Sunday, April 16, 2017

Take your tech and shove it!

This is where all the trouble began

Okay, before I begin, I need to confess.  More than a half century ago I turned in my press card and took a job in advertising. No excuses. I’m just telling it like it is. Or was.

My first advertising assignment was to write copy for IBM’s corporate campaign. The advertising was designed by my bosses — I swear this is the truth — to convince people that not only were computers incapable of thinking, but that they were also of incapable of taking jobs away. 

Don’t be afraid. It’ll flash
it’ll blink, but it won’t think.

Remember, this was back when a computer was a bunch of metal boxes that could nearly fill a banquet hall, and people were terrified of  those flashing, blinking, whirring “thinking machines.” I was instructed to tell people that computers would “electronically compare” millions of tiny bits of data and use this data to save lives and do other impossibly wonderful things for humanity, 

My first ever-published advertising headline said, “IBM computers don’t think, but they do help find rare blood to save a life.” (The ad had to do with computers browsing blood donor files to find, say, a pint of type AB Negative, so that an army of desperate clerks wouldn’t have to. Instead, I suppose, the clerks were free to anxiously wring their hands.)

Another of my ads revealed that “IBM computers don’t think, but they do help find lost ships at sea.” Yup, another info retrieval story. Notice, in both headlines — and in others that followed — computers never actually did anything. They just helped do the job, which was a task that still belonged to people. 

One ad even joyfully revealed that computers would “help make bank lines shorter,” a considerable benefit back when there was no such thing as automatic deposit or cash machines, and long payday bank lines could eat up an entire lunch hour. Alas, when I last went to a human-staffed teller window at my bank a few months ago, there was still a long line. But there were only two tellers in a bank that used to have over twenty  of them.

The other eighteen tellers? The copy used to say computers were freeing up people so they’d have more time to think. My guess is, they’re thinking, “How the hell am I going to find a new job?”

The TV spot that terrified
an ad agency biggie

Eventually, the campaign got on television and somebody, not I because I was too junior, was assigned to write a TV spot about computerized speech synthesis. (Hey Siri, did I spell “synthesis” right?) At any rate I was there when another proud copywriter unveiled his storyboard, which involved scientists staring at displays of wave forms on oscilloscope tubes, while other scientists spoke into microphones to generate the wave forms, while still other scientists studied how babies learn to speak. 

In the last few seconds,  somebody feeds a piece of film with nothing but a wave form on it into a computer, and the computer was supposed to cry, “Mama!”

The most senior account manager in the room was the first to try to murder the copywriter. “You crazy sonofabitch!” he yelled. “That’s going to scare the living crap out of people! Who hired this nincompoop?”

Needless to say, the commercial was never made, and the storyboard was buried in an unmarked grave.  

All this by way of bringing up a study reported on in an advertising trade journal called “Campaign,” under the headline, "IBM study finds most people are disappointed with digital brand experiences.”

Ya think?

IBM exec is shocked. Shocked!

You bet. In fact, “the results were ‘shocking,’” according to Robert Schwartz, Global Lead of Strategy and Design at IBM’s Interactive Experience Division.” I’ll pause for a moment in case you tried to say that name and title out loud and need to unclench your jaw and catch your breath. 

All set now?

Turns out — who’d-a thunk it? — that rather than spend half their lives pressing buttons or talking their way through phone trees to explain that the cable is out, and they’ve already unplugged the flippin’ cable box and then plugged it back in, and whatever else the machine tells freaked out people to do while they’re missing their favorite shows….turns out people would rather speak to a live human being.

Read between the lines and what you discover is that the “consumer experience” sucks whenever corporations throw people out of work and tell machines to answer the phone and deal with customers. 

Listen up, corporations. “Didn’t work as expected,” was the top reason “consumers are disappointed” with your damn habit of throwing people out of work and having machines answer the phone so that you can reduce your payroll. That’s quickly followed up by “Not convenient,” “Hard to use” and “Too confusing.”

Do the captains of America’s C-suites give a flying microchip? Not if the last incident with United Airlines is any indication. Corporations will try to get away with as much as they can, and let the customer get roasted in hell for eternity, as long as the company gets ever-increasing profits. 

Business doesn’t love you.
It loves profits. Period.

Industry will ignore you. It will have machines that can’t quite grasp your problem talk to you. It will beat the stuffing out of you on an airplane, or rip you off if you deposit at their bank, or chase you to the deep end of hell for the money you owe on your student loan….and the list goes on.

That’s why government regulation is so important, and why Donald Trump has done immeasurable damage to this nation — and continues to do it every time he underfunds, underpopulates, or undercuts a government regulatory agency.

Yes, we need capitalism. We also need vicious guard dogs. But both need to be kept on a tight leash.

Donald Trump, you see, is like a computer. He doesn’t think. But he does help destroy whatever used to be civil in civilization.

Over to you, Congress. Oh wait, I forgot.

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