George Jetson meets the “Nanny State”

What strange times we live in. If you’re old enough to remember when the Jetsons hit the airwaves back in 1962, you get a sensation of how disappointing the future became. The Jetsons was one of the first prime-time television cartoons along with Johnny Quest and though it lasted just a year, folding in 1963, it created a significant cult following.

The adventures of George Jetson weren’t much different than the predicaments Fred Flintstone had in prehistoric Bedrock, they were just set in a high-tech future of flying cars, robotic maids, and all the advanced gadgets that everyone dreamed of in the 1960s. You might as well dream on, it never came to fruition.

What was created is an annoying “Nanny State” of constant bells, whistles, recorded and digitized voices reminding you to put on your seat belt, close the lid to the washing machine, and eat your broccoli (OK, maybe not the hellish prospect of eating that devil weed,) but you get the picture.

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How many times have you called for customer service only to hear the ridiculous digitized voice of the electronic assistant warning you before you begin, “Please listen to the entire message as our options have changed.”

Nothing has changed except the accelerating, exponential frustration of trying to find something out.

When we have to contact United Airlines and their online and cell phone apps don’t cut the mustard it’s interesting. “Hello, Randy, I see you have an upcoming flight to…” then a bevy of options comes to the fore for navigation by my touchtone keypad.

Invariably, I find myself yelling, “Human, human, human…” Until the digital assistant complies, and I’m connected with a very helpful gal from the Philippines, India, or Pakistan who almost always does an outstanding job of solving our problem.

United has it right, at least when it comes to flight management. Once you call, everyone in the chain knows who you are since the information transfers to each successive computer screen. That’s not the same at most places where once you’ve reached a humanoid, you are asked the same identification questions again and again. Ever have that situation? What are the last four digits of your social security number, asked five times. When I get into this situation I always say, “It’s still 1,2,3,4…” But the agent never seems to think it’s funny.

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The digital assistant isn’t there to help, they are there only to stall you. Corporations are overstaffed with salespeople but woefully understaffed with technical support. It’s all about the stockholders these days, with little regard for the customer.

In the days when I was still in the classroom but moving to the technology world, I was often asked to help solve issues for other staff. One morning a teacher dedicated to the “Cult of Apple” approached me asking if I could get her Macintosh to connect to a printer. I’m not a fan of Apple, not even IPhones, considering them akin to “Klingon Cloaking Devices” against the real world of consumer electronics. But, what the heck, it was a challenge that was worth pursuing.

I had a prep period just after lunch that year and took my brown bag full of goodies to the counselor’s office. I called the help number listed in Cupertino, California, and was immediately placed on hold. I put the phone on speaker and ate my lunch. A half-hour passed, and my prep period began. At the 45-minute mark of the call, a female voice came on the line and asked, “Are you still waiting for tech support?”

“Yes,” I said. “I have a few more minutes.”

More than a few more minutes passed, almost 45, with my next class approaching. The same voice returned on the line and said, “Sir, I’m sorry. We’ve never had anyone wait this long for technical support. We don’t have support for that product, they told me to just put callers on hold until they hung up. I’m sorry.”

That was it. The best Apple could offer in the early 90s, was another corporate stall technique.

You don’t have to call California, New Delhi, or Mindanao to reach a frustrating automated switchboard you can find them much closer to home.

A few years after the Apple incident, I was working for the State Department of Education as a compressed video consultant. My job entailed visiting every school in the state, working with their compressed video system, and teaching staff how to use it.

The job involved a lot of travel, yes, Wyoming is a big state. From Sundance to Evanston, I traveled to every high school in the Cowboy State.

One day, Sublette County was on the schedule after a stop in Farson. Pinedale and Big Piney both already used their systems well, but I had a couple of staff members interested in distance education through video.

I called Big Piney and hit one of those switchboards. A detailed list of options and departments played out on the call with the usual, “Please listen to the entire message as our options have changed.”

I waited and began punching the button for the curriculum director, but there was no answer. Then the principal, the same result. I started punching buttons at random but couldn’t reach anyone.

Finally, in frustration, I punched zero four times and to my amazement, someone answered. It was the high school secretary.

“How did you reach me?” she asked.

“I punched zero four times and you answered,” I replied.

“Did someone tell you that code?” she asked.

“No, I just lucked out I guess,” I said.

“All of our parents know the sequence, and so do the kids and staff, but no one else,” she said.

Naturally, I asked why they had a system like that.

“Our superintendent thinks it’s so cool to have an automated, complex switchboard, but no matter which department you try to reach, I’m the only one the call goes to, and I was already on the line,” she said. “He doesn’t like busy signals either, so the call just doesn’t connect.”

It was amazing, annoying, incomprehensibly ridiculous, and epically frustrating, but the administrator in charge thought it was “Cool” to have this Rube Goldberg system in place.

This isn’t quite the future we all dreamed of when we watched George Jetson zooming to work in his flying car. It isn’t even the world of private helicopters in every garage, and jet packs for commuting to work each day predicted by science fiction writers in the 50s and 60s.

The future is never what we dream it will be.

In 1895, a commission was formed to discuss the future of American cities along the east coast. The burgeoning immigrants from Europe were swelling the populations of Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Brooklyn, and Baltimore.

After months of study, they released their results. The largest problem facing American cities by 1960 would be the elimination of all the horse manure produced by the legion of horse-drawn wagons servicing each city. Railroad and automobiles were already commonplace, but the futurists of their day, much like those we live with now could not adapt their thinking to the reality awaiting them.

Still, I’d take one of those flying cars if it was offered.

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