Tag Archives: Social Security

red and black bar

The Mandate for Compliance over Initiative

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on all of us. Organizations want more data than can be meaningfully used, with few incentives to strive for brevity.

A few years ago law professor Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a much broader and common bureaucratic document completion documents that take up light years of a hapless consumer’s time.  Of course, paper has often been replaced by online documents forms. But the effect is the same, and we all have our stories. My recently completed online form for a COVID booster shot fell just short of the time needed to sign the papers to buy a house. Even after checking the “Male” and age boxes, the form would not allow me to go forward to the next page until I indicated that I was not pregnant.  Similarly, friends enrolling in Social Security talk of months of efforts to reach an agent.  It’s gotten so bad that AARP, the people who write about retirement, note that seniors may need to hire a professional to access the money from the agency they earned in their working years.

There seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform” and complete. Most of this laid-on complexity seems to be in response to lawyers, who can imagine nearly limitless ways an organization might be sued for not asking the right questions. Few organizations hold their staffs to what would be a useful rule I tried to adopt as the Chair of an academic Department, namely, to try to hold endless requests for reports and information to responses one page written in comprehensible English.  There were raised eyebrows in meetings when other chairs noticed my paltry one page passed along to the Dean in the midst of their much thicker reports.  And, truth to be told, I did screw up the department budget in my quest for brevity.

There seems to be a kind of rules function within organizations that functions to mystify others into compliance. For example, no one reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of the legalese lends authority to the source. If you don’t like a product, you have at least been “papered” with warnings and caveats.

These days the process of taking your self or your car in for service will include a long session for data entry. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged set of questions that leaves little time for a description of the problem that you want solved.  Filling in forms seems to be a primary function that now exists for its own sake, or because an organization sees itself as mostly in the data management business.

Think of who gets hired and promoted in the organizational world: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies–that see any free choice as something that can be turned into procedure.


The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards , criteria, minimal requirements, qualifications and certifications.


Any procedure can be turned into a process that must be nailed down in multiple “steps.”   Organizational culture naturally wants uniformity, which is not itself a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.  All of the accumulating pixels and paper serve as evidence of high productivity.

Even college professors aren’t immune from this tendency, especially when setting up rules defining the  work status of their colleagues. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards , criteria, minimal requirements, qualifications and certifications. People who might better spend their time on scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested with online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups. How lucky Albert Einstein was to find refuge not exactly at Princeton University, but at the more innovative Institute for Advanced Study next door.

                  Kenneth Burke

Another temporary resident at the the Institute–a haven for free thinkers–was rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who once described the tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam as “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators and all of us who must negotiate our way through the labyrinth-like rules thought up by the organizational mind. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us, too often leading to the redefinition of success as compliance rather than initiative.

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Giants That Struggle With The Idea of Personhood

The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to engage directly with their customers.

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.