Hostage in a dysfunctional digital world

Nothing makes the case for reformation in the increasing jungle of computer travel than moving house

BRATTLEBORO — Remember a time when it was possible to travel the world with an up-to-date passport that simply validated your identity and sent you on your way? It was easy to undertake an exploration of a world full of random pleasures, surprising beauty, and serendipitous encounters.

Today it takes several ever-changing passwords to navigate the simplest computer journey, no matter the destination. It's an experience so frustrating and fraught with roadblocks that it has become a giant stressor at a time when we can't take much more angst, rage, or frustration. Our mental highways are in need of relief and restoration while technological roadmaps urgently require a user-friendly overhaul.

Nothing makes the case for reformation in the increasing jungle of computer travel than more than moving house. It quickly reveals all manner of system failures lurking to gobble up your identity, your ability to function, and your attempts to cling to whatever sanity you still have while living in an out-of-control technological world.

My husband and I moved recently after 23 years at one address. We had phone numbers and email addresses that everyone in our personal, professional, and corporate universes knew.

Within days, we found ourselves in a dysfunctional world held hostage by various companies, banks, internet servers, airlines, mega-businesses, and profit-over-people entities that needed our new contact information but were totally unaware that their online systems were deeply flawed and driving people nuts. They didn't seem to care that customer service representatives were totally inept when trying to solve real problems plaguing customers or that bots were useless.

Links didn't work, passwords weren't recognized, usernames were lost somewhere in cyberspace, and access directions led to dead-end spaces that refused to accept what we typed.

If we were lucky enough to get to an actual living person, calls would be dropped, and worst of all, we'd be told that the problem we were encountering didn't exist - until we were reduced to ranting into our cell phones that they should log on themselves and try following the instructions to nowhere.

“Oh, yeah,” said one agent. “I'll have to tell management about that.”

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Who, we wondered, writes the manuals that tech people resort to when you finally reach one? What are their basic language skills? How do they know firsthand what customers are having trouble with if they haven't experienced it themselves? What level of training do they receive? Where is the research and expertise in systems design and evaluation?

Oh, wait, that all costs money. Much easier to use brainless bots while raking in big bucks.

Never mind wearing consumers down so that they surrender to nonfunctioning systems from which there is no escape. They simply quit trying, yielding to an alternate universe that has us in invisible, inescapable chains as we slowly go mad.

Some years ago, a car manufacturer decided to get smart and have women called “soccer moms” design their SUVs. The strategy was wildly successful. The vans sold like hotcakes.

Too bad no one at other companies - like those that manufacture refrigerators, for example - has ever asked users to design those products. Instead, they continue to let people maneuver milk cartons around interior lights that hang precariously in the middle of the top shelf.

What if essential computer hardware, software and programs were designed and field tested with input from people who actually use them for work, information, or services? What if all the techies, here or offshore, were put to the test along with management?

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The price of not doing so is high. In 2012, Newsweek was among several outlets that examined negative behaviors fostered by the Internet with implications for mental health.

Author Tony Dokoupil's observations still seem relevant to a new kind of mental health challenge spawned by our era's internet-driven technology traps, changes that he said “call to mind a horse that has sprinted out from underneath its rider, dragging the person who once held the reins.”

“No one is arguing for some kind of Amish future,” he wrote. “But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not 'just' another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed.”

Examples of the problems people are encountering, and their effect, are copious and egregious. Here's an incident that appeared in the Washington Post as I was writing this piece.

Three years ago, the remains of a deceased man were supposedly shipped to his family via FedEx, but now, more than three years later, they remain lost.

When a newspaper investigated the event recently, FedEx responded quickly. That is, a company bot replied, “Hello there. My name is Gaby. This is not the experience we want to provide. I am very sorry for pending delivery. Please send a direct message, I would be happy to assist.”

Apparently, a real FedEx response was still pending when the Post went to press.

Most of us never experience something that terrible, but should you wish to comment, please visit my website or try calling. (Call-back wait time is six months.)

Thank you.

We appreciate your patience. Your call is very important to us.

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