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The Rise of The Antagonistic Service Economy

Hit sketch comedy series Inside Amy Schumer deftly spoofs and satirises a wide variety of cultural concerns and its ability to engage the zeitgeist was vividly displayed in “Calling the Cable Company,” a vignette in which Amy and her boyfriend lose Internet service and are forced to contact their cable provider.  Lighting candles and putting on New Age music. Amy bids for a mood of forbearance and stoicism, further steeling herself by muttering “You got this, girl,” as she resolutely dials the phone.  Predictably, the transaction doesn’t unfold well; Amy contends with elaborate phone trees, sudden transfers, requests for obscure and irretrievable information and being placed on hold for epic lengths of time.  As the hours pass, Amy is reduced to glugging wine, crying and sputtering rage. What the Schumer skit understands is the prevalence of what I call the antagonistic service economy.

A significant element of the culture of financialisation, the rise of the antagonistic service economy has yet to be significantly examined as a key element of contemporary public culture.  This economy is marked by a transfer of work from organizations to their supposed customers, technology platforms with high failure rates, deep devotion to byzantine bureaucratic procedures and the conspicuous and constant valuing of high status customers over low status ones.  Any assessment of current affective culture needs to be attentive to the conversion of customer service encounters to transactions routinely marked by frustration, impotence and fury.  In marked contrast to what Judy Wajcman has characterized as “the contemporary imperative of speed” such encounters are also notable for a discrepancy between the rhetoricization of efficiency and the reality that they are often deeply administratively inefficient and time-consuming.[i]   This economy, of course, flourishes in oligopolistic markets amidst reduced attention to consumer rights.  While the air travel industry, banking and other financial institutions, cable television and communications companies, insurance and health firms and universities are in various states of transformation to antagonistic service economies, this protocol shift is also broadly in place elsewhere.  For instance, systems of formal and informal corporate preference that devalue individual, non-elite customers work to structure access to restaurants, to hotels, to sports and other entertainment events and a range of other sites.  The antagonistic service economy is thus a “buy-out” one from which elites are largely exempt while in fact enjoying a greater and greater range of bespoke and concierge provision.  Emergent structures of separation (such as concierge services in hospitals or all business-class airports) give a glimpse of future culmination of current trends, in which as Cathy O’Neil has noted, “The privileged, we’ll see time and again, are processed more by people, the masses by machines.”[ii]

It is important to understand the new norms of customer service as an expression not of corporate ineptitude but of corporate calculation; the effective withdrawal of customer service is a specific and deliberate operational strategy.[iii]  In the antagonistic service economy customers must go to great lengths to seek basic information and answers to queries and if they succeed they are often treated with robotic indifference or a stilted hyper-courtesy that barely conceals institutional disdain. Corporations often pair a rise in service fees and other administrative charges with a turn toward the treatment of customers in this hostile fashion.  Such hostility also takes the form of digital discrimination, requiring customers to use the Internet who may not be in a position to do so or who lack technical expertise to do so effectively and in the UK phone charges to reach companies as well as the elaboration of waiting times.  In some cases firms will not make themselves available at all, showing themselves to be punctilious in ensuring that queries are unlikely to progress through a heavily bureaucratic system.  A landmark early millennium development in this regard was the cultivation of inaccessibility by companies such as Internet-based retailer Amazon that refused to engage with customers by phone.  Training of staff to repeat marketing mantras and (for call centre workers most particularly) to speak like machines giving pre-scripted answers that may or may not match a customer query acts as a further expression of the antagonism corporations direct toward customers as does the automation of customer service phone banks and the outsourcing of customer service “chat” and email services.  Corporate desire to script all encounters between staff and patrons (when they cannot be eliminated) acts as an expression of an algorithmic culture that is intensely hostile to human diversity and messiness and flummoxed by phenomena out of compliance with models driven by the “misuse of mathematics.”[iv]

The greatly enhanced use of security staff as a check on customer behaviour in a variety of settings is an important sign of the discrepant status and power of organisations and their consumers. In locations such as airports the image of the abusive passenger is carefully rhetorically maintained as a further form of discipline.  While keeping vigilant watch for any signs of “air rage,” staff on many airlines are increasingly free to speak discourteously and confrontationally to travellers.  While incidents of such rage are clearly on the rise (the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority recently reported that their number had quadrupled in the past two years) what goes unreported are the triggers for consumer anger given the dramatic decline of cabin conditions, access to food and drink and crowding due to a rise in the number and size of bags on board as passengers seek to avoid the checked baggage fees that have become a major source of profit for the aviation industry.[v]  In the era of hostile air travel security, democratic rights are figured as quaint and subordinate to the new imperatives of the security state.  As Rachel Hall observes, “By participating in airport security passengers actively and publicly forfeit their right to be presumed innocent under the old legal system.”[vi]  Earlier this year American Airlines unveiled a new advertising campaign exhorting its passengers to “make the best of their situation” while flying, exhorting the personal discipline of mood management and suggesting that poor customer provision is the customer’s problem to negotiate through attitude adjustment.[vii]  Consumer rage flourishes in the aviation industry but it is also a broader incipient public affect.

Recent years have seen the emergence of extractive economic arrangements that are promoted as “sharing” and users of such services are directly implicated in the perpetuation of inequality.  Both service providers and service users of firms such as Uber are then locked into algorithmic forms of assessment, another way in which corporate labor is transferred elsewhere given that Uber drivers are independent contractors.  Noting that “the Sharing Economy is almost entirely a small number of technology firms backed by large amounts of venture capital,” Tom Slee argues that “Rather than bringing a new openness and personal trust to our interactions, it is bringing a new form of surveillance where service workers must live in fear of being snitched on, and while the company CEOs talk benevolently of their communities of users, the reality has a harder edge of centralised control.”[viii]

Recent political seasons have brought us a range of commentators who seek to account for the durable political candidacy of Donald Trump in the US or the “Brexit” vote in the UK with attributions of populist rage.  I suggest that as much as anything else that rage is sourced in everyday encounters of the kinds I have sketched here, in an antagonistic service culture that mounts micro-assaults on dignity and democratic citizenship. 

[i] Judy Wajcman, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 2015, p. 183.

[ii]Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, London: Allen Lane, 2016, p. 8.

[iii] Kate Murphy, “Why Tech Support is (Purposely) Unbearable,” The New York Times Jul. 3, 2016.

[iv] Weapons of Math Destruction, p. 49.

[v] See Kevin Rawlinson, “Air Rage Incidents on UK Airlines Quadrupled in Two Years, Says CAA,” The Guardian 18 September, 2016. 

[vi]The Transparent Traveller: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security. Durham: Duke U P, 2015, p. 12.

[vii] Martha C. White, “Great Fliers Make the ‘Best of Their Situation,’” American Airlines Suggests,” The New York Times Aug. 29, 2016.

[viii]What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, New York & London: OR Books, 2015, pps. 24 and 10 respectively.

Published: 03 Nov 2016  Categories: Visual and Material Culture, Cultural Studies

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Diane Negra is Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin. A member of the Royal Irish Academy, she is the author, editor or co-editor of ten books including the forthcoming 'The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness' (Routledge, 2016). She serves as Co-Editor-in Chief of Television and New Media.