12 September 2010

Enslaved in the Dominion of Crap

Have you heard of “mission creep,” or “product creep?” Essentially the term “creep" is used to identify a situation that began as one thing, with a stated list of goals or features, and over time has evolved into something very different. The term “creep” can also be used to describe that one relative that shows just a little too much interest in the kid’s table at family reunions, but that will have to be a different post. Today I am commenting on what I am going to label, “crap creep.” I am hoping the post will be mildly more interesting than trying to say that really fast five times in a row.

Essentially, this post is about the ever increasing practice of having products and services turn to crap. I guess a more technical term might be “planned obsolescence” but I am going to call it what it is.

Take for instance the lowly electrical cord. As a kid, I could utilize an old toaster as a mace, happily bashing everything in sight for about four years without worrying about the cord breaking. More recently, I have an early generation iPod whose cord I use to charge my iPhone. The cord has reinforced areas at stress points where it enters the adapters and it looks as good as new after seven years. On the other hand, in the last three years we have burned through six of the cords that actually ship with the phones. They break apart and fray at the ends after about six months of tender use. Likewise with my laptop cord; I pamper this diva to death and I am still on number three in as many years. At $19.99 for the phone cords and $89.00 for the laptop cord, it is not hard to see why things are no longer being built to last.

Services are not any different. We can all relate to the limited time low rates and other shenanigans providers utilize to give the appearance of good service. If you want cable TV without mortgaging the house, you need to commit to a two year agreement, ditto for cell phones. Of course, once you commit, the honeymoon ends and you will be lucky to get basic service delivered as promised, let alone help with any issues. To insure a lack of helpfulness, most companies now require their “customer service” agents to read verbatim from prepared scripts. If that does not solve your issue, they will be happy to read it to you a few dozen more times. For awhile you could “cheat” this system and ask for a supervisor. Supervisors were generally allowed to address your actual questions with relevant answers. Companies moved swiftly to plug that loophole though, so now supervisors will either read to you from another eerily familiar script, or simply hang up on you. There is no downside to this atrocious behavior. The company already knows that even if you are pissed off enough to call back, wade through seventeen automated menus, and get another live person, it is a fact that they will be on a different continent, with no knowledge of your prior calls. Not to worry though, to insure continuity of service, call centers on all continents are armed with exactly the same useless scripts.

All this might just seem like whining until you consider the actual impact of these practices. Landfills are full to overflowing with dilapidated junk polluting the groundwater. This stuff has no other reason for being there other than the scheming wiles of vertical marketers. I mean seriously, how much has the technology in electrical cords changed since the 1950s? Let us not forget the slightly different interface every manufacturer uses to force a new round of chargers and accessories with every gadget purchase.

Poor service is creating its own issues. For one, people are stuck paying for shoddy service. This causes many people to rationally stop paying. That sort of misbehavior elicits an immediate negative hit to one's credit score, (an evil creation that I will address in another post). This degraded score costs one additional fees and charges in virtually anything from insurance to housing. Over time,  a poor credit score and the accompanying higher cost of basic necessities actually reproduce a sick version of forced servitude. This quasi enslavement was last thought to have gone out of style in this neighborhood during the mid 1600s. That was when it's unsustainable nature led to the popularity of actual slavery.

The negative impact does not stop with the hapless consumer either. As companies go through ever increasing convulsions to create the illusion of good service, they eventually lose control of their own creations. The results of that scenario are easily illustrated by the recent “sub-prime” mortgage debacle. Arguably, dishonest service designed around a system meant to trap consumers in hopeless servitude is capable of destroying our society as we know it.

With both of these issues, Americans appear no better at “voting with their wallets” than they are at actually voting in the democratic process. You would think that as the human civilization’s all-time master champion consumers, we would demand a little better from our chosen deities; apparently you would be wrong.