Tag Archives: Apple Computer

Faceless Giants


There’s no surprise in the fact that no human wants to take our call at banks, government offices, or the vast number of other services that have set up robotic phone routing systems.

Cultural observers have been noting for some time that we are at the beginning of a revolution in robotics. The prediction has it that machines will do what has previously been done by people, even in many service industries.  In truth this transformation has been going on for a long time.  Ask anyone who has tried to reach a service provider such as a utility or cable company.  Robots now “answer” the phones in the nation’s largest customer service centers and many smaller businesses as well.

It is up to us to push buttons and envision menus to find approximations to the questions we need addressed. No live human really wants to greet us at our banks, government offices, or any other of the dozens of services that have set up routing systems that might save a little money.  But it’s worth pausing to notice what we’ve lost.

At best, the human/automated system “interface” is often frustrating, time consuming and—could it be otherwise?—dehumanizing.  Everyone has horror stories about the company that touts its customer service, but still manages to tie us up for the better part of a morning.  Indeed, long phone queues are becoming the norm for many firms, especially those who have already sold their services to a customer.

Medical insurance companies seem to be the worst. Anyone who must reach them to clarify a payment or seek permission for a medical procedure will run the equivalent of a sports decathlon. Professionals who must deal with them as part of their work now equip themselves with phone headsets, antacids and other work that can done while they wait out a company with no financial incentive to deal with a claim. This is a new kind of political-style filibuster found in many businesses after a point-of-sale exchange is finished.

There are a few faceless giants for whom contact with another sentient creature is virtually impossible. Trouble with Google e-mail?  You are on your own.  Hit the “?” key and the best you can get is a link to little generic “help” essays that mostly end in useless cul-de-sacs.  Google is a huge “service provider” without service.  Apple’s iTunes can be as bad.  Apple’s famous “closed system” philosophy is, well, not much help to those of us without Steve Job’s intuitions.

If we want a visual reference to these faceless giants, think of a downtown telephone exchange building in a large city, perhaps 12 stories high with no windows, no markings, and no welcoming access for pedestrians.  (There’s a large one owned by A.T.&T. in Tribeca at 33 Thomas Street)  If you have business inside, it will have to be conducted through a wire.

AT&T Long Lines building in lower                               Manhattan

A friend actually has a phone contact at super-giant Amazon.com. and can report that there are live people who can deal with a customer.  But she guards this hard-won secret with her life.

There are positive stories as well. I am happy to report that the electronics maker Onkyo will connect a customer to an engineer who will troubleshoot a problem over the phone. They actually seem pleased to be able to help, even though the buyer may have purchased a modestly priced item. The same is true at my local Ford dealer. A person always responds to a call. That’s really no surprise. The owner is a gifted salesperson.  Potential sales or repairs are not opportunities he wants to farm out to an electrical router.

An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person.

But it’s mostly true these days that someone who wants to experience customer service will probably be most satisfied calling 911 or eating in a restaurant.  Save the emergency call for an emergency. As for restaurants, longtime owner Jeff Benjamin notes that he tries to hire people who have a “hospitality gene.”  These are people who get genuine pleasure in making their customers happy. (Front of the House, 2015).  Alas, with notable exceptions, the gene isn’t found in the management or customer service staff at a lot of businesses.

There’s a generational difference as well.  My students don’t expect much help from other humans in service positions. In fact many prefer to raise questions about a product or order food without any direct human contact. They are “digital natives” used to the equipment and “apps” that are supposed to make life simpler and self-correcting. But here’s the requisite “I remember when.” In my student days soon after California became a state my duties included working in a dormitory with the responsibility ofrunning a modest switchboard. That meant that someone was in charge and on call to help if there was a problem.  When they were in wide use, every staffed switchboard at an organization or business was its own local 911. An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. A live body is at the center of the network. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person. We surely lost something when operators and phone receptionists more clearly knitted people to each other.

The Problem of the Unintended Audience


The unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it, we have burdened ourselves with the worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Nothing represents the challenges of connecting with others better than the ease with which a person can use newer media to eavesdrop on messages not intended for them. The digital revolution has led to popular media platforms favoring content that started as private communications. Some of this visual and textual material is used as digital clickbait, feeding our appetites for the kinds of gossip that used to exist mostly in supermarket tabloids.  Some intrudes more awkwardly, as when a forwarded e-mail goes to more eyes than it was supposed to.

In simpler times it was possible but awkward to listen to someone’s conversations through a wall or a shared party line. Broadly speaking, our secrets were more easily kept. Physical spaces usually created privacy.  And we didn’t have access to tiny recording technologies such as smartphones, or permeable channels of communication such as social media.  Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.  After all, if we wanted a peek into the private lives of others, we had theater and then film. Even in Shakespeare’s day audiences could spend hours witnessing the sordid backstories of Europe’s kings and queens.

The absence of the fourth wall is key to drama’s attraction. But what was once mostly limited to the theater is now a feature of everyday life, as cameras and mics invade most spaces. Few television police procedurals or legal narratives would be complete without the exposure of private communications that somehow contradicts claims of innocence. They reflect the fact that real life investigative bureaucracies regularly seek permission to eavesdrop, using off the shelf technologies that now make digital searches relatively easy.

The right to access personal data is at the core of the current legal battle that pits Apple against the federal government. The FBI wants to hack data from the cellphones of criminal suspects, like those who murdered innocent citizens in San Bernardino last year.

In recent decades we have added to the expectation that there is entertainment value in witnessing events not originally intended for public view.  Most reality television shows gain attention by using the camera to capture moments of private humiliation or subterfuge. Think of the hapless business people who open their professional lives to public view in exchange for help and cash from reality “stars” like chef Gordon Ramsey or hotel consultant Anthony Melchiorri.  Add in a range of other factors, including the natural habit of the young to be careless in their monitoring of their digital posts, and it’s easy to see how a multitude of messages can quickly verge out of their lanes. Remember the turning point in the 2012 presidential election?  A private fundraising event hosted by Mitt Romney was secretly recorded by a hotel employee. In his spiel to potential contributors Romney wrote off much of the nation as lazy and unreachable, writing off his electoral chances at the same time.

Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.

It is now the rare individual who has managed to hold on to the presumptive right touted  in many European countries to not be observed.

All of this is a reminder that as rhetorical creatures we are less able to select our own audiences. There is no longer a clear connection between who we wish to address and who actually receives our messages.  An assumption that others can eavesdrop into personal and professional communications complicates what used to be a source’s prerogative to clearly target receivers without unwanted blowback from outsiders.

So the unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it we have burdened ourselves with the additional worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu