A Trip Switch for Automated Autocracy [PODCAST]

Image courtesy of CBS Worldwide
Image courtesy of CBS Worldwide

Automation and globalization drive growth. But at what cost?

Companies are too good at using half baked algorithms and business process outsourcing firms to discourage us from contacting them. And short of retaining legal counsel – which is not economically feasible – there’s nothing you can do.

Got a problem with something you bought? Either let it go, or press 1 for sales, 2 for service, or 3 for technical support. And if those options don’t work, wait on hold for hours to beg a third world call center rep to escalate your case. Companies intentionally make it hard to get a hold of someone.

It’s the drill of dread. First, penetrate a computer or phone system that is controlled by shoddy artificial intelligence. If your problem doesn’t match one of the provided options – and pressing 0 to speak to an operator doesn’t work – you have to appease the algorithm and get sent to the wrong department just to talk to a real person. Now, you’ve got to break through their second line of defense. You’ve got to explain your issue to an outsourced, offshore call center rep with no authority. 

Companies use automation and outsourcing to lower costs. Just as algorithms can only solve simple problems, call center reps from far away places struggle to resolve issues for western customers. Explaining a problem to a call center rep who may be living in poverty without access to clean water is demeaning for the customer and rep alike. 

Here’s how bad the situation has become. Last year, when it looked like the pandemic was over, I used a travel search engine called KAYAK.com to buy flights to Italy on American Airlines. Then, Omicron surged and the Center for Disease Control issued a level 4 travel advisory warning Americans to avoid travel to Italy.

My family and I are fully vaccinated and boosted. But we’ve heard horror stories from friends who were vaxxed, got long-COVID or traveled and got stuck in expensive quarantine hotels. My wife’s friend in her early 50s is not overweight and has no health issues, but she still has equilibrium problems 8 months after getting COVID. And my cousin who’s in her late 20s and is the picture of health still has COVID fog brain 4 months after testing positive. Neither of them can exercise because of extreme shortness of breath. They both feel tired all the time.

For us it was an easy decision. The risk of gasping for air in an Italian hospital outweighed the reward of a Venetian gondola ride, which meant we had to either reschedule or cancel the trip. 

That’s when I realized we didn’t actually buy the tickets from KAYAK.com. And we didn’t buy them from American Airlines either. It turns out, KAYAK.com uses a company called ChatDeal to process transactions, and that’s who we had to contact.

ChatDeal offers customer support via online chat. But you’re not chatting with a person. At least not at first. You’re chatting with an algorithm. 

I entered my booking ID into the chat. And without even thinking about it, the chatbot responded “May I have your Booking ID, please?” I double checked and re-entered it. And it spit back the same question. System failure? Maybe I should have just gone on vacation? Now, instead of lounging by the infinity pool, I was stuck in an infinity chatbot loop. 

I was going to have to fail to phone. So I put on my warpaint, dialed the 800 number and waited patiently while my auditory cortex got pummeled by a hold music. Every few minutes a voice would apologize for “unusually long hold times.” But just as customer service has become an oxymoron, unusually long hold times have become doublespeak. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Unusual is usual.

Finally, after an hour and 47 minutes, a woman with an Indian accent named Sally came on the line. After I explained the situation about our decision to postpone because of the CDC level 4 travel advisory, she said she’d have the right department call me back. That’s when it became clear that I’d wasted half a day of my life that I’d never recover just to leave a message

Struggling not to become indignant, I asked when they’d be calling. I work and it’s tough for me to take calls during the day. She didn’t know. I asked if she knew what number they’d be calling from because I get a ton of telemarketing calls and answering them all would be punitive. She had no idea. I asked if she could send me an email so I have a record of our call. She couldn’t. But she assured me that the department I needed to contact would be in touch.

A week went by. No one contacted me. Ugh. I’d have to call again. This time, I waited around an hour on hold, until click, I was disconnected before anyone answered. But I called back, waited another hour on hold, and got the same story. They said someone would call me. But no one did.

Now I’m angry. I call a third time, wait another 2 hours, but this time I lose my cool and demand support. And I get transferred to a woman who says her name is Dona. I plead my case all over again. I share the CDC advisory. And she says they’ll evaluate the situation and see if I qualify for a refund.

A few days later, a refund offer arrives in my inbox. ChatDeal wants to charge me a $300 airline penalty fee for each ticket, which seems out of line since we’re cancelling because of an American travel advisory. So I call American Airlines directly to check and they say American Airlines is waiving penalties to countries the CDC advises against traveling to. But the agent also told me that since I bought it through ChatDeal, she couldn’t help me. 

On top of that, ChatDeal wanted a $279.94 “Administrative Fee” and a $75 “Refund Processing Fee” for each ticket. I bought 3 tickets for $1000 each. They were all the same flights. Same reservations. But they wanted to price gouge me $655 per ticket. If I accepted their offer, I’d only recover around $1000 of the $3000 I spent. 

Scamming that kind of money while automating the purchase process and offshoring customer service during a global pandemic is the definition of price gouging. But if I wanted to reschedule, they’d be happy to help, for an additional $1,000 in fees. My chat deal had become a chat steal. 

Algorithms are great at solving binary problems. “If this, then that” problems are easy for computers solve. They’re great at selling us things. But if the problem is a “if this, and this, when that happens during a pandemic” algorithms choke. Artificial intelligence can’t resolve disputes. 

We talk about artificial intelligence and outsourcing as though it will solve all our problems. The promise of AI today is on par with the original promise of social media, which was unshackling the wisdom of the crowd, or the internet, which was democratizing information. But it turns out, the crowds aren’t actually that smart and information doesn’t want to be free. 

In his book The Narrow Corridor, Doron Acemoglu argues that liberty and justice happen when there’s a balance between the power of government and the people. More than anything else,  it is liberty and justice that drive economic growth, because unless people have rights and feel protected, they have no ambition, because they feel like the deck is stacked against them. What’s the point of working hard if anyone can legally steal your money.

If we allow autocratic automated companies like ChatDeal, KAYAK.com and Airbnb to rob us of our rights, how will that impact our economy long term? If we allow companies to deprive us of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, how will that damper our collective initiative and ambition as a nation?

We need autonomy over automation and outsourcing. Algorithms that automate business processes with tech stacks without seeking public approval are too autocratic. We need a tripswitch.

Human participation preserves liberty. The US is the dominant global economy largely because of the balance between the power of the state and power of the people. But how can we expect future generations entering the workforce and starting families to advance our economy without a fair and just society? How are they supposed to prosper and drive growth in this environment?

It’s time to bolster the power of the people against the power of technology. When sales, service, and accounting are all integrated into one technology solution, the result is automation. When finance, policies and the military are all combined to promote the expansion of the state, the result is autocracy. And automation, without checks and balances, is autocratic.

When systems fail, instead of letting people fall through the cracks, we need freely elected representatives to empower the American people against callous companies like ChatDeal. If we forever lose control over autocratic automation, and corporate elites can scam with impunity, the basis of the American dream is at stake.

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