The Theory of Contempt – Case Study 1

Something I have increasingly noticed in recent years is the parallel between current Technology and Social Media providers and the traditional era of public utilities in the UK, and also the images we had then of public services in the communist Soviet Union. In the UK, public services were (and many still are) known for the passivity of their customers (they weren’t called customers then).

Films of the National Health Service were of patients passively being treated, not supposed to speak much, and certainly never to complain. We were supposed to be “grateful” for what we had etc. When things went wrong, experts put things right and there was rarely a mention of compensation. In communist Russia we had images of queues for basic products, power and water supply cuts at the whim of the public utilities, and again, the notion of complaining being a long, bureaucratic, dehumanised process.

I just went to access my Ning site and it is down again for “maintenance” without so much as a polite warning. It’s just seen as “ok” by the service provider (who, though the service is “free”, make their money from advertising and allowing advertising on my site, so it isn’t free at all – it’s a fair deal). Internet service providers take their services down as they choose, and mobile phone companies can charge you to queue on their phone lines to let them know about errors THEY have made.

When Apple or Microsoft release late “patches” to literally patch holes in their software we have paid for on the basis of products advertised as fit for use, they behave as if this is quite normal and ok, and that no compensation is necessary for our inconvenience – a blanket apology to us “sheep” is all they offer (see any parallels with the bored and regular apologies of British Rail for their late and delayed trains?).

Recently early customers of Apple’s new I-Pad reported slow download speeds (queuing for bread?) and problems connecting to their Wireless provider (water cut off?). Apple simply issued some general advice that only worked for some and are working on a “patch” (no offer of refunds, compensation and those premium help lines). They see these quality problems as inevitable and, of course, even a free or cheap form of quality control – launch bad product onto the users and wait for the pain. Then put the pain right at your leisure with not much cost to you, the supplier.

Customer service, which was a priority most publicly stated from the 1980s under approaches such as TQM (Total Quality Management) has been deemed to be too expensive and the new approach is to tire customers out with ever more detached and complex complaints procedures, difficult to access compensation, essentially to tire us out, lower our expectations, and make us more and more passive. They’ve succeeded. Haven’t they?