Digital Divide – By Zero?!

Divide by zero? No, not allowed, indeterminate etc., our math teachers told us. At that time, most of us did not ask “But, why?” As students, ours was not to question teachers – at least back then. Recently, I came across a nice simple answer. Here goes. Apparently, there is this thing called “multiplicative inverse” applicable to real numbers (refer article on the subject). What that means is if you multiply “x” by, say 5, you get five times of what you had. You can “get back” x by multiplying the product by 5-1 which is called the multiplicative inverse of 5 (a grand word for a simple reciprocal!). But if you multiply x by zero, the answer is zero and there is nothing you can multiply zero with in order to get back x. So, zero does not have a multiplicative inverse. To make it even clearer, if x is 1, 1 divided by 0 is 0-1 and so, 0x0-1 should be 1. But anything multiplied by 0 is 0. So, 1 = 0. So, that’s why…

When faced with that kind of reasoning (remember reductio ad absurdum from school days?), I get a feeling of something beyond the rational world! A similar feeling I get at times dealing with the digital world. Let me explain.

Recently, my wife and I ordered an LPG cylinder and paid for it online without realizing that our existing cylinder was not empty. A mistake and unfortunately one that we could not undo. The LPG distributor told us that we cannot cancel the order and get a refund since “it was all done online”. Shortly, the delivery person landed up at the door with the new cylinder and we had no empty cylinder to give him in exchange. He had to deliver the order but could not do it without picking up an empty one – which we did not have.  Of course, we did not want to lose money/unused gas in the process – so, an impasse. I have come across similar events in the digital world. It is all fine if you are on the “happy path” of transactions but when exceptions occur, systems do not cope with them, leaving the customer in a divide-by-zero state. It gets even more painful as you try to get hold of a human being at the other end of phone support. You often hear only an automatic message directing you to the web site and FAQs. Your unresolved issue just hangs in the air requiring innumerable phone calls, escalations etc. I call these situations “digital disconnects”.

[By the way, the LPG situation above did get resolved with the delivery person coming up with a “creative” solution. If you are curious, reach out and I will share how! It may come in handy for you someday]

Here is another example of digital disconnect. A leading online retailer concludes that although I have bought a box of hundred masks I should be wanting more! Messages keep popping up on even more attractive (!) masks I could be buying at fantastic savings. Why is the retailer oblivious to things that I have bought on their very platform and keep advertising the same or similar products? These are not the potatoes and tomatoes that one buys every week! Surely, you have seen such meaningless barrage.

I see similar disconnects in some OTT platforms. One platform is so painful to navigate that they thought it fit to offer a choice called “play something”! What would be the underlying logic (if any) of decoding that “something”, I wonder. Would it not be easier to just improve the navigation?

But don’t get me wrong. No doubt, great strides have been taken in digital transformation in India in recent times. While many us struggled with web sites for our vaccine shots, there were also success stories of BigBasket and Grofers quickly implementing a digital token system for assuring a delivery slot to cope with the demand surge in the second wave of Covid-19. That came as a big relief for customers – one less anxiety to cope with. Not only that – BigBasket and Grofers were also quick to decommission the token system once demand surge eased. Hopefully, they can just as easily turn it on if needed again.

Some of the above disconnects may sound like minor irritations and not such a big deal. Under normal times, may be. But when everyone is stressed and forced to deal online instead of a leisurely shopping trip to the corner shop, patience wears thin. Even small things seem like a big deal. Surely, the big names in retail, OTT and other online services can pay more attention to basics of customer experience.  

Look forward to hearing your comments and your own digital-disconnect experiences.


What do you think?

4 Responses

  1. I so resonate with this article and the dichotomy in my mind of digital in daily life v/s good old kirana shop or an old-style booking the gas. I hope that we still have the spirit of jugaad, some reason-able reasons and a work-around to address the “mistaken” workflows.

  2. Thank you Chitra. What I covered in the blog are just a few sample digital disconnects. When I speak to people, I hear innumerable stories of similar kind…
    Sometimes, a simple jugaad is at hand but not as often as one would like!

  3. Good blog, Shiv. Completely relate to this. Many sites do not offer phone support either, and this makes things worse. Recently, I have been hearing that finger prints are not very readable in the elderly and are having issues with biometric verification, leading to difficult situations. Taking everyone along is not a priority, it seems, while implementing tech solutions.

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