I’m Not A Customer, I’m A Wallet/Slave

Dealing with modern business is making us stressed and unhappy – it’s time capitalism did more of the work

pickpocket stealing a wallet

I DID a mega-workout this morning: it was awful.
It took me about an hour and a half and has left me feeling like I have been 10 rounds with a Cage Fighter.
I have knots in my shoulders, my breathing is shallow and panicked, and I feel a low, eerie, sense of dread – like Van Helsing, when Dracula in Bat Form flies somewhere into the building.
Above all, I need – as the Fairy Godmother said in the peerless Shrek 2 – “something deep fried and smothered in chocolate.”
So what hellish activity have I been doing? Spin? Cross Training? Milfit? Hot Yoga?
No: I’ve just been shopping for stuff on The Internet.

This morning, I managed to buy four concert tickets, three train tickets and a safe place to stash my bag at the weekend – but it hasn’t left me feeling satisfied in the way that old fashioned Retail Therapy sometimes used to do.

Instead, I’m about as limp as the lettuce in a Service Station sandwich and reeling from all the work I did: all the account opening, form-filling, clicking, typing, re-typing and password changing….

… card number entering and re-entering, box checking and unchecking, selecting and deselecting….

And, on top of that, there were the unwelcome propositions that I had to bat off….

From (a) the merchants themselves, (b) their carefully selected commercial partners and (c) the random pop-ups after every transaction.

Even though I ticked/unticked all of the boxes to decline all further communications, they still tried to slip me a gratis beer box, plus free razors and Build-Them-Yourself Dinners.

Free, that is, if I fill in more forms. Give out my personal details. Familiarise myself with the Cancellation Policy and spend months digging their subsequent blandishments out of my Inbox…

And on top of all that, the concert ticketing site tried to pat me down for a charity donation – seconds after it told me that it was adding £17.75 in service and handling charges.

Needless to say, the charity didn’t get any of my money – and I exited the transaction feeling both angry and mean.

But, apparently, I’m not alone in reacting like this.

The author, Matt Haig, says we feel bad when using the Internet because our brains are unable to keep up with the way that businesses – and others – use technology to besiege us.

“Human brains…” he writes in Reasons To Stay Alive, “Are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare or Jesus or Cleopatra or the Stone Age.

“They are not evolving with the pace of change.

“(And) Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up strip ads…”

The website (ahem) of the World Economic Forum recently carried an article about ‘technostress’, which it defined as ‘having more content than one can attend to without anxiety’.

Scientists found that the main negative feelings associated with digital media were Overload, Invasion and Uncertainty – or precisely what I was feeling after this morning’s foray into the Internet Of Corporations.

But before you start …. I do remember that a lot of things used to be shit in The Old Days, too.

Like long queues to buy a ticket at the railway station…  

Or your holiday being put on hold – while you stood in line to watch a man in a bank with a typewriter stuffed with carbons slowly work through a slew of Travellers Cheques.

Thanks to The Internet, we don’t have to do shit like that so much.

But whether it’s my Neolithic brain or just my age, it seems that many companies are these days consciously adopting a business model that shifts more and more of the work – and the stress – onto the paying customer.

On holiday in Portugal this summer, we queued for three hours to pick up the Hire Car we’d booked online – and when we complained, the staff said simply that customer service had been deliberately under-resourced to keep the firm’s costs low.

And it’s not just data entry and box ticking and the ridiculous queueing that companies want us to do now. they still demand more.

Take my shed, for example.

Having spent a £800 on a high-spec, Self-Assembly model, I was expecting something, well, decent.

Something user-friendly and IKEA-ish, maybe. But it wasn’t.

For a start, it didn’t come with printed instructions: I had to find them on the website and print them myself – at my expense, of course.

The ‘shed’ I got was about as unfinished as could be – scores of knotty, rough bits of wood with hundreds of screws and not a pre-drilled hole in sight.

This meant that just putting together brackets for the shelves took half a morning – and a project that the company said might take as little as four hours has now dragged on for a month.

The firm has at least subcontracted a Help Desk somewhere out in Asia but – when I phoned last week to complain about their sending me some incorrect parts, they wouldn’t just talk to me.

Instead, I had to take a photograph of what I had, upload it and email it to them before they would engage. And I’m still waiting for the parts… 

A few months ago, on the 30th anniversary of The Internet, its creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned that global action was required to tackle the web’s “downward plunge to a dysfunctional future”.

To be clear, he was thinking mainly about urgent, Big Picture stuff: like privacy, hacking, harassment and the spread of extremism online.

But isn’t it also important for companies to start thinking about how commerce is – in small, but serious ways – making ordinary experience just that bit more stressed and miserable?

After all, if I thought that a business cared about me as a person – and not just as a wallet/slave – I’d certainly buy more from it… 

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