MADISON, Wis. — In the digital age, we’ve either become more gullible or the hucksters who prey upon us, armed as they are with a plethora of shiny high-tech objects, have forsaken subterfuge entirely. They trust us to be stupid, and they might be right.
I notice this on television, now rife with commercials aimed at younger-generation suckers — er, consumers — who are more comfortable relating to the world through screen and keyboard than they are interacting with salesfolks, cashiers, clerks, assistant managers and other carbon-based life forms.
The combined forces of advertising, slick marketing and snake-oil have set their sights on an audience who will buy anything as long as the purchase does not require them to unglue their gaze from a digital device. These customers, for example, live in mortal dread of walking into a bank.
By the time I was eleven, I had a tiny savings account at a smalltown brick-and-mortar bank (the only sort of bank that existed then). Two years later, transplanted to a new city, Madison, one of my first expeditions was to find a new bank where I could stash my laughable fortune. I chose based on facade. The American Exchange Bank on the Capitol Square was the bankiest-looking building in town. It’s still there today, entered into the National Register of Historic Places. I felt both awed and exalted entering there, walking reverently across dark polished oak, addressing the teller through a cast-bronze grille and coming away with the precious memento of a visit to the soul of American commerce — my new bankbook with a Palmer-method hand-written deposit entry.
Since then, I’ve not only welcomed every visit to the bank (with a few forgettable exceptions), I’ve consciously sought out bankers with whom I could talk candidly and cultivate a friendship. Since my first deposit, I’ve understood that finance is more complicated than I can manage singleheadedly. I’ve depended on the kindness of investment advisers like Tom and Cyndi — whom I met in banks — and bankers like Lori, my current squeeze, who also works on the Square.
With that background, I’m puzzled by TV ads in which young people, bubbling with trust and ignorance, gush about an online banking outfit whose proudest perk is that it deposits paychecks two days before “payday.”
To which I always think, out loud: “Yeah, once.”
These kids seem not to grasp that after you’ve advanced your deposit by 48 hours, you’ve simply scheduled a new payday. It doesn’t get any earlier after that. A life built around Friday becomes a life built around Wednesday. Nothing gets better. The job doesn’t change. These dewy wage-earners also seem thrilled at novelties like direct deposit (which goes back decades), electronic bill-paying (again, been there, done that) and other mundanities of consumer finance.
The perhaps unfair impression I get from these kids’ giddy TV testimonials is that today’s twenty-somethings know less about managing their money than I did when I was tiptoeing toward the teller at the American Exchange Bank.
More disturbing is the apparent readiness of digital consumers nowadays to undertake heavy fiscal challenges without making actual face-to-face contact with someone knowledgeable in such matters. There are online outfits — advertising on TV and on four-inch mobile phone screens — that sell people car loans, student loans, mutual funds, common stocks, annuities, mortgages, cars, houses…
In one terrifying commercial, a middle-aged white guy — let’s call him Bob — wants to sell his mansion. For a split second, we glimpse the value of Bob’s leafy compound: $750,000. Bob wants into the market but he’s hesitant to submit the family abode to the cold and cunning mercies of a sly, commission-lusting realtor. Luckily, Bob tells us, there’s an online realty website that will connect him to the warmth, intimacy and heartfelt sympathy of an algorithm — let’s call it Fluffy. According to Bob, Fluffy understands his unique needs, feelings, hopes and dreams. Fluffy can facilitate the sale of Chez Bob while shielding its nervous owner from the greed and duplicity of a bloodsucking broker.
We learn, from Bob, that the wise and intuitive algorithm will not just apply an astronomical valuation to his home. Fluffy will convey the listing to a veritable army of “cash buyers” ready to snatch up Chez Bob, fork over the gelt and set Bob down, in gold-lamé sneakers, on Easy Street for the rest of his life.
“Cash buyers?” I ask. What sort of people have $750,000 in ready cash?
Bob, apparently along with countless viewers who swallow every word in this commercial, don’t ask such questions. They are simply glad, glad, glad that they can waltz into this dauntingly intricate and perilous financial endeavor without having to talk to an analog mammal. They are consoled by faith that an algorithm cannot have an ulterior motive.
Algorithms are pure!
Or so television tells us.
One of my favorite digital scams features a wiry blonde of a certain age, selling a business service called Paycon. Or is that Paycom?
Anyway, Blondie depicts the agony of employees who have to depend on the soulless bureaucrats in the Personnel (okay, “Human Resources”) Department to husband their precious vacation days, handle payroll, protect their private data, manage their withholding, medical and pension deductions and carry out other clerical duties. Blondie reveals the sheer, spirit-crushing drudgery of the miserable drones who work in HR but would rather be, if only they could, lumberjacks! And then, Blondie reveals the solution. Abracadabra. HR simply disappears.
All those rank-and-file employees — who’ve been yearning for years to break their dreary routine by keeping “their own” payroll, vacation and sick-day counts, doing “their own” data entry on benefits, insurance and scheduling — will get their wish. They’ll take over the spirit-crushing drudgery that was previously hogged by the selfish drones of HR — who are now in British Columbia applying for jobs in the lumber industry.
Seriously. What Blondie doesn’t say is that every corporation hates HR, just as it hates its public relations team and secretarial pool (what’s left of them) because these departments are known, sneeringly, as “support staff.” They produce no revenue. They are not “billable.” If there were only a way to get rid of them…
The digitization of banking, car-buying, mortgages, insurance, and a hundred other enterprises previously conducted by live people in bustling offices is not about the miracle of modern info-tech. It’s about dumping all the unbillable parasites who “support,” but do not enrich, the plutocrats on the top floor.
I picture a company in a glistening suburban industrial park. It has reduced its communications, personnel, clerical, secretarial, archival and janitorial staff to a skeleton crew of drowsy watchmen and on-call troubleshooters. The custodial part is fascinating: At night, instead of immigrant moms on hands and knees scrubbing floors, instead of janitors vacuuming, waxing and polishing, the corridors are populated by Roombas, whirring and blundering away. Digitally, without drawing a salary, they suck up the dust and devour the day’s detritus, leaving only the corners — which only a rag, a broom and a janitor can reach — untouched.
In our imminent cybernetic utopia, we’ll be free to eschew almost all non-remunerative human contact, each occupying a cocoon of touchscreen solipsism where, if we’re careful, we’ll never notice the greasy buildup in the corners.