I went into a large, nationally-known chain store last night to buy a few things. When I what I wanted I went to the check-out lines. Because the store had too few employees handling too many customers I elected to take my five items to the twelve-items-or-less line, on the assumption that fewer items would mean a faster checkout.
Confirming the wisdom of my choice, the customer two places ahead of me breezed through checkout. Because the three women ahead of me were only buying two items as a group, I felt confident that I would be on my way in short order. (In the fable business, this is known as counting your chickens before they hatch.)
When Employee X rang up the two items, one of the women said that the price on one of the items was higher than the shelf price. After a short discussion about this alleged price discrepancy, Employee Y at the next register chimed in by asking Employee X if the price on a bag of cat food that she’d just rung up was correct, because the customer thought it should be on sale. Employee X thought about this for a moment, then said that it was the larger bag that was on sale. Employee Y then informed the cat-food customer that the matter had been resolved, and continued to check that customer through.
In my aisle, however, Employee X was not able to recall from memory the correct price of the item in dispute. Escalating the issue, Employee X picked up a handset and asked — over the store speaker system — for a price check on the floor. Thirty seconds later Employee X repeated the request. Thirty seconds later, Employee X repeated the request for a third time.
At that point, Employee Z broke away from a gaggle of chatting employees at the returns/customer-service counter and walked over at slothful speed. Employee X and Employee Z talked, examined the item in question, talked again, then Employee Z wandered off into guts of the store, clutching both a scanner and portable handset.
And we waited. And waited. And waited.
Now, as it happens I was also picking up some take-out food. Because I didn’t want the food to be cold I had a clock ticking down in my head. When I finally felt that I needed to be on my way, I waited a bit longer, and a bit longer still. Then I put my five items back in the basket at the foot of the checkout counter and left. (I do apologize that this leaves you in a bit of a narrative lurch. I don’t know if Employee Z ever made it back alive, or who was right about the price.)
On my way to pick up the take-out order I thought about how many procedural steps I’d just witnessed as Employee X tried to resolve a simple price question. Supported by a computer-driven, networked, data-fed cash register, a bar-code scanner, a store-wide intercom, and a roving scout also armed with communications and data-retrieval technology, Employee X could still not discover the actual in-force price of the item in less than ten minutes. (Allowing for a best-case scenario in which management hired more workers, or Employee Z aspired to being more than a foot-dragging slacker, I doubt the whole process could have transpired in under five.)
Despite being outfitted like a retail SWAT team, the Information-Age price check quickly devolved into a Stone-Age price check. Nothing in the cutting-edge check-out system, or the in-store communication system, or any technology of any kind, aided in the real-time price retrieval process.
Why did this happen? Probably because making sure that a check-out clerk can call up a sales price is a low-priority concern, or a high-cost capability, or both. Sale prices are meant to bring customers into a store. Whether those prices actually apply to products at check-out is a peripheral concern. Because few retailers put prices directly on items these days — ostensibly as a labor-saving practice or customer convenience, but more accurately as a means of abstracting price from product (if not actually deceiving the customer) — customers are obligated to track such things themselves. Those customers who do write down the sales price, and pay attention at the register to see if they’re being swindled, then face the additional prospect of watching Employees X, Y and Z launch a time-consuming retail safari if an alleged overcharge of twenty-seven cents is noted.
This incapacity of cutting-edge technology to provide relevant and useful information in real time brings me back to a point I made recently about Google and Network Solutions (my site host):
In the aftermath, the only thing that really surprised me was that neither Google nor my site host could connect me with the abundance of available public information about these widespread attacks. I understand that they can’t do so on a site-by-site basis, but even a simple suggestion that I check for news reports about similar problems would have saved me a bit of aggravation. (Isn’t it amazing that even the most connected tech companies still have routine difficulty integrating themselves into a real-time information flow?)
Which of course also calls to mind the complexity and efficiency of things like a do-not-fly list, which seems to be simple in theory and almost impossible to implement in practice, no matter how many people and how many CPU cycles are dedicated to the problem. Which in turn makes me think about Facebook and the degree to which they can help anyone talk to anyone else about anything at all — including the most banal and trite observations — while they themselves seem completely incapable of communicating the implications of changes to Facebook’s privacy settings to their own users.
The overarching myth of the Iinformation Age is that information has been liberated by technology. It hasn’t. Information is its own shelf item, and it needs stocking and tracking as much as any box. (More so, in fact, because if you lose a box you can always find it later. Lost data is often lost completely.)
Nobody talks about GIGO anymore, but it’s a concept that’s worth revisiting. Not only will your output be garbage if your input is garbage, but if you neglect to input information in the first place you’re pretty much guaranteed a void at the output stage. If you don’t put sales prices into your check-out database, you send your company back to the Stone Age the minute there’s a discrepancy. If you don’t connect your domain customers with real-time information they may spend days trying to solve a problem that you already know is not their fault. If you don’t manage your do-not-fly lists accurately you may end up interrogating nine-year-old, American-born Mustafa al-Suspect from Wisconsin, when the Mustafa al-Suspect you’re really looking for is a 40-ish Yemeni national.
The point here is that the internet is not a magical portal through which we can all become omniscient. The internet is not a great big fountain spewing forth all available information throughout the known universe. It is, rather, a bubbling (and at times caustic) cauldron containing only what people throw into it. Keeping information current and available and relevant takes work. Maybe not ditch-digging, finger-blistering work, but focus and concentration.
Like the sales price of a retail item, information can become obscured and overwhelmed by technology just as easily as it can be discovered or emphasized. For anyone interested in publishing their work or using the internet to get out their own message, the lesson is pretty clear. Do not romanticize the internet, or technology, or information. If you want to be part of the conversation, you have to do the heavy lifting yourself, and manage your content. You cannot leave it up to someone else (including your publisher), you cannot automate the process, and you cannot hope to compete effectively if you leave voids in your content that your customers/readers fall into.
Using technology, like using any tool (think chainsaw if that helps), confers an obligation. There is no way to avoid this obligation that does not involve sacrificing control, accuracy or customer service. If people can’t find what they need, or if you ask them to go back to the Stone Age in order to find the information they’re looking for, they may simply leave.
— Mark Barrett