Saturday, May 13, 2006

Corporations Without Faces: A Rant

(This is my first DailyKos diary)

"How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
-C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever."
-George Orwell

In this diary, PerfectStormer asks those calling the phone companies (to protest their cooperation with the NSA) to be nice to the call center reps they talk to. I certainly agree with this request. Certainly, one should be nice to people. I'm originally from Minnesota, after all. Being nice makes things more pleasant, and in most cases it's a better way to get what you want. Who wants to do a favor for an asshole? But something about this request for kindness brought up anger in me. I had the vague feeling that I was being had. Not by the diarist, whose earnest plea provoked sympathy. But by the circumstances which put a decent, innocent person in the path of my real and genuine anger. When we are angry with someone, we "tell it to their face", don't we? And what is a call center rep but the face of a corporation?

Now of course, I understand that when you finally get through on a customer service call, the phone rep you end up talking to is so completely disempowered and alienated from the actual decision that caused your anger that yelling at them makes no more sense than yelling at the paint on a chair on which you have stubbed your toe. Unlike a human face, which is connected intimately to a mind, a soul if you will, a corporate face is connected to...well...maybe a database of customer complaints that once a month gets summarized and read by a mid-level manager, possibly to be acted on in the next development cycle, blah blah blah. It's more a mask than a face. A blast shield to protect the institution from anger. And with the blast shield down, it can't even see. That's the point. And who cares if your shielding gets a little beat up or if it breaks? ("she was sitting at her desk with her head in her hands, sobbing", writes PerfectStormer.) That's what it's for. It's cheap ("We work hard for little money"). It's replaceable ("we can be fired at any time for any reason"). But the knowledge that it is useless and unkind to yell at call center reps only increases my fury. I feel like the hero who finally penetrates into the arch-villain's lair, ready for a climactic showdown, only to find that the arch-villain has left, leaving his endearingly handicapped six-year-old step-child there to plead his case.

I totally sympathize with people whose job it is to deal with dissatisfied customers who are often clueless and fundamentally responsible for the cause of their problem (e.g. not paying the bill). But it is incredibly frustrating for those of us who do have genuine problems that we have tried to solve on our own when a corporation hides itself behind these mazes of voice menus and long hold times. (A particularly humiliating version of this is when you call to get your Internet access working, and the on hold recording informs you that you can get service by going to their website.) When our own time is wasted because of a corporation's mistake, anger is a natural reaction. And the fact that the corporation never presents a real face to get angry at is only more infuriating. Imagine if your friend Bob were to do something hurtful to you, and when you confront him he were to say, "Please don't yell at me. I'm just the social interface of Bob. I didn't make the decision, that was Bob's management. I'm just trying to make a living. Bob doesn't even pay me very well, and will fire me if I don't play by his rules." It just makes you want to throttle Bob (and his "interface") all the more.

This is the situation of the individual in relationship to the enormous institutions which affect us: corporations and government agencies. If a huge institution does something that hurts us (cancels our plane ticket, loses our package, overcharges our phone bill, or in the case of Kaiser, prevents you from getting a kidney), our humanity and feelings mean nothing to it. Or rather, they are coolly calculated on some spreadsheet somewhere: how much can we annoy our customers before they leave in great enough numbers that it offsets the cost savings from our crappy service? Or, how much can I sell out the interests of my constituents before they wake up and vote me out? The decision makers within an institution do not have to see our suffering directly, or experience it on a human level.

But when the individual attempts to complain, to vent anger, to strike back, suddenly the humanity of the corporate or government representative is invoked! Oh, don't hurt the poor call center person (or the person answering the Sentor's phone)! See how she suffers in the face of your vicious onslaught! Take pity! Have empathy! That's a real person you're dealing with! The big institution uses the exploited worker as a human shield to protect itself from the anger that it itself creates, but refuses to face. The very realness of that poor person becomes a lie, because their realness is not the corporation's realness. Indeed it is a horrible, despicable kind of falseness. And that pisses me off. The C.S. Lewis quote I opened with becomes twisted into a smug leer of contemptuous invulnerability: "How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" But they aren't trying to have faces. They will never give you anything real to hit back. The Orwellian stomping only goes one way: their boot, your face.

Yes, I believe that most people who call tech support or customer service are frustrating idiots. I've had friends who've worked in tech support and I've heard the stories. But my sympathies are not with those of you behind those phones. I pay my bills. I don't try to bilk corporations. I try to solve things on my own. (Indeed I go to great lengths to avoid making customer service calls, because in no other situation do I feel so powerless and humiliated.) But the call center folks don't know this. To them, I'm just another potential freak. And they have their scripts they must follow. They don't make the rules. So I get the usual run-around: "Have you tried this? Have you tried that?" How I long for the option, "If you are a reasonably competent person who has made an honest effort to solve this problem, press 3 and we'll treat you like you're not a moron." or better yet: "To send a painful electric shock to the genitalia of the person who is ultimately responsible for this colossal fuck up, press or say 5." I mean, what's the point of a Digital Nervous System, if not to send pain to the right place?

So to all you call center folks: You are not being paid nearly enough. You are being used. And you are being used to keep my anger from landing on those who have earned it.

(Based on a comment I posted on PerfectStormer's diary If you call Verizon or AT&T, PLEASE BE NICE. At the urging of mikenlola, I have expanded and edited it into my first diary. I will crosspost to my own blog, Internal Monologue, as well.)

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