16 Comments
Jun 17Liked by Brian Merchant

Another flavor: “AI chatbots and friends can help people feel less lonely!”

Gee, wonder if the fact that Silicon Valley has done its best to ensure every social interaction is mediated by a data-harvesting app on a tiny screen has anything to do with why people feel so lonely in the first place

Expand full comment
author

oh this is my FAVORITE yes, thanks for noting it.

Expand full comment
Jun 17Liked by Brian Merchant

“That the result will be lost and degraded jobs, worse customer service, hollowed out institutions, and all kinds of poor simulacra for what used to stand in its stead—all so a handful of Silicon Valley giants and its client companies might one day profit from the saved labor costs.”

As I’m sure you are aware, several (maybe most or all) of those giants are being pushed into the AI business by the opportunities for executives and other stock owners to siphon off large quantities of money from the huge streams of investment being poured into the field (Sam Altman is probably the exemplar of this manifestation of greed).

My son worked for more then 15 years as a freelance graphic designer, getting contracts with large companies like Nike and Adidas renewed for years. In the last year work has dried up completely as his clients all shifted to using generative AI, and he was lucky to be able to switch industries after 8 months of unemployment to being a wafer fabrication tech at Intel. Some of his friends have not been so lucky at finding new employment. But in this case my son is benefiting from the unreliability of automation: the systems that run the fab lines need the constant oversight and correction of human beings, and it’s unlikely that managers will be willing to risk the investment in a multi-billion USD fab plant or the ongoing bottom line of the production of millions of chips with AI that can’t be trusted.

Expand full comment
author

Fascinating — and a bummer. Hope your son is happy in his new job, but a shame it came to this. He's definitely not alone. I've talked to many illustrators, artists, and writers who've seen work dry up in the same way. Thanks for sharing.

Expand full comment

I loathe the IVR systems. Worst tech ever. Chat bots suck too. And I really dislike how AI is being put into everything. It's even on my cell phone's keyboard now😕

Expand full comment
author

hard agree

Expand full comment

I've been a software engineer for 10+ years now and I'm drowning in the AI hype. The thing I keep trying to explain to my friends is that AI, just like every other bit of automation tech, will be deployed based on wealth and power. The elite will get "organic, AI-free" human interactions because they can pay for them, probably with a nice sticker. The farther down the totem poll you get, the more entrapped by bad AI you will be, until you reach the equivalent today of anyone trying to reach the CA SDI system, which is a voice menu with no human option that hangs up on you because the mail box is full if you try to leave a message.

I really enjoy your work and this story it a great window into this phenomenon. The AI montage of the vacation you can't be on is extra-bleak. I just wish people understood that, as your work points out, this isn't actually a new situation.

Expand full comment

This really describes the automation spiral we're in, and how you need to consider the full context from a person's point of view rather than optimize a single tech surface area or segment of the"user journey" inside your walled garden. Your example of the compounding frustration is perfect - and it always amazes me how little Product Managers or Design think about this. They're focused on the business goals and management has divested internal User Research teams (or automate research with AI surveys), which contributes to these gaps in perspective about the full experience. Talking to customers would reveal this frustration immediately (or listening to the actual calls and why they are frustrated).

I think the problem is that a lot of companies like to simplify things, and don't make the space for the nuance of handling these complex perspectives of the world. They want to reduce and simplify so things can be modeled for predictability, at the expense of the customer experience. Essentially what they're saying by implementing IVR and then implementing patches for Agent burn-out is that they want to use human labor as a backstop to absorb their inability to understand the full picture. That's an acceptable cost to them.

When we keep moving down the line of optimization like this, we dehumanize customers and employees, which burns all of us. Thanks for writing this Brian!

Expand full comment

Also, remember the flip side of this, when The Zappos Way was popularized by Tony Hsieh (dating myself?). That was revolutionary in the sense of doing things that are NOT automated and do not "scale" in a predictable repeatable way actually makes customers more loyal, because it removes the type of frustration association IVR and other sinister friction-based optimizations create. There's always a company that is known for this, and eventually the hard times hit and they chip away at this - I think it's a hard wavelength to maintain at a company, but it's easy to see when the dam breaks and the internal champions get overwhelmed by whatever extractive optimizers have joined the board.

Expand full comment

Imagine we could calculate the IVR number for people. When something goes wrong (lost credit card, missed flight, denied claim, etc), your IVR Number is the number of minutes it's going to take you before you can reach a human to help you fix the problem. People would broadly fall into bands - I'm probably about an IVR-10 except when I have to deal with issues related to a specific health condition, then I become an IVR-45. In America deep poverty often means an infinite IVR number.

I would wager that people really lose it when they have an experience where their IVR number turns out to be much higher than they are used to. That's when the call center employee gets the person on the other end of the phone who has left "tightly controlled irritation" and entered "unmitigated rage".

Of course, for the truly wealthy there is another number (the Alfred Number?) which represents the total number of humans between that person and any interaction with tech automation.

Crummy AI - increasing your IVR number since 2022! (or thereabouts)

Expand full comment

In the early 2000s I worked at a Sears Parts and Service center, where the in-person version of this exact same phenomenon happened daily. The P&S center wasn't in the main Sears store at the mall; it was in a mini-strip mall by a grocery store a couple of miles away. And the P&S phone number was unlisted; Sears corporate didn't want us to be easy to find, because then too many people would show up and they'd have to hire more staff. Instead, all Sears customers who had a service issue or wanted to buy a part were directed to the national 1-800 number, where they'd likely talk to a young call center worker who didn't know anything about parts or repair and had been working there for a couple of weeks and was probably about to quit. The 1-800 number people got stuff wrong a lot: recommending the wrong parts, shipping different parts than what the customer asked for, that kind of thing. When customers called up to complain and the call center people couldn't help them, they'd finally give the customer our phone number and address.

So, on a daily basis, I helped customers in-person after 1) something they bought from Sears was broken, and 2) they'd tried and failed to get help from Sears.

Then there were the myopic company policies like "we don't refund shipping and handling on parts returns", which saved Sears money and ignored the fact that a large % of parts returns were because someone at Sears screwed up. We were all supposed to pretend that part returns were just like clothing returns; this customer must have simply changed their mind about wanting to replace that broken clothes dryer belt. As opposed to, y'know, we sent them the wrong belt :)

I only got through the day because my manager had our backs. We constantly violated Sears corporate policy in order to help out customers, e.g. by refunding their shipping and handling and finding hacky ways to report it as something else, or entering parts orders as being under warranty when really they weren't. Circumventing the company's own system was how we held on to customers.

Expand full comment

Again, this is *very* good. And really the scene in the supermarket made me LOL.

I have once heard that we often laugh at things we should cry about. I.e. a clown falling with their face in a cake is *sad*, not *funny*. This is likewise. We laugh when we should cry.

Expand full comment

We're going from Enshitification to Autoenshitification

Expand full comment

Complete Band-Aid. Why fix the root of the problem when we can nurse it by making our employees the problem.

Expand full comment

It's even worst than what you write, those people that do remain in seat for help will become less and less knowledgeable as the whole system isn't aimed at fixing the problem but keeping the calls as short as possible. This combined with the high turn over of callcentre workers, makes it for a "no formal job course/education" kind of position, no one is going to invest in employees who will leave in six months anyway.

So all you can hope for is that your call is noted and picked up somewhere down the line or what you're calling for is a one-click kind of task that does not require a signoff or supervision of some sort.

Which, do I dare say this.... can easily be automated on a voice response system. ;-)

Expand full comment