- - Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sometimes nothing works. In fact, “sometimes” often seems “all the time.” The digital revolution has bequeathed a welter of new “systems” to cover nearly all of human activity. Something, alas, always goes wrong — the Internet salesperson doesn’t know that his company doesn’t ship to a post office box, or the delivery courier, even with his Global Position System reader insists an address, where the addressee has lived for 40 years, doesn’t exist. Telephone directories have disappeared, replaced by expensive “information” web sites that often display wrong numbers. The instructions for reading telephone messages appears to have been (badly) translated from modern Japanese or ancient Greek.

All this leads to a frightening suspicion that the essence of American innovation, once the envy of the world, has gone too far. The idea, so everyone was told, was to reduce complicated manufacturing jobs or other economic positions to a single decision. Poorly trained or inefficient workers would do minimum damage, they would be retrained or dismissed, and the system would move on.

Now computers make most of the decisions and the worker merely pushes a button. Take, for one example, the disappearing cashier. He would engage the customer, calculate the purchase, pack them into containers (that could actually be opened without shears or blowtorch once at home), take the customer’s money or examine his personal check, calculate the change, and send him on his way with a friendly greeting and an invitation to call again.

Not any more. Now the cashier or clerk simply moves the items across a sensor, takes the money or, more likely, watches silently as the customer swipes his credit card on an automatic machine. Who needs a cashier with a friendly greeting?

The psychological implications of this change in the cashier’s role, from celebrated multitasking to the work of an anonymous robot, are surely profound. But it’s all done in the name of efficiency.

However, decision-making has to take place at a human level in nearly every organization. Despite “intensive training,” the process of dumbing down inevitably rises to the top in every organization. Call centers, staffed by instructors who are there to tell you how the things you buy actually work, have been dispatched overseas where these instructors will instruct for lower wages than they might in Peoria, Flagstaff or Albany.

Everyone has had the frustrating experience of reaching a call center in India, the Philippines or Lower Slobbovia where the instructor was neither a native English speaker nor someone with a clue about basic American geography. After an excruciating circular conversation, mostly one-sided because the overseas instructor speaks an imaginative English only vaguely understood, delivered by rote. The conversation ends, if the force of luck is with you, with an English-speaking supervisor, perhaps in the United States, who finally solves the problem.

There’s nothing efficient in that system. Perhaps it saves the company money, but wages were once measured in service to the customer, and not only in dollars, cents, pesos, piasters or dongs. Dumbing-down, which reduces the worker to one motion, one job, one idea, may eventually cripple his psyche so that he is no longer very good even at that one act. The computer needs work.

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