Society & culture

An automated online culture

One of the great lies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is: “your call is important to us”. It was an illusion, along with the idea that greater accessibility will lead to more meaningful interactions. So, imagine trying to complain to a company when there are no human beings.

Due to relentless pressure to increase profits, many private sector companies have been forced to cut costs, especially those linked to customer service.This was sold to customers as “empowering”, either because they save money or because they can get service 24/7. But in many cases, the only people really benefiting from this are the companies themselves because, while service economies continue to expand, service culture is as far away as ever.

If you simply want to pay a bill, an automated or online service can work. But some of us, especially older people, still prefer to deal with people.Moreover, when things go wrong, people often want to talk to a person, with a name, with whom they can identify and build a relationship. Removing the option of person-to-person contact often leaves customers feeling dehumanized and powerless. And if you think things are bad now, wait until customer service avatars become the latest money saving trick.

Sometimes you have the option of paying extra to access privileged customer services - speaking directly with someone who actually knows something about the product or service you’ve paid for.

But what are the longer term societal consequences for those who cannot afford such things? Judging by the actions of most banks, low-cost airlines, phone companies, insurance companies and internet service providers, we will probably find out sooner rather than later.

The sense of alienation and distrust doesn’t stop here. For service centre staff, especially those working in call centres, the drive to cuts costs has had equally unpleasant results. The short-term, part-time, high-performance ethos that pervades means that staff no longer feel valued. The strain of working in such environments is often passed on to - guess who? – the customer, who passes it straight back (with interest) to other call centre staff. And it gets worse. In some cases the culture of distance and detachment creates a warped cyber-reality. This is where call centre workers in India or Africa adopt false names and pretend they are located just down the road rather than thousands of miles away. This just makes mad customers madder.

So what is customer service likely to look like 10 or 20 years hence? Sadly, the answer is probably a two-tier system. Those willing to pay will receive more democratic, personalised and empathetic levels of service while everyone else will have to argue with avatars or join a long queue. Having said this, expect a significant backlash against foreign service outsourcing, especially where local unemployment and nationalist feelings are running high.

Ref: The Observer (UK) 8 May 2011, ‘Can I put you on hold…for ever?’ by P. Beaumont.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Customer service, call centres
Trend tags: Automation, virtualisation, globalisation

The cult of me

According to David Brooks, author of The Social Animal, there has been a significant shift in the way many people see themselves. In short, the self is in the ascendant - in particular, self-importance and self-obsession. For example, in 1950 Gallup asked US high school students whether each of them was a very important person: 12% said yes. Asked again in 2006 and the figure had jumped to 80%. In 1962 there were no articles about individual self-esteem in academic journals. By 1993, there were 2,500.

Overall, psychologists in the US estimate there has been a 30% rise in narcissism among teens since 1990. In other words, there has been a major shift from a culture of modesty and self-effacement to one of self-expansion and self-advancement. On the one hand, this can fuel an optimistic and industrious can-do mentality. On the other hand, people with very high self-esteem tend to take more dangerous risks and are less likely to listen to the opinions of others or help other individuals in need. Furthermore, teaching children with a very high opinion of themselves can be difficult because they think they already know everything.

Why is this happening? One suspects that media, especially the internet, encourages narcissism. For example, it is now free and easy to create your own identity online without having to worry about reality. Similarly, if information (or friends) can be personalised, it becomes easier to only hang out with opinions (and clusters of people) with the same views as your own. This rise in psychology counselling has fuelled the trend because it also encourages a focus on the needs of the individual.

In the short term, this will lead to increasing polarisation between opposing viewpoints. In the longer term, negative impacts could include conflict and social stability. It will also create long-term unhappiness because narcissists can never be pleased. They believe the world rotates around them and it's a terrible shock when the finally discover it doesn't.

Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK) 9-10 July 2011, ‘The trouble with self-esteem’, by G. Tett. See also FT 6-7 August 2011, ‘US trials and tribulations’, by G. Tett.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: self-importance, self-obsession, narcissism
Trend tags: Polarisation

More about me…

A study by Nathan Dewall, Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, psychologists at the University of Kentucky (US) says popular music lyrics are becoming more violent and more vain. The words, “I” and “Me”, are appearing more frequently in songs, while use of “Us” is in decline. This corresponds with various personality studies that have seen increasing levels of narcissism, self-pity and self-absorption, especially among the young, and higher levels of loneliness and depression.

The Kentucky study, which looked at popular song lyrics between 1980 and 2007, was controlled to prevent the results being skewed by rap and hip hop lyrics. It still found the expression of positive emotions had declined while instances of negative emotion had risen. A typical example would be a song about an individual, the things she wants and how she had been wronged in some way. (The recent Cee-Lo Green hit about hostility to another individual is a prime example).

Some observers are not convinced that personality traits change much from one generation to the next and claim songwriters have just become being freer with their emotions. Conversely, it has been suggested that it is becoming less fashionable to be in a relationship because (like buying an album rather than a single song) it implies a certain level of commitment. Far better to just drift around from one connection to another, moving on when it gets too hard. Hence "us" is not desirable because it suggests a lack of freedom, that you do not have a life of your own. I saw a beach towel a few weeks ago. It was emblazoned with the words, “It’s all about me”.

Ref: New York Times (US) 8 May 2011, ‘Anger and vanity in today’s pop lyrics’ by J. Tierney.
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. April 2009, Free Press.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Me, you, us, self-importance, self-obsession
Trend tags: Individualism

Moral philosophy – a surprise internet sensation

Who was featured on the cover of the Chinese edition of Newsweek recently as “Most influential foreign figure”? Bono? Obama? Lady Gaga? It was Michael J. Sandal, a Harvard University political philosopher: an academic who teaches Aristotle, Kant and John Stuart Mill. It gets weirder. Sandal’s lectures about philosophy and ethics have been televised by WGBC in Boston (see and his most recent book (Justice: what’s the right thing to do?) has sold over a million copies in East Asia alone. What is going on here?

Sandal’s popularity is due to the intersection of three interesting trends. The first trend is technical - the growth of online education facilitated by the internet and distributed by various digital devices. Students, anywhere in the world, can now connect with teachers, especially good ones, anywhere, and quite often the cost to do so is zero.

The second trend is cultural. In Asia, there is a craving for open, creative discussion and innovative thought, especially in countries that have until recently been authoritarian in style. The third trend, possibly the most interesting, is a hunger for moral debates in societies that all too often are focused on educationally dry technical subjects, like engineering, economics or business.

But while this may explain Sandal’s popularity in some countries such as China, it doesn’t really explain it globally. One answer could be that people everywhere are tired of individualism, rampant materialism, and unsatisfying blogs and bytes. They are hungry for discussions about big ethical questions that the mainstream media and politicians do not even attempt.It could also be argued, perhaps, that there is a vacuum created by the absence of religion and popular philosophy (and idea festivals) are filling this.

Ref: International Herald Tribune (US) 16 June 2011. ‘Moral philosophy rocks’ by T. Friedman.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Philosophy, meaning, ethics, teaching, education, online
Trend tags: Meaning, globalisation

Income inequality and the rewards of work

A recent survey in the UK found that FTSE 100 CEO pay increased by 32% during 2010. Compare this to the 27% rise low-income earners received in the 30 years from 1978 to 2008, even though overall UK GDP doubled in that time. In short, rewards received by the top end of society were immensely larger than those received by the bottom end.

Meanwhile, another report says that working class households in Britain (those with annual household incomes of GBP 12,000-30,000) will be worse off by GBP 720 in real terms in 2012 than in 2009. This is all happening in the context of organised labour and education becoming weaker.

Income polarisation and stagnating living standards can be seen as the result of two structural shifts, namely globalisation/connectivity and the power shift from west to east.

Income polarisation (well covered in previous issues of What’s Next) is largely due to globalisation and connectivity. If you have a skill that’s in demand, the market is now global.

Stagnating or declining incomes largely stem from a global power shift from West to East. And if you think this is problematic now, just wait a few more years. We in the West are used to the East setting prices for consumer goods, but what will it be like when the region sets the global price for manpower too? Especially when such workers are better educated and work harder and longer than many workers do elsewhere.

One likely response to this, especially in the US and Europe, is economic isolationism and protectionism. But bucking global market trends is unlikely to work over the longer term. A better solution would perhaps be to educate people to accept the local, low-paid jobs that will remain. Or give people much higher skills, especially in industries that do not automate or travel well due to various geographical or cultural factors.

What is the most likely outcome? A dystopian scenario might be that excessive environmental regulation, workers rights and social policies will add costs to already uncompetitive industries, and taxation will soar to balance the books.

A middling scenario might be that workers simply acknowledge that they will have to work for longer, with poorer job security, just to make ends meet, both for themselves and for those unwilling or unable to work. In both scenarios, social mobility would presumably decrease while social unrest and anger would unfold.

A best case scenario (for the West) might be that the East finds it harder than expected to reproduce western-style innovation and entrepreneurship and demographics shift so the East runs out of low-cost labour. Labour costs would then rise to similar levels globally, while the West retains an advantage in value-adding industries.

It seems certain that free-market capitalism only works well (whether it's the East or the West) when its rewards are shared, at least in proportion to effort.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 11-12 June 2011, ‘Society will not suffer for ever these sky-high pay-offs’, M. Hastings.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Social inequality
Trend tags: Polarisation, globalisation

The new poor

After 1945, the working class in many countries, especially Britain, received a social settlement: an economic level under which they would not be allowed to fall. Organised trade unions grew stronger and it was generally recognised that conditions, and social mobility, were improving from one generation to the next. However, in the 1970s, this largely came to an end. Globally things did still improve but, in many regions, the distribution of opportunity, income, health and education started to get steadily worse. Or at least, the two ends of the spectrum of humanity dignity and humiliation drifted apart.

So what can be done about this? A report by Frank Field MP (The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults), suggests that the best intervention would be to target the first five years of early childhood. This, according to contemporary thinkers, is the most critical period and the parents of such children should be encouraged to engage with their responsibilities.

If not, these difficulties could last for more than one generation and this may fuel, among other things, a drift towards far right wing politics across much of the West. This is because declining conditions, mixed with lack of community solidarity, cause individuals to look for someone to blame for their demise.

As Bertrand Russell once said: “fear stimulates the herd instinct, and produces ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd”.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 11-12 June 2011, “Don’t look down’ by J. Lloyd. (Same issue date).
Links: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones,
The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing and Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age.