Thursday, October 29, 2009

Electronic Autism

“I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” – Joyce Kilmer

A good idea is often the author of an institution; unfortunately, the institution often then becomes the enemy of the idea. Large and complex organizations are especially vulnerable to bureaucratic schizophrenia. Susceptibility seems to be aggravated by automated support systems. Digital deficit disorders are often magnified by the rigor and inflexibility of the binary logic that underlies all software. The “human resources” that design, manipulate, and monitor the digital and worlds are collectively, and often derisively, labeled “nerds” or “geeks”. Indeed, on a personal level, the symptoms of electronic autism are fairly obvious.

Does your daughter prefer to text message or post the most intimate details of her life, including racy pictures, online instead of risking a real date with an actual boy? Does your son retreat to the basement or his room with a cell phone, an I Pod, a laptop, and video games instead of playing a sport or joining a club? Does your husband prefer holding hands with an electronic mouse after dinner instead of holding your whatever? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you get the picture.

By all accounts, digital deficit disorders have now migrated to government and commerce. Electronic autism has gone viral; it has become a cultural phenomenon. The communications revolution that was supposed to create a warm and congenial global village has instead created a billion cold, unresponsive, and often hostile pockets of isolated indifference.

Try asking a local, state, or federal agency a question online. Chances are your problem is not one of their automated options. Indeed, once you have exhausted the programmed prompts, you must begin anew in what often seems to be an endless loop. Good luck with a phone call! The response standards for government apparatchiks seem to be designed at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office. Economy is the touted rationale behind automated systems; yet local and federal bureaucracies and budgets still grow like that chubby, surly kid in your basement. You know, that child who doesn’t have time to chat with you because he or she has a thousand fantasy friends on Face Book, U Tube, or Twitter.

The picture is even grimmer in the world of commerce where the gap between seller and buyer is growing as we speak. Debits to your account are posted instantly while credits might take days or months – especially if there is a dispute. The “float” is never to your advantage. All online problem resolution requires a run through the maze of online prompts; and then you get to attempt to talk to someone if you’re lucky enough to find a help number. Yet here again, you are run through another gauntlet of automated cues where the penultimate prompt tells you that “you are a valued client, all of our drones are busy, please hold for the next customer service representative.” These patronizing recordings are dishonest on three counts; if you were “valued,” someone would pick up the damn phone; the only “customer representative” in the equation is you; and “service” is never the primary design consideration behind any kind of “automated” customer relations.

A single maple tree in Washington, DC provides all the evidence we might need to appreciate the consequences of electronic autism in government and business circles.

Several years ago, it might be as long as ten; a medium size sugar maple blew over on Carolina Place, NW. The tree was caught, and still lies, on above ground utility wires that are maintained by three different “service” companies; power, cable, and phone. These utilities are complimented by a tree service company (Aspulundi) and the various bureaucracies in the DC City Government which oversee both trees and utilities. After years (yes, years) of complaints about this hazard to utilities, parked automobiles, and pedestrians; a pair of power company (PEPCO) trucks, with crews, appeared in September to reroute their wires off the tree. The tree was left to hang on the cable and phone lines, making the tree even more unstable with three power wires rerouted.

When the absurdity of this “solution” was brought to the attention of the PEPCO crew, the chief indignantly called his superior who confirmed that the tree was the city’s problem and the other utility cables weren’t their concern either. The implied logic here is that each utility should reroute their wires in turn instead of removing the derelict tree which is bound to fall anyway - and that day is hastened each time a supporting wire is removed.

Let’s see if we can follow the economic logic here. Instead of all five interested parties cooperating and agreeing to a common sense solution (i.e. removing the tree), at a cost of approximately one thousand dollars (confirmed by estimates); each party is pursuing separate solutions to the same hazard, where the collective cost will be many thousands of dollars. Keep in mind that the offending tree becomes more of a threat with each rerouting. Each of the five separate agencies, including the city government, is supported by automated response systems, information technology acquired in the name of efficiency and economy. Unfortunately, these systems, apparently, do not converse with citizens, customers, or each other.

All of this might be just another humorous symptom of life in a one party town. Or maybe some folks would simply dismiss such Orwellian nonsense as another kind of inside the beltway “stimulus” package. Yet the cost is born by stakeholders; citizens and voters who in these difficult times might expect some prudence on the part of the nation’s capitol or their “service” utilities. The price of electronic autism grows daily; let’s hope they never run out of your money.

(A truncated version of this essay appeared in the Washington edition of The Current, 11 Novwmber 2009.)