There was a time when major organizations had enough employees to deal with customer problems. Name the organization—a media outlet, a service provider for a utility, a business dependent on selling products and services—and there was usually a person ready to receive a question or complaint. “Customer service” meant a company tried to be available to those with whom they had a relationship. That is still true in business-to-business communications. For example, Ford certainly expects that a supplier will take their calls. But the public and social media side of the ledger usually offers no such chances. In a quiet revolution, A.I. robots have taken over customer relations while the rest of an organization sits behind walls of anonymity. Thousands of employees in the offices of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and scores of other companies are mostly insulated from the people that use their services. Commercial in even modest-sized organizations are now careful to not list contact information.
There are outstanding exceptions in almost every area. Amazon still offers phone help. At least a few years ago the electronics giant Onkyo was happy to put me through to an engineer to solve a technical issue. And local businesses show a lot of patience to still deal with customers. But the “virtual assistants” up and running in most larger enterprises pull the con of giving a person’s name to microchips and algorithms that offer simulations of the human voice or texting, all with the increasingly lifelike lexicons of real human rhetoric. The great leap in speech-mediated A.I. can be awesome, but it has given us a kind of zombie intelligence that can only “think” in binaries and fake comprehension.
All of this takes personhood out of the equation, with real and often sad consequences. Imagine, for example, the fate of a new widow facing a labyrinth of health, state, county and employer bureaucracies to be contacted after the death of her partner. A few will be appropriately responsive. But others will throw up a filibuster of recorded phone directories and “try again later” messages. Lately even Social Security can’t be bothered to pick up the phone. And COVID is a poor excuse. If a person can still do interoffice communication with their colleagues, they can still represent an organization to customers or clients.
The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to talk directly with their customers. None of us would think it would be a good use of our time to try to call Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft. Granted, they have a lot of customers. But most haven’t developed a graded gatekeeping system that would allow private and serious users to reach them.
I a challenge with Google that is a good case in point. I have two Google e-mail accounts: hardly unique. But in this massive organization’s self-contained world–even using my real name, passwords and my patterns of internet usage–I am still “Person 1” and “Person 2.” And they are pretty sure that one of us is up to no good. I benefit from using Google Analytics data for this blog. It does what Google does best: track, count and sort. But person 2—who, I swear, looks exactly like me in a mirror—apparently has no business even asking to see the data. Sadly, they think they are being useful to warn Person 1 that Person 2 is trying to break into my account. Ditto for Microsoft, with confounding and insistent new logins to expose what they see as different accounts hacked by robots. In the name of security, the idea of personhood has more or less been lost on them. They think a real person can read laughably smudged CAPTCHA tests. Meanwhile, these companies have moved on to creating networks they are selling as “teams,” apparently not noticing they have yet to master the basics of authentic one-on-one communication.
My more computer savvy friends will tell me there are workarounds for these inconveniences, especially if I am willing to take them on as my second job. But they are missing the point. In many cases there is only a useless “virtual (non)person” to “chat” with. Even a two-year old can detect the fraud of a fake human being passed off as the real thing: the original basis of the previously discussed Turing Test.
To be sure, organizations feel like they are under siege from product users who call insistently because they can barely understand the services they purchased. But these companies have abetted the constant connectivity they now want to run away from. For sure, Americans have all but surgically implanted their phones in their right hands. Not-so-smart phones have become substitutes and surrogates for many of us. But its all part of their world these giants created, and they need to find better ways to deal with their users as humans.
No wonder electronic games are so popular with more Americans. They can make interacting fun—even if it is just with a machine. At the same time, many of us our losing our capacities to deal directly with others in the kinds of collaborative problem-solving that existed just a few generations ago.