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What if There Are No Dots to Connect?

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After decades on the planet, I’ve come to think of the idea of causality in human affairs as problematic.

The idea of causality is such a comfortable mental device. It frequently allows us to take the mystery out of an action by labeling a plausible cause. Early in my career I had a brazen certainty that Action X will produce Result Y. But especially in the realms of human conduct and attitudes, we are still a long way from claiming accurate causal chains. “Serendipity” is not a term one is likely to hear very much from social scientists who seek explanations for conduct in so many forms of human affairs. Too bad, because we need to allow uncertainty to have its place. We are maybe on slightly firmer ground to talk about one individual’s influences. But just when that road seems promising, we encounter persons with responses that have boomeranged far away from predicted linkages to parents, mentors, influencers and friends. None may work out as particularly good predictors.

There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain, creating an incalculable number of neural pathways that might be activated to produce certain actions or attitudes. Some of those neural highways could be activated by heredity or the chemistry of the body. Others probably arise from the ineffable forces of individual experience accumulated over time. But many are far too obscure to be measured with the relatively crude tools of psychology, neural imaging, or the discovery of predictive antecedents. Even what seems like a simple and straightforward persuasive message may not produce attitudes we would expect.

One study trying to get  teens to lower the volume coming into their earbuds thought another teen explaining the risks might be a good source.  Not so. That particular study showed the boomerang of a slight increase in their post-message listening levels. Go figure.

All of us who teach and write about persuasion should be a bit embarrassed to be so clueless.  After all, rhetorical strategies are predicated on the idea that if an individual takes a certain verbal approach to an audience, it should yield more or less predictable results. Like most realms of theory, there is the implicit promise of finding an “if-then” sequence. Call a person a “jerk” and they will not react well. Even so, I am constantly surprised by the unpredictability of audiences.  Even in our text on the subject, for the sake of clarity we more or less settled disputes about causal factors that are–in truth–not quite so neatly resolved.

Every new case of a mass shooter or some other form of human depravity leaves me scratching my head and scoffing at the journalists who want to identify specific causes now.  How could a new mother abandon her four-year old to die in an alley? What was mass murderer John Wayne Gacy thinking? What could explain how a professional clown who was hired out to do children’s parties could turn into such a monster?

It is possible to build causality claims using the laws of physics or chemistry, but human nature is far less predictable. 

It’s the rare “expert” who says, “I don’t know.” We have a natural compulsion to sort out the motives of others. It is one of the narrative lines that must be filled in when we parse human behavior. Try out a few random movements around your friends and watch the wheels start to turn as they try to figure out what’s up with you. Wanting to know the causes of everything is natural instinct. And we clearly know a lot about the chemical and biological causes of many conditions and diseases. But assigning  motives to a human can be a fool’s errand. What Hollywood usually wraps up by the time the credits roll remains largely unwrapped by the police professionals left to sort out real mayhem. In the study of crime, knowing who did some action is easier than knowing why.

After recent demonstrations at Columbia University, New York’s Deputy Police Commissioner Kaz Daughtry held up a book on terrorism at a press conference and said, “there’s somebody. . . [who is] radicalizing our students.”  He surely had causes in mind. But that rhetorical flourish doesn’t stand up very well. What person would have that kind of power? And are the protesters so uniform as to be influenced by the same persons or groups? It is more likely that many students have absorbed news of Palestinians living in what some have called “the open-air prison of Gaza,” mustering youthful outrage for the status quo. And even that simple causality chain could be suspect.

Thankfully, not every case is so difficult. Apple recently ran an advertisement selling a new tablet.  You may have seen the ad where a room full of creative tools–a piano, a guitar, paints, a record player, books, a trumpet–are slowly crushed in real time by a giant industrial press, leaving a tableau of shards and ruin. The tag line suggested that all of these wonderful tools are not needed if you have an Apple tablet. Only in advertising can a person be so cluelessly reductionist. Within hours media and arts creators of all sorts reacted with horror at the idea that this is what the company thought of their tools. Actor Hugh Grant called it “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.” The revulsion was real, and clearly not what Apple’s marketing geniuses predicted.

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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.