British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (not to be mistaken for Fenton Hardy, the father of the famous Hardy Boys) once penned a depressing poem about a miller and his wife who commit double suicide. The miller, it appeared, realized that his life was already over. The Industrial Revolution had rendered his hand-milling process obsolete. Machines were making the wealthy wealthier while dooming the lower-middle class to a future of night courses at community colleges and filling applications for federal aid.
Hardy wrote his poem at the turn of the Twentieth Century, when factories were popping onto farmlands and newfangled automations were replacing field hands and skilled artisans. Hardy and many activists predicted a society of a few privileged overlords reaping the dividends of labor-less factories as a swelling underclass starved themselves from existence. Fortunately, the United States was then still a nation where a man without connections or birthright could make his fortune through hard work, and we escaped into the new century more or less unharmed.
Fast forward to the Zeroes, the Decade of Anger. Several years ago, the Angry Czeck found himself writing many advertisements for a global company who made a fortune delivering packages faster than the US Post Office. For decades, this company prided itself on personal pick-up. Its clever advertisements often featured handsome fashion models picking-up mountains of packages from a number of smaller companies.
But in the spirit of the New Philosophy of the Zeroes, the delivery company realized that paying people to pick up packages cost much more money than having their customers drop off the packages at a drop box or service center. These service centers had been in existence for some time, but had been neglected by the corporate office, who did not find service centers to be very sexy. Suddenly, the service centers were the stars and the future of the company. Customers were not only directed to these service centers, they were advised to use the Web site to create mailing labels, consolidate billing and update accounts. The customer was doing all the work. And best of all, customers were educated into believing that all this work was for his convenience.
My Angry Brother (we’ll call him Janet) once worked as a junior manager for a national retailer. You often find this retailer anchoring large shopping malls. There, while folding discounted pants and discouraging employees from stealing merchandise, he became personally introduced to the New Philosophy of the Zeroes a full half-decade before the Zeroes had actually begun.
One afternoon, Janet noted with considerable dismay that he was overseeing roughly half the employees he was accustomed to. Knowing that such reductions would hinder customer service, he made the proper inquiries to his taskmasters. The reason, he learned, was cost savings. Publicly held companies, such as the retailer Janet worked for, are beholden to the shareholders who are represented by a stone-faced board of directors. In addition, many of these shareholders happen to be the retailer’s own upper management. When the company stock declines, the yelling is a thunder that makes all but the upper echelons of industry shudder with fear. The stock must never decrease! The stock must always increase! The quickest may to increase the value of stock is to reduce overhead. The easiest way to reduce overhead is to slice it where it is not immediately reflected in the loss column. Immediate returns are found in but two failsafe places: Advertising and customer service. Both budgets are cut, profits increase, stock prices rise, and the manager who was cold enough to eliminate half the sales force receives a splendid bonus for his shortsighted cruelty.
Meanwhile, back in The Zeroes, the Angry Czeck was terribly puzzled by his check register, which seemed to imply a near-future of personal bankruptcy. Looking for answers, I immediately visited my bank, with whom I’d been banking for many years. I sauntered to the teller window and asked for a copy of my latest transactions.
“I’m sorry,” said the teller, “but that will be $5 per printed page.” To underscore her amazing statement, she pointed at a sign taped to the wall that confirmed her words.
“But I bank here!” I said. “Why should I pay $5 for information about my own account?”
A shrug was her reply. “You can access your account through our Web site,” she said curtly.
“But I’m not at my computer, and I don’t even have an online account. I just want to know what my last five transactions are!”
More shrugging. She didn’t even realize that she was shrugging herself out of a low-to-mid income job. She didn’t know that somebody at the corporate office had recently adopted the New Philosophy of the Zeroes, and realized that the customer doing his own banking was far less expensive than the bank doing the customer’s banking. In advertising, we ominously call this Tomorrow’s Banking.
The New Philosophy of the Zeroes has stretched its sinister influence to all facets of business and industry. Walk into a “home-improvement” store or mega-retailer. Notice that half the check-out lines are automated. You scan your items. You handle the billing. You bag your groceries. You watch as the few surviving human checkers remain numb to the fact that once the corporate office fully embraces the New Philosophy of the Zeroes, they’ll be feeding food stamps into the same automated checkers.
The Angry Czeck envisions a nation whose citizens walk into a fast food restaurant to sizzle his own French fries. (We’re already pouring our own soft drinks.) I see a tomorrow where we perform our own eye exams, rotate our own tires, and even chose our own medical prescriptions (which, thanks to irresponsible advertising and a culture of lawsuits, we’re already doing).
Corporate America – now secret-handshaking disciples of the New Philosophy of the Zeroes – will convince us that this new business model empowers consumers to make their own choices. After all, the consumer is the ultimate captain of his destiny, right? And if his hemorrhoids are bleeding a half-pint a day, then he is damn sure qualified enough to select his own damn ointment, right?
The future is the New Philosophy of the Zeroes, and we will be suckers. We already are suckers. Every time we walk into a “warehouse” shoe store, locate our own sneakers, try them on, then finally trudge over to the one check-out girl who allows you to scan your check card for purchase, we are suckers. We’ve allowed profit hungry corporations to deny us basic customer service, and in the biggest flimflam of all, they’ve convinced us that this is convenience. Yes, checking out our own groceries is faster. But are the savings being passed down to you? Are you kidding? The savings are going to The Man, brother. And that morose future Thomas Hardy spelled out for us more than 100 years ago is finally coming true.
Come to think about it, we’re worse than corporate slaves. We’re employees.