I recently watched the comedy "Idiocracy" with my 11-year-old daughter. Midway through it, she said, "This isn't funny, Mom. I'm scared. This could be my future." I was scared, too. In this supposed-to-be-humorous-but-all-too-plausible vision of the future, people have gotten so dumb that 500 years in the future, a couple of flunkies -- a low-level government employee and a prostitute -- from our era seem like Einstein-level geniuses.
Ruth Farmer, director of strategic initiatives at the National Center for Women and Information Technology, recently gave me a visceral example of how our national failure to produce enough engineers and computer scientists is affecting our culture and economy: In the high-tech mecca that has sprung up around Microsoft in Redmond, she told me, the people who grew up in that geographic area are largely becoming a service industry for foreign-educated high-tech professionals. It gets worse -- from where I sit at the Gripe Line, it appears that even our service industries are being dumbed down.
For example, I recently intervened in a service breakdown that Gripe Line reader Pat experienced with support for Nuance Software's PDF Converter Professional. Frustrated with technicians who were unable to resolve his problem in a timely way, he copied me on one of his emails to support. Since it's what I do here, I forwarded his note and asked for a response.
Nuance responded quickly and resolved the unusual technical problem Pat was having with his large-batch PDF conversions, a dilemma that had until then stumped the company's techs. The company even refunded Pat's money because the product -- and technical support -- had not worked as Pat expected. But Pat pointed out something many of you have said: Why does it take the intervention of the media to resolve ordinary problems?
"The whole episode is typical of what we all see in many hardware and software makers," Pat says. It is so common, he adds, that copying the Gripe Line -- and several other media outlets as well as the the company's high-ranking officers -- has become Pat's standard resolution process.
"I gather precise information regarding dates, times, problems, who I talked to, etc. Then I sift through the company website to find the names of corporate and department heads, members of the board, sales, and appropriate tech news website reporters or editors." It is a lot of trouble -- and always has to be done while he's in the middle of the technical problem that's already eaten up a lot of time. However, it works.
"Over the past 15 years, this has worked for Sun, Symantec, Apple, Audible.com, Compaq, HP, D-Link, Nuance, Samsung, and a few others," he reports.
Gripe Line reader Bill agrees. After describing a string of horrible support experiences from large corporations, he says, "You have done an excellent job reporting on poor support at the Gripe Line. But only in the context of one company's support being worse than what the average company offers. The truth is that support is dreadful across the board. Support was never as good as it could have been, but it's become a near-worthless abomination that remains in sad decline."
Bill describes his dream of returning support to our own shores and bringing it back to what it once was. But my dream is something more like a nightmare. I see a future of slowly degraded expectations, lower standards from companies, a populace that can't use the machines it owns, and a technical support staff that is only marginally better because it has access to a menu of scripts to read from.
In a cafe I go regularly for coffee, the staff can barely work the register. People frequently tell me they can't operate their own cell phone or computer. I recently had to help the staff at a restaurant calculate the bill. And according to research from the National Association of Women and Technology, "If current trends continue, the information technology industry will only be able to fill half of its available jobs."
Are we already well on our way to a dystopia of helpless ignorance or am I just feeling pessimistic? Because it's sure beginning to look a bit like "Idiocracy."
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