Comment: The American National Public Radio journalist Greg Rosalsky identifies skimpflation as “a stealth-ninja kind of inflation”. It occurs when, “instead of simply raising prices, companies skimp on the goods and services they provide”. You see skimpflation when your pizza costs the same but has less cheese, when extra tomato sauce, once free, now costs, or when the reasonably-priced cruise you take after three years of denial has noticeably fewer staff than the one you went on in 2019.

It’s that last manifestation of skimping – on human employees – that interests me here. One of the easiest ways for businesses to charge the same for less is to shed the workers who formerly helped customers to address complaints about a service.

If you are facing a long wait for help with an existing service from a bank or telco, you can test the business’s skimping on human employees. Try hanging up and choosing the option for new business. Companies skimping on humans remain alert for new business while economising on staff to help existing customers.

Big challenges for society don’t wait patiently in line giving us time to deal adequately with the last big challenge. Today’s economic tests occur during a digital revolution that furnishes ever more powerful tools to automate work done by humans. Businesses skimping on human support staff are generally trusting their automated assistants to take on the load. This experiment in running businesses with fewer humans has momentous implications that should not be overlooked.

The meaning of businesses’ pleas for civility

Skimping businesses place extra strain on remaining human support staff. One feature of the long wait times for customer service are pleas for civility. As you await help from a human employee, you are increasingly likely to hear recorded requests for polite treatment of help staff coping with increased demand during a pandemic. The economic downturn has exacerbated this. It’s nice that businesses ask for respectful behaviour from customers frustrated by long delays for help.

But another way to think about these pleas for civility is to ask how bad things must be for a telco or bank to make that plea on behalf of its staff when they could have been using those precious seconds of customer ear-time to upsell the current service. Imagine sitting down at a restaurant, having the proprietor come up and, after a perfunctory greeting, plead that you refrain from directing abuse at staff dealing with the extra strain of serving food during a pandemic.

Human canaries in the mineshaft

Canaries warn miners about dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. I think these pleas for civility suggest that work in the digital economy is becoming increasingly hostile to humans.

We see this in the dominant myths of today’s workplaces. Today we hear less about Marx’s myth of the coming revolution that will sweep away injustice in the workplace. Even if the revolution was endlessly delayed it was still a story workers could present to employers – “Beware, treating us unfairly will accelerate the revolution!”

Today’s dominant workplace myth involves automation. It has the opposite message for workers. Today we hear much about the insecure work of Uber drivers. Uber eagerly anticipates driverless taxis. Its founder Travis Kalanick is reported to have greeted a 2013 demonstration of a Google driverless car prototype with an excited “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat … I call that margin expansion.”

Fully driverless taxis – like Marx’s revolution – seem indefinitely delayed. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has made many promises about driverless cars that outperform humans. But today the main stories seem to be about the fatalities of drivers who mistakenly trust Tesla autopilot. But Musk’s missed deadlines don’t stop fully driverless cars from being a convenient myth for Uber when facing demands for better work conditions.

Kalanick’s eyes fixated on a possibly imminent future in which there are no human drivers to pay. That’s certainly margin expansion. If Uber drivers complain, the company can reply with a threat to invest more automating them out of existence. Better not complain too much!

Automating customer service

Today’s corporate pleas for respectful treatment of their employees are a sign that full automation is on its way for customer service roles too. The self-help systems banks and telcos are increasingly sending disgruntled customers to are an indication of a future in which you will have no contact with any human employee to register a complaint about how your bank treats you. This suggests increased profits for investors. Perhaps this is fine if we imagine a future in which the bank will have perfectly automated customer service. But as with Tesla autopilot, these automated systems can disappoint.

Designers of automated systems refer to edge cases as those that fail to exactly fit the categories engineers have designed into their systems. The more kilometres you accumulate on your Tesla autopilot the more likely you are to encounter a novel situation causing an accident. Your accident may not be great for you, but it is excellent for the company. Your crash generates data that Tesla uses to better address your edge case. Future drivers – and the company – benefit.

My recent experience bringing a smartphone from Australia to Aotearoa New Zealand gave me experience as an edge case for my telco’s automated help system. No one died. But I was unable to describe to my telco’s automated help system why I had no access to the Internet. After long waits I eventually made it through to frantic help staff who were just as perplexed about why reinserting an Australian sim card on a trip to Adelaide didn’t seamlessly restore access to the Internet.

There’s more to this than my difficulties accessing the Internet in Australia. The fully automated future many businesses are hoping for suggests a future in which there are no human workers to petition. In my frustrating experience as a telco edge case, when I did reach a human employee, they understood and sympathised. A future in which human help staff have followed Uber drivers into extinction is a future in which you will have no access to human employees to empathise with your plight. Instead, you’ll be left with the not-quite-right categories of the company-designed automated help system. Good luck with that!

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