Kafka, Meet Capitalism

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 April 2001

How much of the saga do you need to hear to recognize it as your own?

Please select from the following menu. You’ll need to call the customer help line. You must call the billing department. The computer must have done that. I don’t know why. Please hold. Who are you holding for? Please hold. Please select from the following menu.

We’ve all been there by now. Fighting to have that random twenty three dollar charge removed from a credit card bill, along with the finance charge they added on top of it. Explaining the story to countless clueless customer care counselors – spending so long on the dispute that, even a resolution in our favor would end up yielding about three cents per hour spent on the phone.

What makes these stories worth telling and understanding is that they are symptomatic of how end-stage market bureaucracy fails us. It looks a hell of a lot like what happens when totalitarianism fails (or, to some twisted individuals, succeeds). And it’s about as scary as a Kafka story.

Take my ongoing struggle with the telephone company. I signed up for ‘DSL’ high-speed Internet service over a year ago. About a month later, I began receiving letters apologetically informing me that my home was ineligible for DSL. I was to send back the special modem and wait until the service was available in my area. Fine.

A month later, the monthly charge for DSL service appeared on my bill. I called the number on my bill, and was rerouted and disconnected for much of the rest of the day. In about a week, I was able to get someone on the phone who understood what DSL is.

‘But you don’t have DSL service, sir,’ he said.
‘I know.’
‘This is the DSL department.’
‘I know. I’m being billed for DSL service.’
‘You shouldn’t be.’
‘I know.’
‘Well what do want me to do about it?’
‘Take it off my bill.’
‘You’ll need to talk to billing.’
‘They say to talk to you.’
‘Let me connect you to billing.’
‘This is billing.’
‘I need to get a DSL charge off my bill.’
‘Are you dissatisfied with your DSL service?’
‘I don’t have DSL service.’
‘Then why is it on your bill?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Let me check with the DSL department. Please hold.’
‘Sir, you don’t have DSL service.’
‘I know.’
‘Then how do expect us to disconnect it?’

And on and on it went. No one at the phone company could figure out why or where the billing was coming from. After six months of calling the phone company each and every month and going through exactly the same procedure, I encountered Alicia.

Alicia was a customer service representative with spirit. She loved her phone company and loved its patrons. She understood that mine was a problem requiring a real fix. She gave me her personal extension, and vowed to stay with me to the end.

I worked with Alicia for five weeks. We spoke every day, and worked diligently together to find out which division of the phone company still believed I had DSL service, and why. Alicia brought my case all the way to the company president’s office. Eventually, it was decided to take the radical step: My entire account would be ‘purged’ and ‘reset.’ This process was guaranteed to erase everything the phone company knew about me. I would be reborn.

The procedure took three days. I even lost my phone service for a few hours as my symbolic death and rebirth was carried out. All for the cause. On a chilly but sunny Tuesday morning, Alicia called to tell me the operation was a success. My account was as fresh and clean as a new baby. And there was no sign of DSL. Alicia and I wept together, and said our good-byes.

A month later, I got my phone bill. And there it was: charges for DSL service. Six months worth, covering the entire fictional billing period from before. I called Alicia immediately - I still knew the number by heart. All I got this time was her voicemail. I told the machine what happened, but Alicia didn’t call back. I called her voicemail box every day for a week. Was Alicia on vacation?

I called the main office to inquire about Alicia’s whereabouts. But no one knew who she was. She didn’t work at the phone company. She never did.

In another few days, her voicemail was changed. Now it belonged to someone named Martin in the human resources department. Martin told me that Alicia must have been one of the people ‘let go’ in the last round of lay-offs.

My new friends at the phone company say I should learn to live this way. ‘Is it really so difficult to call the phone company once a month and have the charge removed?’ they ask me. ‘At least you don’t have to pay it.’ The object of the game, according to this new generation of customer service representatives, is merely to survive in the new landscape of computer-driven commerce.

This philosophy is commonplace and profitable. When short-term revenues increase as a result of company’s refusal or inability to refund improper charges, there is little incentive for them to do anything about it. Since machines are making the decisions, anyway, and since no one is punishing them for displeasing customers, they go on in this fashion. And how long will a human being fight for six dollars? Thirty dollars? One hundred? Everyone has his price threshold – it’s just a matter of staying below the customer’s tolerance level, and slowly pushing it upwards.

But, in the long term, this leads to a downward spiral of diminishing returns. Customers eventually get fed up and change companies, or simplify their lives altogether for fear of more strife. We are being conditioned to avoid interacting with large companies. With shrinking longterm revenues, the companies need to lay-off staff. Computers are entrusted with greater proportion of the customer experience, and the cycle continues.

Ultimately, the market will correct this, too – even if this means reducing its own impact on our lives. Just as the bureaucratic excesses of communism lead to inefficiencies so great that the system collapses, the dehumanizing effects of corporate capitalism eventually create customer experiences so dire that human beings seek to find roles for themselves that don’t involve playing consumer.