We live in an age of wonders, but often they are delivered in a way that is far from wonderful. Sometimes it seems we are living in a weirdly bifurcated world rather like those pictured in science-fiction dystopias like “Brazil” and “Blade Runner.”
Technologies that not long ago would have been regarded as fantasy are nevertheless presided over in a manner more appropriate to the grimey precincts of Dickensian London. The gatekeepers to miracles are put upon or surly clerks like Bob Cratchit or Uriah Heep.
Let’s say you have a pain in your belly or chest or head. Bang zoom! A camera can be introduced into your nether regions, your blood can provide an encyclopedia of information, your brain can be scanned, a snake run up a vein to your heart, your innards examined by ultrasound, your genetic predispositions to various diseases read from a swab of your cheek. Mirabile dictu.
But before any of that can happen, to reach help you have to run a brutal gantlet worthy of angry Iroquois warriors. The doctors, nurses, radiological technicians may be lovely people skilled at their work and happy to help. But they are separated from you like Medieval lords in their castles by moats and palisades and glacis bristling with hostility. You have to pass by many gatekeepers to get to the treasure; you might as well have entered some sadistic video game. One missttep and you are sent back to the start.
There’s a phone system playing Kenny G that when it deigns to answer speaks to you in the robotic tones of a recording. Compassion has not been programmed in. You can leave a message but not speak to a human. You can get an appointment, in a month or two. To access any actual treatment, you must have insurance that may or may not cover what ails you. And if you think getting to talk to a human at the medical end of things is hard, trying getting an insurance company to respond to your needs.
Even if you get near your goal, you will be condemned to sit in a waiting room surrounded by other sufferers spewing deadly toxins in all directions for an hour or two, then in an inner room to talk to a note taker, then alone in a room deeper in the castle keep waiting for an audience with the lord of the manor. And if, then, you finally get the boon of a test to determine what’s wrong, you will be sent home to wait in terror for another three days, a week or longer for the results, wondering whether you will live or die. If you want to be tortured, who needs “Fifty Shades of Gray?” Just try to visit a doctor. Fifty Shades of White Coat.
Less scary but equally frustrating is any attempt to access any service or finagle a remedy for any problem, particularly those involving technology. Yes, tech gives us the ability to watch a thousand channels, to stream movies on demand, to tap into the contents of vast libraries, to communicate instantly around the world. All while sitting at home in our underwear.
But try to sign up for a change in service, to get someone to fix a faulty component, to report a glitch in the system and you are back on the phone with a robot or worse. You are talking to a guy who calls himself Todd, though his accent suggests his name is more likely to be Ramakrishna and he is probably speaking from Bangalore, not Bangor Maine.
Or you wind up down at the local office of Time-Warner, ATT, or Comcast. There you can take a numbered ticket as in a 1950s meat market. Except you are the meat. And the butcher knew his business. The people tasked with helping you in these cases do not. They know how to say “no” and how to up-sell you to more bells and whistles that won’t work and will bring you back to take another number.
After a wait of an hour or two you may be able to swap your defective remote control for a new one or engage in a passive-aggressive dual with an angry minimum wage employee who knows less about tech than you. Their goal seems to be to see how angry they can make you without provoking actual violence or fixing your problem.
It is as if Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Mayo Clinic and half the assembled geniuses in history had decided to entrust customer service to Fagin and the Artful Dodger. Or that a technological Oz had appointed the flying monkeys to man the help desk. And that’s on a good day.
Most days the people controlling your access to the help you need — computer repairs, medical treatment — recall most clearly the people at the DMV or the Post Office. Except those people are pleasant by comparison and don’t treat you with lofty contempt, just like cattle.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that all those underpaid, ill-trained, unhappy, ill-tempered impediments to service will soon be unemployed. They are going to be replaced by more machines who will never make a mistake in your favor, will show not an ounce of compassion, will be programmed to squeeze out the last drop of profit and to deliver the minimum service. They will be remote, unfeeling and there will be no appeal. Have a good day.