Maybe We Shouldn’t Automate Everything
The other day, I got locked out of my Facebook account. And there was nothing I could do but abandon it. What happened? Because we run other advertising accounts on the platform, I had to enable two-factor authentication (which is fine, of course, for security). But there was a catch. The system never prompted me to set up authentication – it just started to show up on my account every time I logged in. Probably mistakenly, I used the default Facebook Code Generator on the mobile device since I was always logged in there. Seems fine, right? The problem is that eventually the system forces an auto-logout that makes you log in again on your mobile. Well, as you might guess, I got logged out everywhere. I tried to send a code to my phone, but it wouldn’t send it to me. The system sent an email to my business partner’s email seeing I was having trouble logging in. (In other words, it conflated my account that I use for Facebook with our business account.)
I tried to authenticate my account by sending literally a copy of my passport and my email. Three days later, the system sent me an email back saying they couldn’t verify that it was me (even with a passport copy). I tried to reach customer service (oh, there is none). I tried to reach Facebook on its Twitter account. No one responded.
Basically, I was left in machine limbo – and gave up. I’m certainly not the only one.
Just Because We Can Automate Doesn’t Mean We Should
Is it the end of the world? No. I lost a few Facebook memories and interactions and just created another account. But there’s a larger point about the kind of world we’re creating – one in which machines and technology are about to wipe out areas whole industries such as customer service, truck driving, retail, ordering at a fast-food restaurant, and even legal research. We’re all just sort of rushing headlong into this without pausing to think about the consequences.
It reminds me of that line from the original Jurassic Park film that has always resonated with me. The character, Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) says the following to John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), the founder of the dinosaur park. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Malcolm was, of course, talking about the re-creation of dinosaurs but even in 1993 (when the film came out), the line was most certainly a larger comment about the modern-era mentality of business and technology.
After all, anything goes as long as it makes (or saves) money.
I get that staffing customer service would get “expensive” serving 2 billion users. But automating everything where you never get to speak to a human being as a customer starts getting us into real Orwellian territory, doesn’t it? Furthermore, machines simply aren’t as good at human beings at solving some problems. And ultimately, not having any customer service shows what you really think of the customer – not all that much.
It’s Not Just Facebook. Look at Google and Amazon
Think my experience at Facebook is an outlier? Here’s another. We were recently managing a Google Ads account for one of our clients. The ads were running until suddenly we got a notice from Google that our ad was disapproved due to the fact that the notification said we were pointing to multiple URLs (which wasn’t the case.) We reached out to customer service. No one responded. Meanwhile, our client’s ads weren’t running and we were losing ground on traffic and conversions. Finally, ten days later we reached someone – a real person – who said he’d look into it. What happened? One of Google’s bots had inaccurately analyzed the ad and flagged it. The rep said he would send a “suggestion” to have the ad approved. And eventually it was.
And look, I don’t want to sound like a Luddite coming out against machines. Some automation is great, especially if it helps to improve the overall experience for customers or where it helps businesses do some repetitive tasks more efficiently. We support lots of business with marketing automation, for example, sending “thank you for purchasing” emails or other ones where a customer can get a more-prompt reply or receive a more customized message. In marketing, we see machines that write better headlines that human beings. At the end of the day, that’s great. That’s not the issue I’m addressing here. The problem comes where we’re automating things that aren’t repetitive or require better human judgment – I’d argue customer service is most certainly one of those areas.
Still not convinced? Just recently, Amazon came under for fire for having fired some employees mistakenly – by bot! It’s part of a trend by the retailer to automate HR functions using software manage everything from its warehouse operations to its contract drivers to the performance of office workers. People familiar with the strategy say former CEO Jeff Bezos (who recently stepped down) believed machines could simply do the job better, reducing cost for the company.
Machines can do HR better than people? Does that line even make any sense?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I really want Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and some of our other Silicon Valley pioneers designing the world we’re about to interact in. Nothing against them personally. But they don’t have your interests (really) at heart. They have their own. And the issue is they have the power to shape how all these interactions are going to happen in the future. Is it a competitive advantage for them? Sure. But it’s also going to push other companies in this direction to keep up. And that’s a bit scary, frankly.
It would be one thing if all this were a positive for humankind. But none of it is. We’re embracing machines at the expense of people and for the sake of cost-savings and “competitive advantage.” Maybe we should pause to think, like Ian Malcom says, “whether or not we should.”