Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


© 2008, UrbisMedia

© 2008, UrbisMedia

I just finished an online “chat” with Ethan, of my bank’s tech support. We posted our sentences back and forth until, mirabile dictu, my problem was solved and I could access my account. This was my bank’s latest gimmick in what has been a long process of what I consider lowering their “human costs.” I used to employ the trick—actually told to me by a bank employee that I spoke with at the bank itself—of, when calling and answering questions for a taped voice, just remaining silent until the tape says, “Please hold and I will connect you with a [living] customer service agent.” She also told me you could just say something nonsensical or even obscene to force the system to give you a live agent. I have fun suggesting some really kinky stuff to the tape (only the female voices); it helps pass the time. Anybody with a phone or a computer knows this experience, listening to menus, or visiting on-line tech support forums—the lonely business of trying to nudge some assistance for you machines by interacting with machines.

By contrast, the experience reminds me of the days, many years ago, when I lived in London and used to travel the London Underground (subway system). I used to buy a ticket from one of the persons behind the little ticket windows, telling them where I wanted to go. I would then take the ticket to an entrance to the system where there was another person, in uniform, who checked the ticket and let me through. When I arrived at my destination station I would have to hand my ticket to another uniformed ticket taker person who would check that I had not rode further than for the fare I had paid (I was never sure how they calculated this; they must have had it all memorized) and, if I had, I would be sent to another person behind a window to pay them the excess fare. Economists would call this a “labor-intensive” system.

Capitalism doesn’t really like labor all that much, and it is doing its best to get rid of as much of it as it can. People are a bother: they get sick, or pregnant, or injured (then they want health benefits), they steal, they goof-off, they unionize and go on strike, they sue, they vandalize, they are a pain to management and ownership. And they cost money, especially if their employers don’t get an opportunity to steal from their pension plans. Ironically, corporate health care and pension plans have produced a lingering financial time bomb that threatens corporations like General Motors.  By giving people health pans, which helps them live longer, pensions must be paid for many more years to retirees.  If you can replace them with a machine (with “capital”), even though that might have considerable initial costs, machines don’t go into the storage room, have sex, and then want the company to pay the costs of maternity leave, and they “retire” to the scrap heap. There is, of course, another solution to the “high cost of labor” problem—take your production to where there are vast numbers of workers eager to work for low wages at long hours, with dangerous materials from which you won’t be obliged to pay for injuries and health problems. Even tech support can be supplied from low cost labor, which is why so many seem to have Indian accents these days. (I never got to hear Ethan’s accent, or to discern where he was Bangalore.)

These days I don’t just buy my subway ticket from and machine, I buy my bus and airlines tickets from machines as well. They verify my air ticket, print my boarding pass, even check in my baggage. The only reason there are real people around is to assist the technologically-challenged in their fumbling interactions with machines. At my bank in Hong Kong they still have tellers; but they also have greeters who ask what kind of banking you are doing and will steer you toward the bank of ATMs for most transactions. They will also remind you that many transactions can be done from home with your computer (just don’t forget your mother’s maiden name.) So, ironically, the job of the remaining people in the process of transactions is to get you to use machines instead of people. This is reminiscent of the 19th Century phenomenon of the farm boy who leaves he farm looking for “city work” and ends up working in a factory that makes tractors or combines that will replace more farm boys.

Some science-fiction writers have imagined tat that time f the carbon-based bio-forms that we are will be replaced someday by silicon-based (computor) “life” forms that will work better and live longer. In some sense we are already well n the way to tat substitution process. As with most technological changes there are pluses and minuses. Maybe those London Underground ticket takers were bored out of the skulls doing that repetitive task day in and out. And, if an ATM machine, or an online reservation process, can be frustrating until you get it figured out, it might be better than some frustrated and arrogant twit you used to have to deal with—but then again, nowhere near as pleasurable experience as running into the truly nice customer service person that really does want to help you out. These days you sometimes have a choice.

The problem is that the choices will be dictated, as they always are, by the stern laws of capital economics, especially those that seek efficiencies that will lower costs and enhance profits. That means that there will be less and less of the menial, boring, ticket-taker jobs and factory assembly-line jobs that people used to get some sort of an economic foothold. People still find cracks where the demons of efficiency have not yet invaded. There still is some work for those willing to do field work in the countryside, or leaf-blower and hedge-trimmer wok in the city, or remain a step ahead of those little robot vacuum cleaners (that must scare the crap out of pets) to run the old Hoover. There are still check-out people at the supermarket, even though here are now self-service automated check out lanes (and I can also order online if I wish and have my groceries delivered).

But the gods of efficiency do not rest. Outside my window as I write this the garbage truck has pulled up in the next street. Those trucks used to have three personnel, the driver and two guys in the rear, tossing the contents of noisy garbage cans in the back. Now the truck pulls up beside black, plastic garbage bins that have been rolled t the street on their attacked plastic wheels by the residents. The driver, the only person left, operates a “claw” that descends and grasps each bin, lifts it, and dumps the contents into the top of the truck. He never gets out, never gets his hands soiled with some fish guts. How long before he trucks are linked to GPS and computers and they robotically roam the neighborhoods collecting the trash. Only the gods of efficiency know the answer to that one. Just hope that the robot trash truck is able to distinguish the difference between a trash bin and your kid waiting for the robotic school bus.
©2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.8.2008)