“Skimpflation” and a future without human workers


The fully automated future that many companies are hoping for suggests a world without human workers to call for help. Nicholas Agar looks at “skimpflation”.

Comment: US National Public Radio reporter Greg Rosalsky identifies skimpflation as “a kind of stealthy ninja inflation”. It occurs when, “instead of simply raising prices, companies skimp on the goods and services they provide”. You see slight inflation when your pizza costs the same price but has less cheese, when the once-free extra tomato sauce now costs, or when the reasonably priced cruise you’re taking after three years of denial has noticeably fewer staff. than the one you did in 2019.

It is this last manifestation of skimping – on human employees – that interests me here. One of the easiest ways for businesses to charge the same price for less is to get rid of workers who previously helped customers with service complaints.

If you’re facing a long wait for help with an existing service from a bank or telco, you can test the company’s skimping on human employees. Try hanging up and selecting the new business option. Companies that skimp on humans stay alert to new business while saving on staff to help existing customers.

Great societal challenges do not wait patiently in line to give us time to adequately address the latest great challenge. Today’s economic trials come during a digital revolution that provides ever more powerful tools to automate the work done by humans. Companies that skimp on human support staff usually trust their automated assistants to take on the load. This experience of running businesses with fewer humans has momentous implications that should not be overlooked.

The meaning of calls for corporate civility

Companies that skimp put extra pressure on remaining human support staff. One of the characteristics of long wait times for customer service is calls for civility. As you wait for help from a human employee, you are increasingly likely to hear recorded requests for polite treatment from aid staff facing increased demand during a pandemic. The economic downturn has exacerbated this. It’s good that companies ask for respectful behavior from customers frustrated by long delays in getting help.

But another way to think about these calls for civility is to ask how bad things must be for a telecom operator or a bank to make this call on behalf of its staff when it could have used these precious seconds of customer listening time to sell power. service. Imagine sitting in a restaurant, the owner stands up and, after a cursory greeting, pleads for you to refrain from directing abuse at staff facing the added pressure of serving food during a pandemic.

Human canaries in mine shaft

Canaries warn miners of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. I think these calls for civility suggest that work in the digital economy is becoming increasingly human-unfriendly.

We see it in the dominant myths of today’s workplaces. Today we hear less about the Marxian myth of the coming revolution that will sweep away injustice in the workplace. Even though the revolution was endlessly delayed, it was still a story that the workers could present to the employers – “Be careful, treating us unfairly will hasten the revolution!”

The dominant myth in today’s workplace involves automation. It has the opposite message for workers. Today, we hear a lot about the precarious work of Uber drivers. Uber is eagerly awaiting driverless taxis. Its founder, Travis Kalanick, reportedly greeted a 2013 demonstration of a prototype Google driverless car with an enthusiastic “As soon as your car becomes real, I can get the guy out of the front seat… I call it expansion. margin.”

Completely driverless taxis – like Marx’s revolution – seem to be held up forever. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made many promises about driverless cars that outperform humans. But today, the top stories seem to be about the deaths of drivers who mistakenly trust Tesla’s Autopilot. But Musk’s missed deadlines don’t stop fully driverless cars from being a practical myth for Uber in the face of demands for better working conditions.

Kalanick’s eyes are fixed on a possibly imminent future in which there are no human drivers to pay. It’s definitely margin expansion. If Uber drivers complain, the company may respond by threatening to invest more in automating them. Better not complain too much!

Customer Service Automation

The demands of today’s companies for respectful treatment of their employees is a sign that full automation is on the way for customer service roles as well. The self-help systems that banks and telcos are sending more and more disgruntled customers to are a sign of a future in which you won’t have any contact with a human employee to file a complaint about how your bank treats you. This suggests increased profits for investors. It may be good if we imagine a future in which the bank has fully automated customer service. But as with Tesla Autopilot, these automated systems can disappoint.

Designers of automated systems refer to edge cases as those that do not exactly match the categories that engineers have designed into their systems. The more miles you accumulate on your Tesla Autopilot, the more likely you are to encounter a new accident-causing situation. Your accident may not be great for you, but it’s great for the company. Your crash generates data that Tesla uses to better address your edge case. Future drivers – and the company – benefit.

My recent experience bringing a smartphone from Australia to Aotearoa in New Zealand gave me experience as a borderline case for my phone company’s automated help system. No one died. But I wasn’t able to describe to my phone company’s automated help system why I didn’t have Internet access. After long waits I finally managed to reach the frantic support staff who were equally perplexed as to why reinserting an Australian sim card while traveling in Adelaide did not restore any transparent way access to the Internet.

There are more than my difficulties accessing the internet in Australia. The fully automated future that many companies are hoping for suggests a future in which there are no human workers to petition. In my frustrating experience as a telco edge case, when I reached out to a human employee, they understood and sympathized. A future in which human assistance personnel tracked Uber drivers to extinction is a future in which you won’t have access to human employees to understand your plight. Instead, you’ll end up with the not-quite-correct categories from the company-designed automated help system. Good luck with that!

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