I renewed a house contents insurance policy over the phone yesterday, and something about the inane tedium of the hole process hinted at something that might sit at the heart of emerging bureaucratic forms.
Insurance, being what it is, there is no way that I was going to be covered for anything, until I'd confirmed everything about my home to the nearest milimetre, and told them exactly what sort of security system I was employing on my washbag to protect my toothbrush. "No I have never knowingly lived with a convicted thief... no, I am not going to be using my kitchen as a commercial restaurant... yes I do intend to be asleep during the hours of 12-8am..." etc etc.
And me, being what I am, there was no way I was going to fill in a lengthy form to confirm all of this. As with most customer services, government ones included, the phone remains the preferred access channel, and I can't see that changing. Human beings are not only more pleasant than machines, they tend to be a hell of a lot more efficient, or certainly more indulgent of the chronically lazy.
Which is where the contradiction lies. In the past, I've written about how the pursuit of efficient, customer-centric services sits in tension with the pursuit of social cohesion or community (see this Renewal essay [doc]). But maybe efficient, customer-centric services contain their own latent tension, namely between the needs of the audit society, and the whims of the lazy egocentric consumer. The hope of e-services is the win-win of efficiency (cheaper for supplier) and customer convenience (easier to access), but this leaves out the whole question of risk. Businesses are constantly preaching the need for flexibility, customer-centricity, emotional attachment and softness, but are entirely unable to lose the iron cage of calculated accountability. How to manage this contradiction?
The absurd solution offered by my insurance company is to merge two very different modes of communication - synchronous, vocal conversation, and asynchronous, grammatical box-ticking. I was effectively being talked through a form, and being told what my various rights were (and weren't) as if we were engaged in a contractual relationship, which of course we were. But while their end was being managed by a computer, I had nothing but a phone in my hand, and the opportunity to say 'yes' or 'no'. This was a machine talking to a human being, and a human being replying; because the human being was too lazy to fill in a form for himself, the machine became a synchronous social phenomenon.
But bureaucracy can never communicate entirely synchronously. It is all about creating paper trails, accountability and repetition, it needs to remember mechanically. Equally, a customer on a phone can never communicate asyncrhonously (unless conversations are tape recorded, a la lawyers and brokers). The customer has opted to use the phone precisely so as to avoid recording, rationalising and codifying.
Someone has to give way. Given that I endured endless unremembered sentences of how and why my insurance policy could be deemed invalid, and could only offer my bank details by way of a response, I suspect on this occasion it was me.