guest_column (2006-41)

Institutionalized communication and systemic burnout

The End of Society, Part 17

by Hector Qirko

Every two or three hours, the same call. A poorly automated male voice informs me that “they” are Chase Manhattan’s fraud department, and would like to speak with (my girlfriend). Press any key to continue. Then, if I am my girlfriend, please press 1; if not, please press 2.

After hanging up the first couple of times, I figure out what this is about. My girlfriend is in Romania finishing some archaeological fieldwork, and no doubt has used her credit card. Chase probably flags Eastern European transactions, given the many scams coming out of the region these days (ah freedom), and is calling to verify the purchases. No problem: I’ll tell them she actually is in Romania, and no fraud likely. 

So I press 2. But this only leads to a rather disquieting request from the automaton to “please ask your girlfriend to contact us.” That won’t work. The next time they call I try pressing 1: Yes, I am my girlfriend. But now I’m asked to provide account information I don’t have, so that doesn’t work either. And the old zero option trick isn’t available. There’s no way to talk to a human from here.

Fine, she can take care of it when she gets back. But Chase keeps calling, over and over, same voice, same greeting. Then I get one at eight in the morning, and that’s enough. I work late hours. I call the number directly and, after a few maneuvers, finally reach a person.  Hello, my girlfriend’s in Romania, back in a few days, I’m sure everything’s fine, but even if it’s not you’ll have to wait, as she’s digging a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere and can’t be reached at the moment.  

But of course this too fails. As we all know, customer service representatives, or whatever they presently call themselves, can’t talk to us about an account unless it’s our own and we can establish it in no uncertain terms (Social Security number? Secret PIN number? Date of birth? Mother’s maiden name?). Of course, at the same time they’re busily selling our “secret” account information to other parties, but that’s another department. So they’re not equipped to handle the idea of taking a message about an account from someone else. “I’m sorry, sir,” and that’s not even true—she actually sounds annoyed that I would try this.

But now I’m getting pretty annoyed myself, and so I quickly get to the bottom-line: Stop the phone calls. I live there too, I’m getting bombarded with them, and I want them discontinued. And here’s where things get interesting. “What calls?” the associate asks (that’s what they are now, associates). Of course, the fraud calls might themselves be a scam! I’m glad now that I didn’t give away any important information. I describe the calls.

“Well, we may be making such a call,” the (security specialist) associate concedes. “But we can’t discuss it with you, as you are not the card holder to whom it is directed.” 

And with that rather elegant sentence, it’s over. Until my girlfriend returns, I am unable to find someone to stop the calls. And presumably, if she decides to stay in Romania, all I can do is cancel my phone service and start over, this time making sure to avoid relationships with people who might someday travel to Eastern Europe or other suspicious locales. I assume that Chase will give up trying to reach her after a while, but I’m on day two, with no end in sight.

I see this as more than a minor defeat for me—more like the beginning of the end of our society. True, I’m a little upset. Still, each of us (Americans) participates in more and more of these kinds of exchanges every day, unless we’re old-order Amish, maybe. Or, worse, we don’t even try to communicate anymore, and simply allow inconvenient and humiliating things to be done to us because we feel we can’t do anything about them.

Like my phone calls. Or like, no matter when or how often you call for some kind of customer service, you’re told about “unexpectedly long delays” before someone can get to you. Or how, instead of merely hearing disconcertingly bad music while you’re on hold, which you could put on speaker phone and so be free to do something else while you wait, it’s now interspersed with ads for the very company you’re failing to reach.

And these are just a few phone-related examples, but it’s happening all over, all the time, in our new “service” economy. And, participate or opt out, either way we lose. Enough of us lose, we give up on the system. We give up; it’s the end.

I’m not a grumpy old man complaining about these newfangled ways. I’m just saying that if we institutionalize forms of communication that consistently lead to frustration, helplessness and apathy we’re heading for serious social trouble. After all, as the social constructivists would point out, a society is held together in large part by everyday interactions and communications that establish and affirm social reality. So we’re messing with some serious stuff here. 

I’d rant some more but I need to go answer that phone.