Technology and its Discontents

There’s a new book out called Funny Business, where Karl Toomey recounts his experiences telling jokes to the people and bots of corporate “help” sites.

The concept’s been around for a while, where people recount their experiences with impersonal institutions. The only real difference is that we’ve moved from legally-vetted say-nothing form letters to legally-vetted, say-less scripted bots and overworked underpaid live chat reps juggling their scripts among four complaining customers at once. Today’s society, more than any other, values immediacy over thoughtfulness, rapid reaction rather than reflected response. Toomey throws a spanner into its works. While every now and then a rep responded appreciatively as a real person, he also blew some bot minds and actually had his IP number reported to someone/something at “the next level”.

But, as a corporate accountant would say, we should look at the bottom line. And that line is still machine against man. It’s been going on for a long time. The Industrial Revolution inspired Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. Their legacy today? Scrooge’s saccharine redemption. Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp survived his misadventures in industrial society’s cogs, but only because the culture of the times expected happily-ever-after endings. Toomey’s book gives encouragement to the Luddites among us, but it’s just a flea bite on the corporate ass.

As bad as things may have been for the voiceless in the past, they’re worse now, because public space, that place where we can bitch, moan and protest, is effectively privatized.

The few remaining town squares where anyone could speak have been abandoned and replaced by privately owned and policed shopping malls. Centre court is where people gather – from bored teens to power-walking seniors and everyone in between. Try pulling out a soap box and megaphone next time you’re in a mall and see what happens.

And the internet? It’s been taken over by mob rule. Bullying trolls do in cyberspace what the old-time bullies and private armies used to do on street corners and anywhere else people gathered. Or armies of paid shills encourage mass sharing of sales pitches for ways to escape the sameness of online life. But even here, the internet requires paid access and is controlled by private companies. At this point the gatekeepers haven’t found it to their economic advantage to promote a civil society in the commons they’ve created.

Sure, we can protest online – sign petitions, like, love and follow the likes, loves and follows of our friends. [Does anyone create real content anymore, or do we just circulate the same inspirational memes and supportive political snark to like-minded friends?] It’s ironic that the very tools the disenfranchised are using to protest are cogs in the machine that’s pushed them to the fringes of society.

Toomey highlights the interaction between real people [us] and the scripted helpers and chatbots on customer service sites. These are often the only interactions we’ll have with private companies, many of whom don’t put phone numbers on their websites. They use the web as a moat around their castle and view phone access as a breach in the walls. Remember that the moats of old were cesspools filled with the castle’s sewage – a thought that’s often come to me while waiting for the rep/script reader to service the other 3-4 victims – excuse me, customers – they’re handling concurrently.

Do I like chat bots and spam?

 

I do not like them because I give a damn.

I’d rather talk out by the road

But there’s no one there except the toads.

So then I’ll go and use the mall.

But their guards will stand me against the wall.

So I’ll stay home and shout at my screen

But it’s just to my friends, to the rest I’m unseen.

Find ways to make sense in greater amounts!

Please open your mouths, friends

For every voice counts!

With thanks and apologies to Dr. Seuss – and to those of you who know you could have said a lot more about each of these topics. I agree that you can, so please do so! In my experience, though, I’ve found that the ADHD web culture we live in demands headlines with minimal backup. There are people with more time and knowledge than I have creating 5-10,000 word pieces on each of my paragraph topics. Please find them and support them.

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