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Digital Service Dumpster Fires and Shadow Work

Summary:
One wonders what we’re paying for via taxes, products and services, when we end up having to do so much of the work ourselves for nothing. Let’s look at a day-to-day reality that is so ubiquitous it doesn’t attract the attention it deserves: Digital services–the foundation of the digital economy–are dumpster fires we’re supposed to put out ourselves. The services are broken, dysfunctional rubbish, and yet somehow the agencies or corporations that are responsible for the endless dumpster fires of their digital interfaces have shifted the burdens of this incompetence onto the consumer / customer, who is supposed to put the fire out ourselves and make do with the smoldering sludge at the bottom of the dumpster. Digital services are everything relating to customer

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Digital Service Dumpster Fires and Shadow WorkOne wonders what we’re paying for via taxes, products and services, when we end up having to do so much of the work ourselves for nothing.

Let’s look at a day-to-day reality that is so ubiquitous it doesn’t attract the attention it deserves:

Digital services–the foundation of the digital economy–are dumpster fires we’re supposed to put out ourselves. The services are broken, dysfunctional rubbish, and yet somehow the agencies or corporations that are responsible for the endless dumpster fires of their digital interfaces have shifted the burdens of this incompetence onto the consumer / customer, who is supposed to put the fire out ourselves and make do with the smoldering sludge at the bottom of the dumpster.

Digital services are everything relating to customer service or customer portals / interfaces. The latest PR claim is that abysmal customer service will all be fixed by AI-based chatbots and digital assistants. Based on my experience, I beg to differ: the chatbots simply add another layer of incompetence and complexity to the wretched, time-wasting, frustrating mess.

All the work that once was performed by agencies and companies has been offloaded onto the customer. This is called shadow work: work we perform that isn’t paid or even counted as “work,” though it eats up our time and energy, leaving us less leisure and more frayed.

The ever heavier burdens of shadow work are a major reason modern life is increasingly stressful and harried: what was once done for customers as part of the service being paid for is now the customer’s responsibility.

I just spent–or shall we be honest and say “I wasted”– significant time navigating AI chatbots and a smartphone app which is touted as an AI assistant. The corporate entity is Xfinity (previously Comcast), one of the nation’s cartel of Internet-telecom providers.

The internet-service AI chatbot is SMS-based, and it works by offering the consumer-customer a limited menu of options, often only two but occasionally up to four. If your issue isn’t covered by the options, then you must begin a wild-goose chase in which you select whatever option you hope might be a way station to resolving the actual issue.

As for the iPhone app, it certainly excels at looking useful, and in pitching an endless scroll of upselling, but in actually identifying the problem and resolving it, the app was a complete failure, misleading, inaccurate and frustratingly limited–in a word, dumb, the opposite of useful and intelligent.

The situation is I’m responsible for a rarely used Internet-Wi-Fi “gateway,” what we used to call a modem and router, that’s 2,500 miles from my home. So all management of the account and hardware/software must be done remotely. Theoretically, AI-enhanced apps are tailor-made for remote management and trouble-shooting.

The gateway wasn’t working, and the source of the problem required an actual human technician to visit the site, for the problem could have been a cut cable, a loose connection, the modem, or any number of other causes. The technician arrives, our friend meets them, and the tech installs a new gateway: problem solved, Wi-Fi works great.

Until the next day, when the Wi-Fi stops working. Turning to the AI app, I test the system, and the app reports that everything is working perfectly: the network connection and the Wi-Fi to our friend’s phone and laptop are all strong. Only the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, and power-cycling the gateway and restarting Wi-Fi on the phone and laptop accomplishes nothing.

The chatbot generates a series of “verification codes” which don’t restore Wi-Fi, they only direct our friend to download the corporate app, which after she does so, fixes nothing and offers nothing.

After wasting a frustratingly large amount of time fiddling with the app on my end, I give up and ask to get a callback from the chatbot. A polite rep (based in the Philippines) calls me back, and after hearing my description of the issue, he reports that he sees the source of the problem right away: an update to the gateway’s software did not load properly, and so no amount of restarting would get it to work properly.

One would think the AI app’s troubleshooting script would include a check on whether the gateway’s software was actually functioning or not, but you would be wrong. The app said everything was nominal even when it didn’t work.

While he re-installed the software, I chatted with the rep about his working from home–a real boon as it eliminated his commute and enabled him to help with the family’s infant. He said we’d have to restart the gateway and then it should work. For good measure, I changed the Wi-Fi access password, and to my great relief, our friend once again had Wi-Fi.

Let’s consider the productivity gains / losses resulting from the chatbot and phone app’s troubleshooting and menu of fixes. The AI-enthused analysts only consider the corporate side’s measures of productivity: did more profitable work get done by employees and capital / computers, etc.?

Nobody seems to be looking at the consumer-customer side of the productivity equation, where the AI chatbot and AI assistant app were nothing more than hugely unproductive, misleading, inaccurate time-sinks that wasted our valuable time and energy. If we add up the staggering losses of productivity on the customer-consumer side, the entire “AI boosts productivity” claim falls apart: AI reduces systemic productivity once we include the wasted time and energy of the customers-consumers.

What’s particularly galling about having to do all this work for immensely profitable corporations is how obviously inadequate their digital services are. It’s not like there’s an occasional glitch: the most glaringly obvious, most basic functionalities are entirely missing.

I could describe my months-long travails with the California DMV and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to correct trivial matters such as my current address, but a more recent example is my shadow work difficulties trying to access Amazon’s API, their programmable interface for Amazon Associates–those of us who post links to products (such as my books) on Amazon and earn a modest fee on sales originating through the links on our site.

I’ve been an Amazon Associate for 20 years, and the program has been useful and relatively easy to manage. All I wanted was a search box so visitors to my site could search Amazon for whatever they might be interested in. The search box used to be a snippet of JavaScript that was easy to insert in a site’s HTML code. That feature was eliminated, and now Amazon Associates must jump through hoops to access API and master its technical challenges.

One might think a company selling products through affiliates would offer to generate the tools affiliates use to generate sales upon request, but you would be wrong. The affiliate now does the coding work, with the aid of templates and suggestions.

My frustrations included:

1. Dead links in the emails staffers sent me: yup, “page not found” (404).

2. The video sent to explain how to access API showed a link to click to “request access to API” which never appeared on my API page, so I had no way to request access.

3. Repeated requests to Associates support to sort out how I could request access when there was no link to do so generated multiple emails with the same useless links, each from a different staffer (or bot).

Recall that I’ve been a loyal Associate for 20 years and have generated a significant quantity of sales. One would imagine that there would be some effort to respond semi-effectively to long-time Associates, but there was no evidence that being a 20-year veteran Associate garnered any more attention than a newbie.

4. Eventually I received an email saying I needed to generate 3 “qualified sales” to qualify for API Access. I replied that I’d logged 197 sales via links in the past 30 days, and what exactly was a “qualified sale”?

5. Next, I received a notice that my API access had been revoked (such a pleasant-sounding word) due to inactivity. Wait a minute–I had access to API? Why wasn’t I informed via email? Why isn’t there a simple line on my API page indicating my status, for example: “your request has been received,” “your request has been approved,” “API access status: approved / denied,” etc. How hard would it be to insert this one line in Associates’ API page?

6. The last email reported that my access had been restored and would I please fill out a customer satisfaction survey. Uh, right.

As for actually navigating the complexities of the API system, I no longer have the energy to do so. All I want is a simple search box, for crying out loud, about a dozen lines of JavaScript. I don’t want to watch numerous how-to videos and figure out the complicated process of requesting a sample code and then sorting through the response. Shouldn’t this be Amazon’s job?

The digital dumpster fires that pass for “customer service” are getting harder to put out, and the shadow work is getting more frustrating, complex and exhausting. One wonders what we’re paying for via taxes, products and services, when we end up having to do so much of the work ourselves for nothing.

Shadow Work (1981, Ivan Illich)

Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day (2015, Craig Lambert)


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Charles Hugh Smith
At readers' request, I've prepared a biography. I am not confident this is the right length or has the desired information; the whole project veers uncomfortably close to PR. On the other hand, who wants to read a boring bio? I am reminded of the "Peanuts" comic character Lucy, who once issued this terse biographical summary: "A man was born, he lived, he died." All undoubtedly true, but somewhat lacking in narrative.

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