Published Date Written by James Howard KunstlerOver the years, I've spotlighted America's telephone system as the single best example of the diminishing returns of technology in everyday life. This sort of negative "blowback" occurs when you apply technological innovation to make a system work better, and you actually make it worse.
As I tell it, we've spent four decades and untold billions of dollars to computerize every phone system in America. The objective was to "improve communications." The net result of all this effort and investment is that it is now just about impossible to get a live human being on the phone at any company, agency, or institution in our land. Instead, you get to talk to robots who emit the reassuring message: "...your call is important to us...." Of course, that one obvious lie is only one of the million lies we are exposed to daily in our culture of immersive untruth, which propels us ever-deeper into the politics of unreality, and it should be important to us, but I digress. ...
By computerizing all the phone systems we allowed every company, agency, and institution to dump all of their transactional inconveniences onto us, the customers, clients and citizens. That was done in the name of "efficiency," another unexamined evil buzzword from the MBA playbook of mendacious bull that passes for received wisdom in this deluded nation of craven Babbitts. Thus, the Acme Corporation gets to save $250-K a year in combined salaries and benefits of what used to be called telephone operators or receptionists. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Acme callers every year get strung out, driven mad, and just plain lost in the wilderness of robotic phone trees they are induced to enter in the name of "efficiency." Multiply that number of Acme "efficiency" victims by tens of thousands of companies and organizations and you end up with a lot of damage to a lot of people.
The sheer cruelty and stupidity implicit here is too great to calculate — has anyone ever tried? Has anyone at MIT's Sloan School or the University of Chicago, or Wharton ever tried to measure the suffering inflicted on the American public in the name of all this vaunted efficiency?
Is there anyone reading this blog right now who had not ended such a phone call in tears this past year, or dashed their handset against the wall, or, worst of all, actually found themselves engaged in an insult match with the robot at the other end of the line?
Little more than a week ago, I was boned like a Christmas turkey on an orthopedic operating table. This was due to yet another diminishing return of technology. I'd been living with an "innovative" metal-on-metal hip implant that was being pushed for younger hip replacement patients back around 2003 as "longer-lasting" than the old metal-on-plastic joints. It turned out the devices were improperly tested. Huge numbers of them failed. The simple abrasion of the ball-joint assembly parts released cobalt and chromium ions into the surrounding tissues, destroying bone and muscle and inducing metalosis — systemic metal poisoning. I was one of the luckier ones. My tissues were not savaged, but I suffered a bewildering range of systemic poisoning symptoms for more than a couple of years. Such cases run to tens of thousands now, growing each year as the devices age and the failure rate surges. It is surely the biggest fiasco ever in modern orthopedics and the lawsuits against the makers of these "innovative" devices now stretch from Johns Hopkins to Alpha Centuri. But again, I digress slightly. ...
The surgeon successfully switched out my implant. They sent me home about 36 hours later for the routine recovery process. In the course of things, I had to make phone calls to both the discharge department of the hospital where the operation was done, and to the office of the surgeon, a large group practice in a nearby city. In both cases, my calls where shunted into a bewildering robotic phone tree system. Here I was subjected to dead ends, dropped calls, mystifying routing errors, unasked-for salsa muzak mini-concerts, advertisements for services unrelated to my issue, phony reassurances from virtual persons as to the importance of my call, and lots of other gratuitous annoyances. In other words, this is considered the proper, decent, and intelligent treatment of a four-day post-surgical patient half out of their skull on prescribed Percocet, one of the most powerful narcotics in the Pharma kitbag. In additional other words, our society is now so stupid that it treats post-surgical patient / doctor communications in the same manner as people calling a retail discounter to buy shoes. Actually, I'm quite sure it can be demonstrated that the shoe-buyers are treated way better than the post-surgical patients.
All of this is consistent with one of my current cardinal political theories: that it is the subconscious wish of all the people now running things in this land to turn the USA into the Bulgaria of the Western Hemisphere by finding the worst possible way to get everything done with the greatest degree of collateral cruelty.
From this precept, it would follow naturally that everything our leaders say and do about improving the dismal jobs picture is designed to be as inept and counterproductive as possible. That is, we don't really want to provide more jobs for Americans; we just want to pretend that our intentions are good — while actually striving to make things worse.
Hence, wishing to oppose these evil and tragic tendencies in the current flow of our history, I offer a potent policy initiative to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country: the 2012 Answer the F------ Telephone Act. My proposal won't cost a dime. Simply get congress and the senate to pass a law stating that in X, Y, and Z essential services and business, all incoming phone calls must be answered by real human beings, with criminal penalties for failing to do so. Add to that another layer of less essential businesses, institutions, agencies, and organizations who would not be subject to criminal penalties but would have to pay a substantial tax for every phone line not manned by a live operator — the tax designed to exceed the average salary and benefit package that could otherwise be provided to employ such a worker.
Conveniently, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the government can levy taxes on persons who omit to arrange health insurance coverage for themselves. Republican business avatar Mitt Romney reminded us all not long ago that corporations are people too. So, like the health insurance slackers, these companies can either cough up a tax to cover the social affliction they're responsible for, or pay salaries to real human beings to answer the telephone.
Answer the F------ Telephone. It's what's good for America!