought anything, or browsed for anything on the internet. So I log onto the site for them, which takes 20 minutes to access on rural phone lines that urban, broadband users wouldn’t even deign to use. I should have known immediately what was in store when one of the first instructions on the site cautions me to save data so I can come back to it later. All in all, I “come back” to the site at least ten times as my neighbors and I struggle to find the information it requests on five different required forms: General Information; Goods and Services; Corporate Information; Financial Information; and Points of Contact.
All of these categories have pages of questions that request information on a marketing contact and alternate, sales contact and alternate, accounts receivable contact and alternate; financial institution, routing number, bank account number, bank contact, and e-mail address for direct deposit of checks; type of business; name and type of prior business, ad nauseum. If you don’t fill out every single line, with every single name, address, e-mail address, phone number, and alternate, the registration is incomplete. None of these categories allow a simple “Not Applicable” answer for those of us registering sole proprietor businesses with one employee: the bus driver. There are no sales, marketing and accounts receivable positions; there is no type of prior business or auxiliary business. And there is a healthy distrust of providing the government with a bank account number when for twenty years checks have been mailed to the post office or rural mailbox, and it has worked just fine.
When I finally realize just how long it is going to take me to finish this registration (besides the 20 minute wait to access the site, it takes at least 10 or 15 minutes to process the information in each category) I decide to find a computer with a broadband internet connection. On a friend’s Powerbook the site informs me that some MacIntosh computers do not allow access to this Department of Defense site because of certain security set-ups. Does this mean that the Department of Defense suspects that MacIntosh users are generally not good security risks? Or have MacIntosh designers decided that the Department of Defense is not user friendly?
MEANWHILE, MY NEIGHBORS, and many of their bus driver friends who are also bogged down in this debilitating process, decide they do not want to provide the government with their bank account numbers. When I call up the Forest Service and tell them this, the clerk says, “Then they won’t get paid.” When I ask to speak to the supervisor, he says, “Believe me, I know some people don’t want to give out this information, but our hands are tied. This is a directive from Washington and we can’t do anything about it.” When I suggest that it might behoove the Forest Service to have a workshop for contractors who might be reluctant to supply some of this information, explain the procedure, and help them through the registration process, he says, “We barely have the staff capability to do our own work, much less theirs.” I ask for his boss’s number in Albuquerque, but she’s out of town.
Two weeks later I finally finish the registration. My neighbors and their friends figure out a way to supply the government bureaucracy with the financial information it demands without completely jeopardizing their privacy. The process leaves all of us a mess: the website technology staff that listens to complaints all day long from frustrated contractors; the Forest Service staff that listens to complaints all day long from frustrated contractors; the frustrated contractors who believe the process is a total waste of time and an invasion of their privacy; and me, the friend of the frustrated contractors whose blood boiled and guts churned over the insensitivity and complicity of the bureaucrats who designed this system that demands the entire world buy into technology that makes our lives more complicated, more anxious, and less our own. Welcome to the world of techo-fascism.
Kay Matthews works with Mark Schiller to edit and publish La Jicarita News, “dedicated to protecting and enhancing the clean and plentiful waters that sustain the rural communities, culture, and traditions of northern New Mexico,” where this was first published. Subscriptions are $15 a year from La Jicarita, Box 6 El Valle Route, Chamisal NM 87521. It’s on the web at lajicarita.org.