Automated call centers and superorganisms
Once upon a time there were people who worked in the insurance office and you could talk to them on the phone or even in person (annoying emphasis intentional).
Now everything is online and you need to call an automated call center to try to conduct business if there’s been an accident or they made a mistake or if you have a question which isn’t “how much do I owe the insurance company?”.
Recently my friend Becky got stuck in the penetralia of an automated call center and she likened the experience to the life of an ant and specifically to the “superorganism hypothesis” of myrmecologist E. O. Wilson (BTW, who here doesn’t love the word “myrmecologist”?). Her description:
Whether or not this is an accurate representation of their inner state, ants have long been described as having an automaton’s machine-like nature, one in which individual identity is subsumed under the totalitarian will of the collective in Borg-like, Communist wetdream fashion.
That’s how I feel when I’m lost in the labyrinthine bowels of automated customer service hell. I’m part of a network that works profitably at the superorganism level, but doesn’t serve the interests of the individual in the slightest, nor cares to nor purports to, driven as it is by the spare logic of collective efficiency.
Question: what is less human than the rigid caste societies of Army ants marching hollowly and inexorably on their prey, driven by the dictates of their genes?
Answer: only the hollowed-out computer-generated voice of the quasi-British phone operator who demands that you enter your social security number over and over again as an exercise in surrendering your will to a corporation whose power role in the financial arrangement is made ever more apparent to both parties by the dawning impossibility of ever speaking to a human at the end of the interminable and ultimately futile phone call.
Powerful analogy; I’ve tended to use the herded cows analogy myself. To entertain myself in the painful waits, I often emit audible “moos” to emphasize the forced passivity I object to. It sometimes backfires and interprets my sounds as a menu choice, though, so I’m thinking of going with the ants, who I don’t think make much noise.
A few thoughts:
- If you know you need to talk to a person eventually and that there’s no point going through all the stages, sometimes just dialing “0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0” a bunch of times will put you straight through. I usually try this straight away the first time I call. Sometimes it works, sometimes it totally fails and I have to call back. Worth a try.
- I wonder how efficient these call centers really are. I have a theory that people simply give up and pay (or default on) their incorrect bills rather than having to deal with this irredeemably opaque system.
- I also wonder what the built-up learned passivity does to us as a society. Having worked as a customer support person myself, I know that there are probably nice people at the other end of the system, and if I could only get through to them, which is a big if, they’d be super informed and helpful. But most people probably don’t think of it that way.