Thursday, August 18, 2011

Self-Service and Self-Serving (24 March 2011)

Tyler Cowen linked to this paper (pdf) from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation about the many blessings it claims that information technology bestows -- enhancing productivity, tempering the business cycle, making markets more efficient, improving the quality of goods, allowing us to defeat time and space and live forever, and so on. IT, it seems, enables employers to get more productive work per employee by eliminating the jobs of those whose work has been automated out of existence and by "letting" those who remain "do more things at the same time" -- that is, blurring the boundaries between work and nonwork, surreptitiously expanding the working day, and accelerating work processes through multitasking with little regard for the increased stress and irritability this imposes on workers.

What bothered me most is the paper's paean to technology-enabled self-service. Yes, I know, everyone loves checking themselves out at the grocery store and talking to robots on the phone instead of human customer service agents. We all recognize how companies have our best interests in mind when they get us consumers to do things they once had to pay an employee to do. Aware that some of us remain reluctant to rhapsodize over self-service, the paper explores the issue in a dedicated sidebar, which includes this tendentious passage:

Unfortunately, self-service sometimes gets a bad rap. The media routinely portrays the efforts of companies to implement self-service options as creating work for the consumer solely for the benefit of the company. In reality, most self-serve applications don’t cost the consumer more time, they just involve one person (the consumer) doing the work, not two (the consumer and the employee). Granted while some self-service applications (e.g., “press 2 if you are interested in opening an account”) can be maddening and cost consumers more time, overall self-service technologies usually cut overall labor time (for both the worker and consumer). And in some cases, they can save consumers time and add convenience. Even where personal service provides consumers with more value (a chauffeur-driven car is seen as a luxury), it usually costs more (which is why usually why only wealthy people have chauffeurs). Other kinds of personal service are the same. They cost more money to provide than does self-service. However, in the type of competitive markets more companies are facing, savings from self-service are passed back to consumers through lower prices, at least over the moderate to long term. As a result, standards of living go up.

Yes, while quality of living goes down. Notice how the concept of "prosumerism" -- where consumers get to be productive "co-creators" or "innovators" alongside their favorite brand buddies -- is here revealed in its true guise. The company just presumes that the consumer is already an employee, no different from the cashier or stocker. Post-Fordist, immaterial labor and consumption as production is not necessarily about getting to join in with creative-class while they shape social meanings and recast our shared material culture; it's about getting consumers to forgo some of the services they were once accustomed to assume are included and do those things themselves, which add value to the enterprise. When shopping becomes "productive," that means it has become a job you do for them, not yourself. Self-service means "serve the company."

To wash this down, consumers are sold on "convenience" or the ability to skirt human contact that might disrupt their solipsism -- indeed, the paper suggests the idea of personal service is a decadent luxury, not something the firm has implicitly promised in selling services to us ("Only wealthy people have a chauffeur) -- and we are promised that we'll ultimately save money, which after all is the only relevant value in a consumer society. "Standards of living" in this context means exclusively the ability to buy and have more stuff, not to have better experiences or enjoy humanized exchanges in an economy palpably made up of people doing things for one another. Instead we are encouraged to live in a fantasy world where everything is made for our money alone, and naturally we have no choice but to help ourselves to it.

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