Simon Carr: The Kitchen Capitalist

These idiot-proof systems make idiots of us all
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The Independent Online

The story so far: The author has sold his house to finance a manufacturing project in the hope of making a small fortune to finance his old age.

The story so far: The author has sold his house to finance a manufacturing project in the hope of making a small fortune to finance his old age.

This time, surely. We've spent two weeks getting a parcel to China. It's at the depot. The paperwork has detained us one entire afternoon. The exact details of how my invoice arrives and how I fill it in and send it - we can overleap that in one Nietzschian bound. "The thing is," Lucy in Bristol says, "on the invoice? You haven't put in a value for the materials? You've put in zero for the commercial value but customs needs a value."

"The material is extruded polystyrene, it's not worth anything."

"Everything has a value."

I rein myself in. "Put in a pound," I suggest calmly.

She plays her ace. "The thing is, I can't amend your invoice." It is the ace of trumps.

I start gasping weakly, like a dying fish. The power of process to frustrate us has never been greater. We have ever larger units of production and govern them by systems that can be operated mechanically. Idiot-proof systems make us all idiotic.

Weakly, I write in £1 on the invoice, and initial it and go upstairs to the machine and fax it (it's working now, no one knows why). And when I ring Bristol it has arrived! My mercurial spirit soars. It is the sheer raw commercial power of technology we read about! Capitalism works! The speed-of-light efficiency of . . . "The thing is," she says, "we have no record of the town you've addressed it to." If it isn't on their system it might as well not exist. But if Taipei had been vapourised by a Chinese nuclear strike, wouldn't the news desk have said something?

I'm rocking slightly, and moaning tunelessly. "There are millions of towns in China," she says. Then something in her voice makes me say: "You know it's going to Taiwan?"

"But you've got the address down here as China."

There is no time to go into the geo-political situation. And anyway she's rung off to get the Global Gold quote. When she rings back, it's £214 to get it there possibly by Saturday afternoon but definitely Monday morning. Or Tuesday as it's a holiday on Monday. "But it's no quicker than the cheaper service," I wail. "The one at half the price was going to get there in the same time!" I've cracked. I've had it.

"Oh, I doubt that," she says. "Taipei is in Area C, which is out of our guaranteed areas. There's no telling when it will arrive in fact, these are just estimates."

I hang up, weeping with defeat. Perhaps they recognise they can do no more to me, so they send the parcel to China.

How does anything get done? They say electronic products have a life of six weeks before they are imitated by knock-off factories. They deserve every penny. They can probably walk on water and then turn it into wine.

But we're on the way now; we can get on.