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I’m sick already of this fashion for reviving old technical terms in a desperate attempt to freshen up this debased language of ours. I can live with it at home – it comes with the territory when you’re a mother of teenage adults. People say having them later in life exaggerates this kind of inter-generational disconnect, so I’m relieved I got on with it and had mine in my early fifties. If I’m honest, I quite enjoy their arcane jive, the self-conscious sharing between them and their friends of terms like ‘mobile’ (‘telephone’, even, I heard one of Ernest’s friends say recently), ‘television’, ‘video’ and all the rest of it. Sends me scuttling onto the WikiP for the original meanings, the back stories. Proves the adage about your children educating you, rather than the other way round.
That’s all fine. Except that it’s starting to happen at work. I’m quite possibly the last person to pick up on such things: when you’re the CEO I believe you should try to spend time with your team at least once a day, but it doesn’t always work out like that. And anyway it’s usually the demand for my firefighting skills that gets me out of my cubicle and off the Head Office screen: people querying their profile or day rate, demanding updates to their site, raging about injustice or discrimination as if what we do had a subjective element. It must be years since we found any real errors in the profiling engines: ever since self-adaptive alogarithms broke through, the systems have steadily evolved to iron out any residual tendency to make mistakes. It’s nigh on perfect now, so our job is basically customer service. Which is why language is so important. It’s not just about what you say: it’s about how you see people, how you treat them. If we don’t get that right, what are we here for? The small number of individuals that the AIs can’t cope with have to be dealt with P2P. Anything else is giving Profiling a bad name.
So I’ve been disturbed to hear the kind of loose talk that can be dismissed as a normal teenage quirk slipping into the dialogue at the office. I heard a couple of the interns talking about ‘The Internet’ yesterday: I haven’t heard that one since college. They thought they were hilarious. “Shall we go on The Internet and look at some Web Sites?” That’s another phrase that suddenly everyone under fifty seems to be saying. There’s something so quaint and laughable about the notion of a platform that is separate from, well, everything else and the idea that there might be distinct places on it to go and find things you want, that it seems to bring young people out in a rush of irony. Personally, I think it’s actually because they can’t get their heads round it. I think mine was the last generation to really get that concept of a duality between what’s ‘real’ and ‘virtual’: because it’s experientially disappeared for the next wave, they actually find the concept quite disturbing.
So now I’m hearing ‘Search’, ‘Hard Drive’ and – this appears to be the favourite, this week at least – ‘PC’. I’m not aware of anyone using ‘Mac’ yet, though there’s no telling just how obscure these dredged-up terms have to be to keep the speaker one step ahead of their peers. I can write all this off as youthful banter as long as it’s kept in the back office and as long as it doesn’t impinge on what we do or how we’re perceived as an organisation.
So I threw a fit when I heard one of our P2P’s talking about ‘Consumers’ in the company sushi bar. For me, it’s a matter of ethics. We are not a backstreet bunch of low-res data scrapers, cobbling together a few Profiles from old interact records and cut-price Intercred stats. We’re meant to be the best, precisely because we have the most completely human way of looking at people. It’s why we have the word ‘Holostic’ in our name, for goodness’ sake. Proper profiling takes into account the whole person, not just the bit of them that makes purchases. It’s immoral, as far as I’m concerned, looking at people in that narrow, instrumental way. It’s what our competitors do. And besides, it doesn’t make any commercial sense. How can we introduce people to the things they want – especially the things they don’t yet know they want – if we don’t take into account everything about them: how they think, what they feel, whether they love their partner, their fears, their aspirations, their pet hates, their favoured sexual position. Anything else is just amateur hour as far as I’m concerned. So if I do hear anyone else use that wretched word ‘Consumers’ again in my presence, that’s it, they’re out on their ear.
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