Skip to content

Self-service, or survival of the fittest?

August 13, 2023

The six words I dread most in dealing any organisation for the first time – especially one you need to call upon for services – are “you need to get the app”. The pervasiveness of apps, those clunky bits of software, often so badly designed that if they were a car you’d call it a lemon and immediately take it back to whoever sold it to you, is the latest weapon in what, if you’re conspiracy-minded, you might think is a gigantic con perpetrated on customers for decades.

The con, if that’s what it is, goes like this:

Wow, we can get rid of hundreds – or thousands – of staff if we can convince our customers that serving themselves is for their benefit. First we’ll install self-service terminals, then we’ll develop an app and then we’ll force everyone to use the app. Anyone who for whatever reason is incapable of serving themselves doesn’t deserve to be our customer. We can do without them. All on the pretext of delivering convenience to those customers we really want. We’ve collected the data. We know where our profit comes from. It’s not from little old ladies and men in mobility scooters. Or, more widely, from people without much money to spend on us.

In Britain, my country, we hear that the rail companies want to get rid of manned ticket counters. Spare a thought for those little old ladies milling around our stations fearful of being arrested if they board a train without a ticket, yet defeated by ridiculously complicated ticket terminals that sit in front of endless queues of passengers cursing the labyrinthine menu system.

Our National Health Service wants us to use its app to access our medical records, yet for one reason or another you can only see some of your test results and appointments. I sometimes think that a Russian hacker would find it easier to look at my stuff than me.

The banks won’t let you sign up for their most favourable products unless you get their app. And when you do, you find service features that aren’t working. Worse still, you find that for some unexplained reason you can’t make a payment. Then you need to use the call centre, which usually entails minutes or even hours playing pinball between robots before you get to speak to a human, after which you’re bounced around various other humans before you get to speak to the right person.

Even within the most sophisticated organisations, computer systems often don’t talk to each other, which results in endless recitations of security catechisms every time you’re transferred from one human (or robot) to another. Provided, of course, that your call doesn’t drop while you’re listening to the ghastly music that hasn’t changed for years.

All in the cause of convenience for the customer. Not.

Oh, and let’s not forget the lexicon of passwords you’re required to maintain any time you want to access a service or buy stuff online. Do you write all your passwords in a physical book, suitably disguised so that no burglar would be able to make sense of it? Or do you trust your phone or laptop to store the information safely, in the certain knowledge that these devices are never hacked?

I sometimes fantasise about where all this stuff ends. About supermarkets with a warehouse full of chickens that you can select and kill for yourself via an app that delivers the coup de grace on your behalf. About robots that will diagnose your medical condition and issue you a prescription that you can redeem through Amazon. Doctors? Pharmacists? Who needs ’em?

And who needs that kindly librarian when you can find the book you’re looking for via a terminal (or an app), go straight to the shelf and check the book out via a QR code that sits in front of a system that automatically fines you if you’re late returning it? Or indeed when our dwindling stock of libraries is finally extinguished, to be replaced by some government-controlled kindle system, in which authors are paid a pittance for downloads. Lord help the poverty-stricken kid from a home without books who learns about the world in the local library.

Where does it end? Most likely it ends in dystopia, as supply chains collapse and government disintegrates in the wake of some catastrophe permanently frying the internet. In such circumstances you might think that the good people of America, where half the population is armed to the teeth, have an advantage. They can take self-service to the extreme, demanding that the other half hand over the contents of their fridges at gunpoint, whereas we largely weaponless Brits have to resort to politely asking our neighbour for a glass of milk.

Am I afraid of technology? Not really. I’m one of the privileged ones. I got my first PC in the mid-1980s, way before mobile phones and broadband. I’m sufficiently computer familiar to be able to snorkel my way through the bog of apps written by pimply adolescents who aren’t as smart as they think they are. Yet the brutal reality is that the digital world is waiting for people of my age and above, who refuse or unable to use phones and apps for their daily business, to die off.

But I also believe that nothing powered by so-called artificial intelligence yet matches interactions with people, ideally face-to-face but if necessary on the phone. Yes, people need to be trained, and robots don’t generally have a bad hair day. But if we must pay a little more for our goods and services to retain the benefit of dealing with people, so be it. Because people can be kind. They have insight. They can be flexible in their response. Robots haven’t figured those qualities out. At least not yet.

Have you been to a hospital recently, been faced with a multitude of signs directing you to various departments, to be greeted by a volunteer who sees your nonplussed expression, asks you if you need help, then quickly directs you to the right place? Show me an app that’s able to read my face, or indeed my body language, determine that I might need help and deliver the information I need without going through a hierarchy of qualifying questions. I rest my case.

That said, I’m grateful for e-gates at airports. They usually work. Nine times out of ten – to my eternal shame – I use Amazon to buy my books as opposed to one of the few remaining local bookshops. Technology has its uses. But when self-service becomes the only form of service, which doesn’t seem too far away, I fear for the aged, the infirm and the lonely, whose only human contact is with charity volunteers, shopkeepers, health workers and the occasional caring neighbour. When so many of us have family members spread far and wide, cuts to public services made to fund pay increases for the employed will result in further alienation of those on the margins.

In short, is a whole section of society slowly falling victim to a survival of the fittest culture?

We’re not at that stage yet, but I fear that, as in so many other ways, we’re becoming slavish imitators of the richest nation on earth, where a large body of opinion holds that the poor, the weak and the deprived have only themselves to blame for their predicament. And down in Dante’s ninth circle of hell, is there a little man with a toothbrush mustache announcing to anyone who will listen “I told you so”?

Yet whatever Adolf might have thought, it’s never really been about the fittest winning out, has it? In a way, it’s better to speak about survival of the most persuasive, the most influential. Are those institutions deemed to be too big to fail really the fittest? In recent years our governments have been in thrall to lobbyists and pressure groups. Some political parties, including the ruling Conservatives, rely on dubious funding sources – sources that obviously want something for their bucks. Our banks, supermarkets and energy providers are able to raise prices and boost profits at more or less at will, safe in the knowledge that if they fly too close to the sun, a bail-out at taxpayers’ expense awaits. Inflation gives them licence to surf the wave of price increases, knowing that competitive pressures are low. Their target customers are not those who have to resort to food banks to get by.

Unfortunately, praying – and voting – for a different government is not going to produce more than superficial reforms of practices that don’t work to everybody’s benefit. People will vote for reforms that benefit them, provided they don’t have to pay for them. If the National Health Service didn’t exist today, would we vote for its implementation in the knowledge that it would result in higher taxes? Unlikely.

We have become so blind to the idea that the greater good requires a level of financial sacrifice that the only measures any political party proposes are short-term and palliative, for fear of losing votes. In other words, nobody dares to be radical. As I see it, such is our “don’t rock the boat” culture (or rather “don’t rock my boat”) that it will take a major catastrophe or an existential crisis for us, by wide consensus, to go back to the drawing board on many issues: climate, environment, energy, transportation, finance and employment chief among them.

I don’t have all the answers, or even a few of them, though I’ve floated a few ideas over lifetime of this blog. But let me throw this out for consideration. We should pass legislation that designates all sections of the economy that we deem essential to the lives of our citizens as public utilities. These should include food retail, transportation, water, communications, energy and banking. Declaring an area as a public utility wouldn’t mean nationalisation. What it would mean is that every private company and state-owned entity should meet minimum levels of person-to-person service, and minimum standards of accessibility. Call centres should provide fast access to human agents that bypass the usual hierarchy of options. Supermarkets should provide a level of checkout staff commensurate with their throughput of customers. Rail companies should not be able to close ticket offices. And critical decisions relating to customers should not be allowed to be made by AI-driven software, especially in finance.

None of these measures would stop people from using technology when they choose to do so. But nobody should be disadvantaged because they refuse or are unable to serve themselves.

Would such measures work? The devil is obviously in the detail. But surely, for the sake of the marginalised, a conversation along these lines is worth having. Otherwise, we risk becoming a society where the strong survive and the vulnerable simply fade away through neglect and the indifference of the majority.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: