Impersonal Computers

We live in an impersonal age that moves at the speed of byte. Electronic mail, dealer communication satellites and consumer surveys connect us in ways that used to require intimate, but painstakingly slow, interaction. Today we get to know each other without ever seeing one another, and yet, we behave as though we're in a relationship. The culprit is easy information. Nowadays, we give and get more

We live in an impersonal age that moves at the speed of byte. Electronic mail, dealer communication satellites and consumer surveys connect us in ways that used to require intimate, but painstakingly slow, interaction.

Today we get to know each other without ever seeing one another, and yet, we behave as though we're in a relationship.

The culprit is easy information. Nowadays, we give and get more personal data with a few key strokes than used to be possible after years of face-to-face interaction. Because we have access to so much personal info, we feel bonded and attached by our databases.

What's the problem? More information, more often updated should be a good thing, right? All this detail should enable great decisions that are 100% reliable, shouldn't it?

Truth is, people interact with machines differently than with each other. The result of an electronic interface is not connection, in any personal sense. Rather, it's mere access. When we seek the loyalty of relationships after no more than sterile electronic contact, we're often disappointed and wonder what went wrong.

The missing critical ingredient is intimacy. We want it, we protect it and we reward it. So when we get something that's pretending, we rebel. Our heart knows the difference.

Relationships are not about statistically relevant response rates or greeting-card attempts at friendship. They're certainly not about the total recall of a bulging hard drive. Relationships are about real people depending upon one another for the kind of devotion and compassion that are uniquely human.

Case in point: I receive an electronic solicitation to sign up for a dealer incentive trip. I'm excited. True to my profession, I work hard, sell hard and buy a lot of inventory to win (dare I say “earn”) the trip of my dreams.

I learn I win the trip. I'm going to be with the “Best of the Best Dealers in America” at the exotic destination of our collective dreams.

But something happens. The war with Iraq, the flu that's spreading through my kid's school, a snowstorm, a dear one's surgery. Things get in the way, and I have to stay home.

No problem rescheduling you might say. After all, you're among the best of the best. Surely your manufacturer will want you to stay pumped. Certainly they will keep you smiling the winning smile. Surely and certainly, you are wrong.

I attempt to call the coordinators, but to date, I've received not a return phone call, visit, note or email.

It's likely the next contact I'll get will relate to the 1099 that is conceived from the electronic marriage of my manufacturer's computer and that of our friends at the IRS.

So the plan designed to encourage devotion from the best of the best, was dialed into a system, plugged into a budget and programmed to deliver. The trouble is programs, unlike people, don't compassionately handle the unintended stuff.

When things go sideways, as often they do, the full measure of a relationship is tested. But in most instances we promote the machine to a level of unsupervised authority that humans are encouraged to follow lest they suffer the consequence of “bothering” the higher ups.

We look to the computer for good judgment. The result is we're robbed of flexibility and compassion the same way electronic calculators have robbed us of math skills.

Don't misread me. I'm happily addicted to information technology and would no sooner turn back the hands of time on the World Wide Web than on modern medicine. But, and it's a big but, technology only enables better human interaction, it doesn't replace it. People fail when they try to make it do that.

Peter Brandow is a 26-year veteran dealer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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