digitally defined progress

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.1 (Winter 2017)


The Polis vs. Progress


The Human Costs on Main Street of Digitally Defined Progress
John R. Harris

Curiously, the most recognized advocates of the conservative lifestyle often promote a digitally defined progress and clamor for a “hands off” approach to high tech. Just what world is it that they think they’re conserving?

I heard a prominent radio host declare the other day, even in the act of deploring our current cultural trajectory, that the Internet and its related computer technology should remind us of how much has gone well in recent years. By his measure, life has improved in many ways despite our best efforts to sabotage progress and break everything in the china cabinet. This is not an uncommon push-back against the pessimism and misanthropy of “defeatists” like me. On the contrary, it’s a kind of grandstanding with which I’ve grown very familiar—a little rhetorical jujitsu on the part of pessimists who have frightened themselves with their own horror stories, or who perhaps are vain enough to covet a contrarian spin that separates them from commonplace doomsayers.

I will state for the record, before offering my testimony against the e-World, that he who cannot bear to stare a bad situation in the face is incapable of making it better. If I dare to criticize “progress”, it is because I haven’t surrendered the hope that we may one day progress enough to bottle up some of these genies whose escapades we have uncorked in a debauch of frivolity.

Early last summer, I ordered a new type of pill online—an all-natural substance that my athletic son guaranteed me would resolve some of the nagging pains of staying active as one’s years advance. The ad pretty clearly read, “Buy one get one free.” I was billed, however, for two bottles and then treated to a third gratis. This remained a bargain, but it wasn’t the deal offered on the vendor’s website. First in a phone conversation and then in an email exchange, each involving a different “sales representative”, it was explained to me that, “Buy one get one free,” really means, “Buy one after you’ve bought one—and then get one free.”   I should correct myself: it was not explained, by any logic that made sense to me or in any language that I knew. But it was explained fully to the satisfaction of the sales reps.

Neither of these persons was rude. What stunned me about the experience was simply that I could not read a simple text back to them and exact an admission that it meant what I understood it to mean. I seemed to be trapped in a Monte Python skit—except that my confrontation with bald-faced nonsense involved no faces. “Distance communication” was a definite liability in my bid for meaningful contact. When you cannot address people eye-to-eye, you cannot entirely convince them that you are as real as they are (or convince yourself that they are not automatons). You cannot know that you truly have their attention. You cannot divine tell-tale signs of irony or contempt running across their features. Be they ever so polite, you cannot persuade yourself that they are understanding how idiotic or insane they sound to you, and how alarming you find it to be dealing with them in their present state.

Of course, had I bought the items from a corner drugstore, my credit card would never have been scanned to pay for three instead of two (or two instead of one) in the first place. And if somehow I had carried home a sack with the wrong bottles in it, I could have turned right around and been back at the counter in minutes, for a few pennies’ worth of gas or a hundredth-of-a-peso’s worth of shoe leather. There would be no FedEx or UPS charge equaling one third of the original purchase for the return shipment. In yesteryear’s world, even if the customer had made an error, he or she would still have received a smiling apology and an exchange or refund. Flattered and happy, our suburban shopper would most certainly have brought future patronage to the little store—in recommendations to friends as well as personally renewed visits.

Not now. All of that is dead and gone—and the people like my rosy-tempered radio host who are a bit too young to remember the days when things were otherwise haven’t the slightest doubt that all of today’s speed and efficiency more than compensates for the lost feelings of good will flowing in either direction across yesterday’s counter. To such a person, the advantages of progress are self-evident. Like a lobster who has been allowed to bathe luxuriously in a slowly heating cauldron until he nods off for eternity, this person’s tribe has waded into progress at such a clever rate of descent that its grandchildren will not be able to imagine—in their wildest fantasies—how much of the human world has died around them.

A very similar experience happened to me again mere weeks ago. I like oatmeal—and I especially like the Maple Nut oatmeal marketed by an outfit calling itself Nature’s Path. Once or twice a year, the NP folks have a 15%-reduction sale of whose savings I often avail myself (since the regular asking price is rather steep for my budgetary gears). I leapt upon the opportunity this fall, as usual. I noted the discount code, logged on to the site, clicked on “warm cereal” (though I always eat oatmeal cold), and piled my digital shopping cart with Maple Nut… or so I thought. Two weeks later, I received a bulky box generously stuffed with… Regular oatmeal. I fired off a fairly irritated email at first, then did more homework and found that the button for “Regular” nestles right below that for “Maple Nut”. I also discovered that the invoice, sure enough, had tallied up X boxes of Regular oatmeal. Supposing that I had now located the error at my own doorstep, I wrote a calmer email. I admitted my mistake, and I offered to keep what had been sent to me if I could have an equal amount of Maple Nut sent at the same discounted price.

The exchange steadily grew until it involved three people at the Nature’s Path end. The responses got progressively polite as I climbed higher in the hierarchy… but their gist never changed. 1) The software proved that I had ordered Regular; 2) the sale had now ended and the discount was no longer available; 3) I could always send back my order for a full refund—except, of course, that I was liable for the cost of returning the box via FedEx (which would have amounted to a quarter of the order).

Of particular interest to me in this case was how the Machine constantly intruded as the bad guy. “We’d like to help further… but the Machine, you know, just won’t let us do that. It says that you got what you ordered. It says that the sale is over now. We all have to do what it says, because… because that’s just the nature of reality.”

I decline to believe that the Nature’s Path crew had deviously linked the Maple Nut button to the Regular page in a bid to sell more of a less popular product; but I certainly know, through my own struggles with The Center’s website, that misdirected linking is all too easy to produce. I could not solemnly swear that NP had not mislinked my order by accident—nor could any of its sales reps so swear, if they were to be strictly honest. So the possibility that the customer may indeed not have committed the blunder in this instance is not removed simply by the presence of the Machine in the middle of everything. On the contrary, that’s precisely what makes the possibility credible.

This much was never conceded. And, yes, the fact that I had not examined the fine print of my order before hitting the “place” button could only be interpreted to my discredit. I goofed. It happens. I would have felt a little better if the final respondent had at least acknowledge in some way my suggestion that the product choices be staggered left-to-right, so that Maple Nut and Regular and Blueberry and the other three dozen options are not squeezed head-to-toe upon each other. My impression, rather, was that a very helpful suggestion from a faithful long-time customer who had taken it on the chin with pretty good grace was instantly, utterly, permanently “blown off”.

The Machine which is celebrated for having made everything easier has clearly poisoned the spring of good will in these cases. Even when faceless respondents signing as “Blayne” and “Lacie” attempt to treat the protesting customer as a warm-blooded human being on a limited income rather than another shovel-full of slag to be tossed in the hopper, sympathy is short-circuited by the need to play by the Machine’s rules. The new etiquette demands that all parties understand this. “I’m sorry that our ad was unclear to you—but we designed it within the parameters of the technology, and our FAQ will show you that few people have ever encountered this problem. [How elegant is that particular mutation of online courtesy!] I’d like to be able to do an even swap with you, leaving you happy and not costing you another dime—but the Machine has its own way of tracking and tallying, and we can’t retrace our steps once we have opted for one fork in the digital path.” Nature’s Path, indeed!

Notice that I speak not of hacked accounts, faked vendor promotions designed to sucker the customer into releasing personal information, contact addresses and numbers sold to mailing lists, exorbitant shipping-and-handling costs, items lost in the mail, refunds never credited, long waits as one attempts to lodge a complaint during stingy business hours… for the sake of argument, I’m assuming that about a half-dozen nuisances inherent in online purchasing don’t exist. I place my spotlight, rather, on the blunt absence of direct human contact. And in that vein, I should go farther. I should note that the merchant of yesteryear actually enjoyed direct contact with the residents of his neighborhood. He knew them by name, and he knew their children and, perhaps, some of their unique difficulties. On occasion, he might even extend a very risky degree of credit to someone who had fallen on hard times. Why? Because he knew the person. And that person knew him. We of the neighborhood all knew him. The pleasure of a brief conversation was part of the motive for visiting his store.

But people under fifty are not likely to remember this world. I should think it quite likely that many of them, in that sophomoric cynicism which the Internet’s worldly idiocy has bred into them, will not even believe that such a world ever really existed. It did. I saw it, as a child. And now it’s gone.

That’s very poignant, say our Carpal-Tunnel cosmopolitans… but you might as well lament the passing of the man-horse bond as the roadways were conquered by automobiles. No one would deny that progress has its victims. What matters in this case is that, on the balance, better merchandise circulates more efficiently at a lower cost. Mom-and-Pop shops have closed because they can’t remain open. Their operating expenses are far too burdensome in the twenty-first century. Resurrecting a lifestyle from fifty years of mothballs would require enormous hidden expenditures to stitch together and prop up skeletons long ago consigned to an evolving economy’s graveyard.

Well… yes and no. There are several reasons why the old corner-store has grown impracticable—and few of them really have to do with genuine economic progress. Call it, rather, conspiracy. The zoning laws that ran such shops out of residential areas were completely artificial, and rooted mostly in misperceptions concerning the impact of the new car-dependent economy. The crushing taxes which most municipalities thereupon decided to levy upon storefront property, once it had been hazed into a single holding pen, also killed Mom and Pop. (Indeed, I cannot help but suppose that the prospect of so isolated and vulnerable a “tax target” did not motivate the city fathers of many post-wars burgs to play the zoning game.) The legal profession also deserves far more than a dishonorable mention here. Escalating liability laws succeeded in making storefront commerce on Main Street a constantly renewed round of Russian roulette. A single guy in a wheelchair who can’t find a convenient parking space or a restroom… and your dream of being an independent business-owner ends in bankruptcy. Then there’s the big-government muscle of OSHA. The typical fines imposed for setting an employee’s computer at an uncomfortable height stand in the same proportion to the snapping, yapping lawsuits of ambulance-chasers as a T-Rex does to a Velociraptor.

In short, the Internet hasn’t so much done in small businesses as its opportunistic infection has provided the specific cause of death in bodies that languished weakly from various governmental onslaughts. Yet even that colorful formula probably misstates the facts in a majority of cases. Mom and Pop weren’t undermined by a new website that sold shoes or dolls or tasty confections: they often became that website, fleeing to the Internet in order to escape the hounds of local, state, and federal hunting parties. If you will excuse my distracting orgy of metaphor a little further, I would observe that the escape may well have been into the fateful box canyon ubiquitous in old Hollywood westerns, where cowboys running from Indians and desperados running from lawmen go to meet their doom. Is the Internet really an escape—or will it prove to have been so, once the dust settles? Internet transactions are already being taxed by many states. The costs paid to tech-savvy promoters are often exorbitant, even when compared to yesteryear’s rental fees for a storefront on Main Street; and at least in the old days, you could rely upon the advantages of physical proximity and of the repeat-patronage of satisfied customers. Lawsuits are far less likely now—but your entire “virtual storefront” might be hijacked by a malefactor and held for ransom, or your “secure checkout” hacked and your precious records stolen to the lasting fury of your patrons.

Most disturbing of all, from a person-to-person standpoint, is the ever-looming potential for an ever-more-intrusive government to “manage” your business, with or without your consent or knowledge. How long will it be before certain online businesses are shut down because their owners fail to vote for the party in power? A physical storefront on the corner of Jefferson and Fifth Street in Sleepyvale is ironically remote from the radar of such Big Brother apparatus as the NSA and the IRS; the ethereal “virtual store”, in contrast, feeds its data into all of their sensors.

That Orwellian manner of concern, admittedly, leads us to a place far from my current ramble’s starting point of personal contact… but not as far as first appearances suggest. For the direct contact of person with person, I maintain, is not only a very pleasant aspect of terrestrial life which we’re throwing away with our outdated inventory: it’s also a safeguard against top-down engineering by political utopians. Businesses can be saved where people have faces: they disappear over night where the human presence is but grainy simulacra adapted to JPEG format. The locals will pull together if Ramona’s Furniture and Antiques is teetering on the verge of failure. They’ll show up at her last-ditch sale and buy generously. They’ll do so not only because they know Ramona; they know, as well, that if her shop turns into an empty shell where vagrants and drug addicts congregate, their own businesses downtown will suffer. Internet businesses enjoy no such lines of support. They can be picked off one by one quite easily by anybody with “pick off” know-how and a motive to use it: a well-funded competitor, a terrorizing government entity, or perhaps some of both—an aspiring monopolist, say, with deep pockets who donates to the “right” candidates.

As we lose sight of each other’s faces, we lose sight of each other’s risks, dangers, and suffering. We do not come to each other’s assistance because we cannot see the jeopardy menacing our neighbors—because, that is, we no longer have real neighbors. What news we harvest about crisis and tragedy (and there’s a lot of it, in unremittant deluge) is so patently doctored—and even manufactured ex nihilo—by miracles of technology that we turn a deaf ear. We stop trusting, believing, and caring. Rather, we keep our human sympathies on high alert against sophisticated efforts to co-opt them.

And so we see nothing other than the daily volume of sales as we listen to an incessant, exploitative racket (to which our sales department contributes) with a special talent for hearing nothing. No, this does not match up well with my image of a better world.

John Harris is The Center’s founder and current president.  He teaches English at the University of Texas at Tyler.  His new blog site may be found at