Archive for March, 2007

I’ve grown weary over the years of the number of ways corporations have taken human interaction out of regular business transactions. The most irritating example for me is the telephone customer service line. It frequently takes a ridiculously long time to navigate through the maze to “Press 3 for all other inquiries” to get to an actual person. It’s an utter waste of time. Other examples include the ATM, the self-check out lane at the grocery, and the venerable vending machine.

I’m not wholly opposed to every time-saving efficiency dreamed up by technologists. Vending machines, for instance, never bothered me, and the ATM is pretty good, especially when banks charge “teller fees.” However, there is something to be said for simple face-to-face human interaction, which machines simply can’t replicate. Given a choice, I’ll stand in line a few minutes at the grocery before I go to the self-check out. Why? It’s purposely so that I can exchange a few words and jokes with the clerk. It’s a simple gesture, but I want to feel like a person rather than a mere transaction, and based on the positive response of most clerks, they appreciate being treated like real people, too, rather than being reduced solely to the function they perform by customers who treat them like machines.

In the comments to a post over at Creative Destruction, Brandon Berg wrote:

[I]f you really want to spend the extra time and money just to have a chat with a stranger about his daughter’s soccer game, you can always call up a travel agent. But really, the world runs a lot more smoothly when we don’t insist on making a box social out of every transaction. Then we can take the time and money we save on faceless transactions like these and spend them with the people we really care about.

This logic is unassailable, but the ethic behind it strikes me as cold (not particularly so but in that blithe, passive sense of people who don’t ordinarily care about others as people). Not every social transaction, if you will, is deep and sincere, but even small, quaint interaction with others beats the anonymity and indifference we experience in most human society.

When I first began riding the Chicago L to work every day, I was surprised how folks, even when pressed close to each other in a full train, erect a strictly no-conversation, no-eye-contact wall of impassivity. Outside of rush hour and when the train is stopped due to some delay, it’s curious to see how that rigidity breaks down and people start recognizing others around them in various ways. We become social animals again, but only after specific triggers that experienced riders internalize over time. Under normal conditions, we act as though essentially alone in a crowd.

Another revealing microcosm is the lunchtime gauntlet at the various fast food franchises featuring what I call sandwich builders. It could be Subway, Chipotle, Pot Belly’s, or some other joint where you enter on one end, bark your selections to the builders, and eventually pay up and get out of the way. The business model is to serve as many people between 11:30 AM and 2 PM or so, while downtown is populated with workers, because many of the franchises aren’t even open at dinnertime (downtown empties out). So the sandwich builders push the materials through the assembly line as quickly as possible and extract only the needed information from patrons (mayo? lettuce? black beans or pinto?). Pity the poor diner who doesn’t have a quick answer. Even worse, pity the poor sandwich builder, who is limited to a dreary function. Once in a while, it’s possible to observe that they interact with each other in a sort of esprit de corps, but they almost never speak to people ordering food in any significantly human manner.

All of this goes to a collapse of community we in large, efficient, modern cities experience every day. (Fast food in small-town America is much more leisurely, in my experience.) The effect is chronicled in a book by Robert Putnam titled Bowling Alone. It’s on my reading list and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m sympathetic to the ideas in the book as described by the book reviews and reader comments. Most of us appear to be willing to trade social networks and the human touch for greater efficiency. Few of recognize what we’re giving up in the process.

The New York Times technology page reports that tech researchers calculated that the world last year generated 161 billion gigabytes — or 161 exabytes — of digital information made up of photos, videos, e-mail, webpages, instant messages, phone calls, and other digital content. The calculations strike me as so much wishful thinking, based on conjecture and assumptions, but it does raise an interesting question anyway: What does this deluge of information mean to us, living as we do in the Information Age?

The effect is hard to to assess just yet, as we’re still in the knee of the acceleration curve. Like the impact of TV, it will probably only be revealed in hindsight. Still, even from this vantage point, it’s relatively easy to observe that the ease of creating, copying, and distributing digital information means that a large percentage of that information is mindless chatter, utter ephemera, or mere machine-to-machine instructions. In other words, it’s just so much digital exhaust. For example, one of the most frequently traded bits of information is the current time, usually millions of computers logging into time servers to sync their clocks.

The din of information exchange presents real and largely unrecognized challenges to human value. It used to be, for instance, that the average person met and got to know perhaps 200 people in the course of a lifetime. By necessity, those relationships had continuity and context. Today, we meet tens of thousands of people in a lifetime — many of them virtually (digitally, not in meat world) — and have continuous relationships with almost none of them. Human relationships are now so fluid that they often have little gravity or meaning. Another example is that digital copying has transformed the music industry and rendered its viability suspect. The RIAA is now an institution under siege to reconsider its hard-line approach to piracy and protecting its marketplace. Even further, the Wiki phenomenon threatens to essentially deauthorize information, making information itself fluid and unreliable.

The availability of cheap and abundant (and meaningless and context-free) information sources is a Faustian bargain, of course, though most people are so blinded by their technophilia that they can’t and won’t recognize what they are trading away. What’s at stake is in fact our entire epistemology. When our means of gathering, processing, and using information undergoes a fundamental shift to dominantly digital forms, so, too, will the knowledge that stems from that shift. We’ve already seen it in microcosm when our governments lie to us and we absorb the propaganda directed at us, drawing faulty conclusions (and accordingly, acting foolishly). The difference will be that no one will be coordinating the transformation to a new epistemology. We’re unwittingly creating a future we can’t anticipate and won’t even be able to recognize.

Shopping for Religion

Posted: March 6, 2007 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

The religion of one’s parents has historically been the single most important predictor of what sort of faith one takes in life (beyond childhood, that is). Continuity and tradition pretty much meant that if one’s parents are <insert religion here> then that’s what one would be. What value does religion have, then, when so many people select their religions from amongst so many options, like one denomination or another is just a different make or model on the shelf or showroom floor?

I first learned about Messianic Judaism, or Jews for Jesus, back in college. It seemed to me an oxymoron and a serious conflict to abandon one faith for another, especially one so closely tied to ethnicity. A few historical dramas have also made me aware how the Nation of Islam had its moment in the 1960s and beyond, attracting converts primarily from the radicalized black community. Little did I realize that conversion from faith to faith, sect to sect, denomination to denomination is one of the ways swapping religions is becoming the equivalent to changing clothes. Of course, it doesn’t help that almost all successful religions have a strong evangelical streak: everyone will take a whack at converting the young, weak, and unsuspecting (not to mention complete strangers) given a chance.

I suspect that there are (at least) two forces at work. One is the rise of the individual, perhaps (I’ve yet to read it) best described by Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me. The subtitle “How Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever” reveals succinctly that the author thinks radical individualism is a mixed blessing at best, perhaps more of a curse. (There is a grand sociological analysis to be performed here; perhaps Twenge accomplished it.) The other force is the commodification of everything. The truism “you are what you eat” really ought to be “you are what you consume.” The more diverse meaning of consume captures the sense that we now identify with the products and ideologies we purchase and to which we lay claim, however temporarily.

Religion appears to be no different from any other commodity. Faith is now less about submitting to an external authority that formulates doctrine and dogma. Rather, it’s about developing one’s own belief system (what hubris!) and selecting a religion (as though one be truly necessary) that aligns with it least badly. Considering just how bad those fits tend to be, it’s little surprise that so many folks — whether they admit it or not — are agnostics, secular humanists, universalists, or atheists, none of which have much in the way of fixed doctrine.

Car Costs Killing You?

Posted: March 5, 2007 in Consumerism

I stumbled across an article at MSM Money called “The Real Reason You’re Broke.” According to article, the answer is that people spend too much on cars. The tone and content of the article are clearly aimed at financial novices and avoids blaming the victim for poor choices. A few of the details are nonetheless surprising: Americans spend an average of $8000 per year on cars, which is 15% to 20% of take-home pay. And more than a few “middle-class families are struggling with two payments in the $400 to $500 range.” If that means total $400 to $500, I’m not too alarmed. But if that means two payments each in that range, well, what sorts of cars are these folks driving?

I’ve written before about the stupidity inadvisability of the SUV fetish. It’s not just the fuel efficiency but a complex of things. As time wears on, however, all vehicles have loaded on systems, options, and costs. Accordingly, people don’t think of cars as basic transportation anymore. Rather, they’re lifestyle statements. Modern vehicles fully equipped (mostly with excessive electronics — lojack, video, GPS, multizone stereos, iPod and computer docking stations, alarm systems that everyone now ignores, etc.) more closely resemble rolling business suites or living rooms than simple transportation.

Compared to housing, where it makes at least some sense to buy the most expensive place one can afford, an expensive car doesn’t hold its value. For instance, a friend of mine just bought a 1993 (I think) BMW 750iL for about $3,000 just so that he could drive a luxury car that cost $80,000 new. (I wonder how many different owners took a bath on this 14-year-old car.) He admitted it was irrational and bought it even knowing full well that the 750iL is legion for its costly repairs and general unreliability. Indeed, after having the car only one week, it already broke down unexpectedly and he had to have it towed. (I haven’t yet learned the full story.)

None of this addresses a host of other conflicts having to do with dependency on fossil fuels, urban planning and social organization, disappearance of community, and commodity fetishization. Nor does it address the clear advantages of increased safety, longer vehicle life, and improved reliability of today’s cars over those of, say, 15 years ago. My basic issue is simply this: how have we allowed ourselves to be suckered into paying such excessive costs for transportation (no longer even pretending to be basic) while earnings for the average household have either stagnated or lost ground during the past 5 years? Why is the threshold cost for a luxury car so high (starting at around $50k to $60k according to estimates I’ve seen), which pulls the costs of an average car well over $25,000? Don’t we have some market power? Couldn’t we all create a demand for smaller, more efficient vehicles that cost less to drive off the lot?