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Creeping Abstraction, Part I

May 30, 2013

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THERE WAS A well-publicized incident in which the brother of then-presidential candidate John McCain called 9-1-1 in the Washington, D.C. area to complain about some construction on a bridge that was taking place during rush hour. The call was played during reports on the incident in the news media.

McCain’s brother was (rightly) ridiculed at the time for doing something so clueless. The 9-1-1 system was set up to report emergencies, and using it to complain about a traffic problem was an abuse of the system, one that might have delayed help for someone in a life-threatening emergency.

In the aftermath of the incident, I had a recurring thought I couldn’t shake: Despite his poor judgment, I could understand what Joseph McCain was hoping to do. What he really wanted was to speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision. He wanted to hold someone accountable for making the idiotic decision to conduct traffic-clogging construction work on a busy bridge during rush hour.

This brings me to one consequence of industrial civilization — its mass production, specialization of skills and so on — that I call the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

Think about what life, and especially economic life, was like in a typical village in America in the time before mass industrialization. For fun, let’s name this hypothetical little town “Sylvan,” and we’ll say the year is 1800.

In Sylvan, accountability in economic relations was pervasive — inescapable, even. If you were a typical citizen of such a town, you knew who made your clothing, pots and pans, furniture, shoes, lamps, soap, window glass; you knew who built your carriage or wagon, and so on. And not just in an abstract way— you likely knew personally the makers of those things, and could thus hold them accountable if there was a problem. If the furniture-maker’s apprentice delivered a three-legged chair to your house, you could walk over to his shop with the chair, hold it up and ask (perhaps wryly), “Yea, Thomas? Wert thou just back from yon tavern when ye forgot this missing leg?” and expect poor, hungover Thomas to groan a sheepish apology, and promise to correct the situation without delay. Similarly, if your skillet handle broke, you could march off to the local tinker’s shop and demand an explanation, and you would expect to receive one on the spot.

In short, you actually could in fact speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision, and this state of affairs obtained from roughly before the American Civil War, all the way back to the dimly known beginnings of civilization when the first farmer planted the first crop.

Now, let’s return to the year 2013 in a typical American community.

I called my bank a couple months back because my checking account was inexplicably overdrawn. I use their bill payment service, and I had specified that the “pay date” of my rent payment should be the first of the month, yet they had deducted the payment on the 23rd of the previous month, overdrafting my account. When I called, a customer service representative said that the payment can come out that early so that the check has time to reach the payee. I apologized for misunderstanding, thanked her for the information, and hung up.

When I changed the pay date to the 7th of the next month to account for this new information, my landlord charged me a late fee because the rent check arrived on the 15th. I called the bank, and they said that it had been mailed on the 7th. When I said I was confused by this, given the information I received on my previous call, the rep explained that sometimes the money comes out on the pay date, and sometimes it comes out when the check arrives at the bank after being deposited by the payee, and they could not tell me in advance which of those two possibilities would happen each month. When I pointed out that this makes planning rather difficult, the rep told me that this was just how their (third-party) payment processor worked.

So even the bank I was speaking to could not tell me when the payment would be deducted. But worse than that, I wasn’t really speaking to “The Bank” at all — I was speaking to a rep wearing a headset in a call center in Arizona or Iowa or wherever, and she had virtually no power to change the way the bank did business (the first rep I spoke to did refund the overdraft fee, which was nice). The way the bank’s payment processor does payments was probably designed in a series of meetings involving a shifting bunch of personnel from their legal, marketing and accounting departments, and the policy’s ultimate purpose could undoubtedly be summarized as: “Make as much money as possible for the company, in a way that is unlikely to get us successfully sued.”

Thus, our current world is a mirror image of Sylvan: In our world, accountability in economic relations is abstracted, nearly to the point of meaninglessness. Who made the shirt you’re wearing? What were the wages and working conditions for the people who made it? What about the chair you’re sitting in? Or computer on which you may be reading this post? Or the cell phone in your pocket? If you have concerns about those things, to whom do you turn for accountability?

There is no immediate, human accountability for many problems that arise from the production of most of the stuff we use every day. This is the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

This has had profound implications not just for economics, but for how we discuss politics. More in part two.

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4 Comments
  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    May 30, 2013 11:47 am

    I really loved this post, and relate to it very much in terms of the potential frustration with the lack of anyone to care about anything really. But I want to share something which I think is very relevant. I have had a lot of such thoughts for years. And they are in synch with my reading of what I like to call the “anti-culture” we lived in. In previous human cultures that activity of the culture was conducted for some segment of the populace. Of course it involved inequities, and was classist and unfair, but the central theme was still making it work for actual real human beings, yes, of a certain class, but still actual human beings.

    What we live in now is unprecedented in my cultural reading. Indeed, there have been identifiable gains in terms of some sort of greater equality in that, for instance, serfdom or slavery is not enforceable by law, etc. Yet some sort of de facto shell game has taken place culturally, in which in the interest of “greater equality” a Faustian bargain has been embraced. The idea that the culture should at least work for somebody has been abandoned, and instead we have a culture that is anonymous and works for nobody. Of course the dark side of this is that, natch, it does work for people who can hire a phalanx of personal assistants to negotiate constantly with the essentially unworkable system. But this is still different from the cultural situation of aristocratic elites in the past, as the whole system is now anonymous and tedious and unworkable.

    Anyways, this reading of the culture was getting me down, no surprise I know. More to the point, when we would go to restaurants or interact with any kind of service the utter “lack of service” was pissing me off more and more. Now at the time I made my living I in fact made my living providing a service, and I had a quite carriage-trade clientele, who were pretty demanding. So I knew from being on the service-providing side of the equation. Yet when I went out to enjoy the fruits of my labors, I was often frustrated.

    Well, I ended up doing some therapy around this very issue, because it was making me really peevish. And my husband is the sort to not put up with much guff from me, which is probably good in the end, So my therapist was incredibly good on these matters. He was incredibly skilled, and his method was not so much in the “resolving childhood problems” sort, but in coming up with strategies today for dealing with the world. We talked about my view of the world, and somewhat to my surprise he said he agreed with me, He did not think my view was a cranky reaction, but a fair assessment of trends he could see himself in the world.

    But he also asked me the crucial question: “Well, since we still have to live in the world can we come up with a better strategy to handle it.” We bantered about all sorts of potential ways of handling it. And eventually I even stumbled into the idea, that, well, you could just pretend utterly that things are better than they are with “services’ and always be fake and pretend people were doing a good job. I said something like, well I don’t like being that fake in life. He then responded that did the vacant world really deserve my truth anyways. And wouldn’t the strategy of just being fake, and pretending things were going well with service be less of a strain. I decided to try it. Long story short…..it worked!! In fact overall all this strategy of always being upbeat gets me overall better experiences with people. It is pure strategy, but the anti-culture deserves it my view.

    Lastly, this relates to another issue, far to huge to discuss. Namely, the erosion of any sense of decent respect for the privacy of other human beings. I connect this erosion with the anti-culture as well. Similarly, I came up with another great strategy with my therapist. That is, since the anti-culture seems inexplicably to believe that everyone has the right to know everyone else’s business, I can handle that (to me) crazy desideratum strategically. This is a crucial thing to handle too, because history shows that at this point an inexorable law seems to have been place. If people don’t know what you about in some way, they will make shit up. It is amazing but true. So I learned that to deal with this world now it is important to constantly let people know harmless factoid about my life. I find I get a long with younger people better now, as they are of the generation that they believe they have a right to information. Again, the strategy has worked marvelously. I constantly give out (to me) boring factoids about my life, and I get along with everybody much better. Hooray for strategic therapy.

    The reason I dwelled on this in these pages is very germane to my continued interest in the RC church. I am very sure that whatever else the RC church is, not all of it good in my view, they are on the side of culture, and not anti-culture. That is enough for me to make me a sort of odd supporter, though I sure some would say, with friends like these……..

  2. Agellius permalink
    May 30, 2013 12:04 pm

    Well, there are warranties and store returns for defective items. That being said, I agree with your point, especially when it comes to government and large corporations.

    I have found it frustrating in the past, for example, that I had no idea whom to contact in order to complain about an offensive billboard (a woman in a wet T-shirt right across the street from a Catholic elementary school). Or to report an obviously miscalibrated traffic signal, which is green for a long time in one direction and a short time in the other direction, which is far busier and therefore should have a longer green for the sake of better traffic flow.

    The best you can do is lodge a complaint with someone who has no power to do anything about it — after spending half an hour trying to find a way even to reach that person — and then hope by some miracle that it reaches someone higher up who will actually pay attention to it.

  3. June 2, 2013 9:19 am

    This is so true, and it’s frustrating for everyone, not only those making the complaint, but for those in customer service who have to listen to the complaints. I’ve worked in customer service for a number of years and it is very frustrating to hear people complain about things that I cannot change, even if I wish to change them.

    I also wonder if this has changed the way we deal with fault in our own lives. People complain about humans passing the buck or refusing to take responsibility in personal lives, but perhaps this is a natural outgrowth of this abstraction.

  4. Chad Donovan permalink
    June 2, 2013 5:11 pm

    Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without personal responsibility. Ambrose Bierce.

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