In a recent short story, Cory Doctorow imagined a world in which Google powers the US border and immigration services. That world conjured up a new term: Scroogled. As nightmarish as the prospect of any fictitious world that can be conjured up by a bastardized compound of the words “Google”, “scrutinized”, “screwed”, it’s not quite as bad as the reality I came across over the last two weeks.
I recently realized I needed to fill out some paperwork to maintain my US permanent resident card. I found the form online, filled it out, and then realized I might actually need to still be in the US in order to submit the form. Something about the US government wanting my bodily fluids I think, and not in a good way.
I was pretty sure the US government already had every scrap of biometrics on me that it could possibly ever need, but rather than blindly submitting the form, I went to the US consulate in Vancouver to see if I could get a definitive answer. Except, apparently, customer service isn’t what a consulate provides, even if you are a legal US resident. The guards at the consulate gave me a 1-900 number to call for information.
Wait…the US government uses 1-900 numbers? Aren’t those those reserved for televangelists and phone sex lines?
Apparently not. For the low-low price of $1.89 a minute, the US government will answer your questions about the absurdly complicated world they created. Hooray! It’s like being stuck in the movie Brazil, but without a British accent to make those whole experience appear polite. But the results were just as comical:
Me: Hi, I’m trying to find out if I need to be in the US to file my I-131? Does that apply if I’ve already got a permanent resident card?
Customs: An I-131? What is that?
Me: It’s a re-entry permit.
Customs: Oh, sorry – we only handle visas on this phone number…
Me: I guess it’s a type of visa…it lets me get back into the country.
Customs: …yeah, we don’t handle that type of visa at this number. Have you tried the US consulate?
Me: Yes. They gave me your number.
Customs: Hmm…well, you know what you might try? Why don’t you Google it?
Google it? Two bucks a minute to be told the answer is on the Internet? What. The. Hell.
At least the guy gave me two other phone numbers to call – one at Vancouver Airport, and the other at the Niagara Falls border crossing. No one picked up the phone at Vancouver Airport, but at the Niagara Falls crossing, I had an eerily familiar experience:
Me: <same as above>
Customs: Hmm, I don’t really know about the I-131.
Me: Well, I’ve tried the US consulate, they gave me a number, and the guy there gave me your number. Any other ideas where I can find out about this I-131?
Customs: Well, why don’t you try the Interne–
Last month, The Atlantic posed the question: is Google making us stupid? I think we have our answer. Rather than turning the US into a pseudo surveillance state as Cory Doctorow envisioned, perhaps the reality is worse: a government that is so inefficient and ill-informed that it relies on a search engine to provide its citizens with access to their own government.