Sunday, February 05, 2006

Customer Assessment Cards

Can we really escape being asked to assess each other anymore? A new sort of obsequiousness seems to have settled into all areas of business.
"Have we helped you today?"
"Rate our service!"
"How was your visit?"

Micromanagement becomes democratized and diffused. We are all bureaucrats now- all supervisors in an era of... what exactly?

Not surveillance really. The more that surveillance gets diffused, the more it is diminished. Bentham was wrong, as was Foucault- the Panopticon is the jail cell. We fix our gaze and then it fixes us. Can you imagine anything more miserably debilitating than sitting in a room watching hour after hour of surveillance video?

Marshall McLuhann said that all technologies come to serve the opposite purpose of that for which they were invented. And so it is with the Customer Assessment Cards. By treating the employee as if they're open to constant scrutiny, you alienate them from their labor and make their every action unnatural and forced. By turning customers into invisible prosecutors, you alienate the employee from the public and foster resentment. By removing the customer from face-to-face interactions, you alienate them from the environment altogether. The medium quarantines thought.

Perhaps this is "accountability"- can we call this the "Gotcha!" era? We're asked to report bad drivers to some 1-800 Torquemada. We're asked to critique almost every employee we encounter. My students are asked to assess my teaching, suggesting, I suppose, that I'm their employee rather than an authority figure. Entire websites are devoted to tearing down the most insignificant of public figures. At times, actually most of the time, the blogosphere resembles nothing so much as a group of grown men and women who desperately want to be at the front of a mob screaming "Gotcha!" at some poor individual, preferably one who's crying.

But, if everyone is accountable, is anyone? Ever notice how customer service seems to have worsened since they got those cards? Does education actually improve when the most educated people at a university have to meet the demands of the least educated? Would anyone in their right mind want to be a public figure when every move they make will be pilloried? Doesn't much of this "accountability" really consist of shifting the blame?

Maybe the "Gotcha!" era is really just the result of diminished expectations. Bloggers might be people who no longer hope to be successful, but aim at "taking down" the more successful. Maybe our problems cannot be solved, but blame can still be laid. It's all the fault of "liberals", "neocons", "ideological teachers", "terrorist sympathizers", "Christian fundamentalists", "George W. Bush", or "customer service". What does it say when our highest cultural aspiration is to diminish one another? What does it say when "success" is defined as being unaccountable? Where does all this ill-will come from, and how will we ever evolve, or develop, or grow? Most importantly, what do all those assessment cards say about us as people?

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