Episode One Hundred and Twenty Six: Solving The Problem

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

The thread, this time, is a notification from the pharmacy that our pharmacy benefit has been stopped. I pull on it, and the thread leads to our insurance provider’s website, where they happily inform me that coverage stopped over two months ago, which is patently not the case. So I check out – well, I’m not sure what to call them – but I check out our benefits management company’s site and try to log into the COBRA management system (for the non-Americans, COBRA is the name for the Federal program that seeks to allow continuity of insurance coverage through a Qualifying Event, which in this case, is termination of employment). The login for the COBRA management system is down – down as in “not even responding to pings” and down as in “traceroute doesn’t know where it’s going” so I try through a vpn and it’s not working there either, so in some sort of fugue state because I don’t know what the fuck I was expecting, I decide to open a customer service chat window where someone (“Alice”) insists that there isn’t any problem with their website. I give up and open up a Gmail window and make a VOIP call to customer service, who very calmly tell me that they have terminated my family’s insurance coverage and that’s the end of that conversation.

But, no sense in crying over spilt milk, because hey, you need to go find insurance coverage for your family. So you need to learn the difference between an HMO, a PPO, an EPO, a POS and then you need to find out if any of the offered plans cover any of the doctors that you already see and you need to find out if you can actually remember what the “out-of-network maximum deductible means” – does it mean the maximum that you’ll have to pay for treatment provided by facilities and doctors outside of a certain coverage network, or does it mean that they’ll only pay up to that amount?

And you realise: no. You are not supposed to be able to work this out. Because you’re a relatively well educated person, and it would take you for-freaking-ever to work this shit out, and you’re *tired* and all you want is health insurance and this is more complicated than figuring out what standing fan to buy for the bedroom or even which hard drive you should buy for backups or even if you should buy a new laptop or not, or even, bluntly, figuring out a digital strategy for an organisation or a company. Because *those* things are fucking easy. But getting health insurance and understanding what you’re getting? Not in America.

User interface niggle of the day: textareas that anchor editing controls to the top of the textarea, so every time you want to do something, you have to scroll up one thousands words. Note: “Write less” does not fix the problem.

1.0 Numbers

It strikes me, as I’m looking at all of these 100+ providers that I could potentially choose from at the Cover Oregon website, that when I select, say, three of them to “compare” them, and what happens is that they’re listed side by side, I actually have no idea what I’m comparing. I am in dashboard mode: that peculiar fetishist of a certain class of designer who believes that if the job is to “compare” things then all you need to do is put the numbers up and hey, then you’ve compared them.

One of the things I missed about England when we moved to the ‘states was that some groceries – I think Sainsbury’s did this particularly well, but it’s been years, honestly, – did a pretty good job of providing you a cost-per-unit on equivalent goods. So if you were trying to work out what canned tomatoes to get, every single pricing label would display a cost-per-hundred-grams for example. And you wouldn’t have to do the mental arithmetic of trying to figure out if this can was more expensive than that can if they weren’t the same volume or weight.

I’m looking at this dashboard of numbers, this tabulated set of data of side-by-side numbers representing deductibles, out-of-pocket maxes, prescription benefits for generics, preferreds, non-preferreds, of which the terms I don’t understand and am terrified. I’m terrified because I’m supposed to be functionally literate, and I find this stuff overwhelming. In an employment situation, I delegate this to someone else, because it’s their job – their full time job – to both administer a plan and to explain it and its benefits to its members. But here I am, with a self-serve website, and I need to go and learn about this stuff.

This isn’t technology being empowering. This is the literal *least* that technology could do. This is the opposite of consumer choice – because at the end of the day, when you’ve been working and you sit down, we’ve learned that the ability to choose and to discern and to exercise willpower and restraint and, bluntly, to concentrate, are fixed and deteriorate through the day.

So no, this isn’t helping. This is externalisation of cost. This is shirking of responsibility. This is not using technology the way it *should* be used, or the way it *could* be used, but the way that it can be used to inflict maximum possible harm – to provide the illusion of choice without actually enabling *better choices*.

And it fucking disgusts me.

2.0 More Better

It happens every single time: I fly international with Delta a fair amount and I’ll get a notification that they’re ready to have me check-in. And then I’ll go through the process and then it’ll freeze or half-throw an exception because it turns out, unsurprisingly, that I need to have my documents checked at the airport. This shouldn’t be a surprise. But it happens every time, and every time, a little part of me thinks: maybe this one’ll be different! Maybe I’ll actually get a boarding pass this time!

But no. An apology every time.

I think there’s a strong example of this at GDS (yet again!) in this post, “What we mean when we say ‘service transformation'”[1]. You should go read it, but there’s a part of what Mike Bracken writes that I think illuminates what I’ve been trying to get at with the whole empathy thing. When referring to a particularly egregious example of bad writing in service, he writes:

“With the first line it offers help. And with the very next line, it takes that offer back.”

I don’t think it’s possible to write that sentence – to have the understanding that produces the ability to write that sentence in the first place – without having sympathy and empathy for the people who read it. And I think this is what I mean by really concentrating on the details.

The tone of voice adopted by the women – so far, it’s always been women – who answer my calls about COBRA, about health insurance, about the Oregon marketplace – are always very careful to toe the line. There’s none of Mr. Incredible’s “look, if I were going to help you, then I’d say that you should fill in this form and send it to that person over there.” Instead, there’s a hardening of tone, a practiced distance, a change in register to more formal and more detached and that inkling toward roboticness as if to say: this is a policy that I am required to enact, and as a human being, I’m afraid I have no say in the matter. It’s not my *job* to have a say in the matter.

I compare this to a customer service representative I spoke to at Delta – admittedly the premium member’s line, where you don’t ever have to wait to get connected to someone – when I was booking some complicated family travel involving three people, some award flights and some not, and a minor. She was explaining the policy of not allowing people to book flights for minors online – that they had to be bought over the telephone (“You wouldn’t guess,” she told me, “the number of people who would try to book unaccompanied minor tickets who turned out to be unaccompanied minors”), but later, she would talk of flying as an employee, right at the back of the plane, inevitably where the unaccompanied minors would be sat. On their own. And with – sometimes – no one to help them get to their next flight. Which she would do, patiently, and make sure they got onto their own flight, off of her own back, when she wasn’t even on the clock. Because what else would you do? Would you leave a kid on their own when you could make sure they could get on their way? Of course not. Well, you’d like to think not. Her husband, she laughed, had a different attitude.

We’ve never needed technology to let us treat each other better. It’s always offered us an opportunity to – Zappos doesn’t have any special sauce in its technology stack, it just has a laser-like focus and presence of mind – in other words, it gives a shit. It gives a shit to the extent that it elevates that customer service so that it’s more important than a hell of a lot of other things, and that people are given latitude to execute that larger goal in any way that they see fit.

I don’t know what it is about technology that on one level, allows for much greater opportunity for connection than ever before, but, in its own screen mediated ways, allows for much more abstraction, too. Those people who call for not having to speak to a driver – Uber or not – and to communicate with them only through app are essentially wishing for a universe in which they don’t have to interact with other people. When, as far as we know, people are amongst the most interesting and most intricate things in the entire universe. Why would you want to abstract that away and seal yourself away from it?

[1] What we mean when we say “service transformation”

3.0 All Rolled Up

I’m still thinking about people living on trains. Out of their three dimensions, all but two have been rolled up to be very, very tiny – this is your ant on a piece of thread, able to go forwards and backwards, able to circle around, to an extent, but not afforded any other degrees of movement, silently passing through billions of calabi-yau folded spaces in the meantime.

But these people on trains – forever going forwards and backwards but with only some sort of Minimum Viable X and Y axes, just a few feet in either direction, but practically infinite forward and backward along the Z.

Some readers wrote in about imaginging people living in other such constrained environments – the idea of living in Venice and Holland where part of the infrastructure you live on manages water, or the idea of living in Dubai, where you’re essentially inside a vast, air-conditioned environment that may as well be a dome on Mars.

But I’m still thinking about people living on trains, about that closed yet moving train ecosystem. Ingesting ice at the front, and the strange design constraints that mean you have to keep constantly moving and manage your population. When the way you experience your world has been dictated to by the constancy of the gauge[1].

[1] Track Gauge

4.0 More Ideology

So The Guardian ran a CiF article on the tech utopia nobody wants[1] which in part just re-hashes a bunch of stuff we’ve already seen (people don’t like Google Glass, some Google Glass Explorers aren’t very nice people, Justine Tunney is a troll). There’s a phrase though that JR Hennessy writes where:

“The philosophy of Glass is inward looking. It improves the life of the wearer at the expense of those around them.”

which I’m not entirely sure about (and, I’d argue, doesn’t necessarily translate to the criticism of Soylent). I mean yes, literally, Glass is about the wearer. Its second-order benefits in terms of everyone-else-who-doesn’t-wear-it are more soft, along the lines of the more Google knows about the world in general, the better it is able to serve (for certain values of serve) us.

Look, here’s the conclusion of Hennessy’s article:

“A divide is growing between the people who wholeheartedly embrace a radically new, radically self-centred vision of human life, and the people who do not. The internal lives of the tech elite, centred on the labour-saving innovations of Silicon Valley, are at odds with semi-atavistic conceptions of how people interact. Traditions and shared values are redundant, inefficient, and must be optimised out of existence.”

Part of this, of course, is that traditions and shared values are frequently soft – they’re not easy things to measure, and if they’re not easy things to measure, then they’re hard to capture in a database and represent with SQL, NOSQL or not. In other words, there are messy bits of the human experience that have to date been hard for computers to capture and model, and those bits are generally the bits that are ignored. You are only concerned with the numbers that can you can measure, and you want to make sure those numbers are moving in the right direction. The other day at my talk, I spoke a little about this curious notion of ambience – that ambient data meant taking lots of numbers, making them explicit and then just displaying them in more places. Which strikes me as rather missing the point of making something ambient.

Perhaps the canonical example for me is the Google+/Facebook/Glass-like tech executive story of being at an airport terminal and having some time to kill and not knowing what your fellow travellers have in common. Perhaps you could have interesting conversations with them? Wouldn’t it be great if you could be prompted: see Sarah, three seats over? She likes the same band as you! You should talk to her! Or Amber, sitting next to her: she works at Lockheed Martin and has been writing more blog posts lately, she’s probably ripe for headhunting into that firmware engineer position you’ve been trying to fill.

The reaction in the audience, one of the last times I heard this story, was that all of my non-technical colleagues balked at the idea of computer mediated introductions. Nevermind the fact that it’s hard to go up and talk to random people (or at least it’s hard for *some* people to go up and talk to random people) they didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of having such notifications pushed upon them.

Look, I get it. I grew up feeling like it was a lot easier to express myself through the written word than through talking. I still find it difficult in social events with lots of people – like after speaking at a conference, for example – to talk to others, and instead you might normally find me hidden away. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not approachable. But the joke is this. In a utilitarian world where Mark Zuckerberg theoretically doesn’t like having to talk to other people, he could:

a) build an SQL like query interface where he could find out what his friends like so he can buy the correct Christmas presents for them, and thus increase the number of correct Christmas presents in the world by an appreciable amount because there must be other people like him; or
b) just not talk to anyone and not buy them Christmas presents.

Utilitarians find them, as a matter of principle, rooting for route (a).

“The backlash against this world is democracy manifesting itself; a tacit rejection of the ideological assumptions underpinning the personal tech revolution. People want to define the structure of their own lives, and Silicon Valley’s myriad product lines are an unwelcome intrusion into the way we live and interact with one another – and even the way we eat, sleep and procreate.

“A simple fact remains: there is something intrinsically repellant about a world in which our food, jobs and personal relationships are replaced by digital proxies in the name of ultra-efficient disruption. The geeks, with their ready willingness to abandon social norms, are pulling us toward a utopia nobody wants.”

This isn’t going to win an argument with someone building a disruptive service that introduces empathy-less computer mediated social interactions. Saying that there’s something “intrinsically repellant” isn’t going to stop that person from deploying that service. They think that personal relationships are being made *better* by the use of digital proxies and that they aren’t being replaced at all. And that’s, for a broad part, true – when social networking sites are used “properly” they allow people to keep in touch and *broaden* in an additive way the ways in which people can build and maintain social ties. But that’s not to say that they don’t bring with themselves a bunch of other baggage.

[1] The tech utopia nobody wants: why the world nerds are creating will be awful

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