LONDON — I think I’ve discovered a new neurosis of the 21st century. It involves frustration, guilt, shame and outbursts of destructive violence. The neurosis lurks wherever there are personal computers. (Business computers, and the work and commercial systems they create, produce similar feelings, but these are more obviously political and erupt in violent demonstrations against, say, McDonald’s or the World Trade Organization.)
People operate personal computers in the privacy of their own rooms, driven by their personal hopes and desires. These may be mundane — some people are attracted to personal computers because they offer a neat system of storage and typing wrapped up in one little box. Very tidy and convenient. But for others, the personal computer is like a magic box in a children’s fairy tale; they imagine this bland little box will connect their puny selves with a vast and limitless world and thus offer immediate access to vast and limitless desires and powers. Or at least the ability to order a book, transmit an article or arrange a holiday without shifting from their chairs, as though in a dream. This hope is so preposterous that hubris is inevitable.
The 21st-century neurosis created by personal computers is exactly the discovery of this hubris. Far from being propelled into a world of unlimited desires, which can be accessed with unimaginable ease, more and more of us spend our days experiencing newly horrible degrees of frustration, guilt, shame and outbursts of violence. I am writing this on my new personal computer, which has consistently failed to do even the simple little tasks I have set it, like connecting me to the Internet, since I acquired it a few weeks ago. I haven’t yet wrecked it (too much guilt) but my poor cat is looking a little worse for wear as I shriek and hurl things around the room.
The technical-support staff, lured, probably, by the idea of a thoroughly modern, technically demanding, interesting job, increase the mystique. (Oh, the shame that I need them.) You are promised that they can magically diagnose and cure all your computer’s ills on the telephone. But immured in their never-never land, they can do little more than read through the long checklist that some unknown, invisible, never-met higher expert has devised.
The guilt and shame that are attached to the computer world follow from the magical promises made about the new customer services offered by the World Wide Web. Commercial companies appear to offer anything for anyone at the touch of a few buttons. But of course, in reality, the range of services offered is very limited and the limits are strictly — very strictly — controlled by the program on which the service depends.
Thus, as I recently discovered, an airline company that appears to offer cheap flights to wherever you want, whenever you want, in fact offers a much more restricted range of flights than a conventional company, cheap only to the limited number of people who conform exactly to their requirements. The company’s staff are quite unable to fit the service to your needs because their work is wholly circumscribed by the program, devised by an unknown, invisible, never-met higher expert, which dictates their working time.
“I have to change my flight from Tuesday to Thursday,” you bleat in anguish after your mother announces that she is being whisked into hospital for heart-bypass surgery. But the program is not flexible, cannot accommodate the aged mother’s leaky heart. And the beautifully trained customer-service girls cannot lift a finger to help because they only have the power to press the few keys that the program requires. Changing flights for picky customers is not one of the few things that the program has been designed to allow. In other words, mass services based on computer programs only work if human beings are also standardized, in the way that the assembly of computer parts has been.
This experience of restricted consumer choice was not so frustrating in the old days, when cheap customer packages were expected to be limited in scope. However, everything to do with personal computers, the Web and dot-com companies is inflated in the hype about freedom and desire. The reality in most cases is a limited service provided by people who have no freedom of judgment, exercise no discretion, are more constrained in their jobs than were their fathers, who had no illusions about the sort of work they were doing.
Many jobs in the new knowledge economy have as much relation to real knowledge as flipping hamburgers has to the judgment and expertise of real cooking. Like the customers, the staff are frustrated but, also like the customers, feel that this economy must be better, freer than the one their parents had to survive in. Most of us are operating machines about which we understand very little, which are essentially mysterious to all except a tiny elite. (The technical-support staff are only one checklist more knowledgeable.) Yet such is the hype about the new Internet economy, the unrestricted knowledge of the Web and the freedom to buy offered by dot-com companies, that an individual who fails to experience the joys of the new economy feels frustration, shame and anger.
Multiplied by the global economy, this personal experience has become an explosive political sensation. The gulf between the language of freedom and knowledge and the actual experience of restricted choice and standardization feeds into the protests about the dominance of standardizing U.S. companies and the property rights they attach to everything that can be categorized as an identifiable property. The violence of the protests — and police are anticipating that there will be more violent protests at the International Monetary Fund’s annual summit in Prague next month — is undoubtedly stoked by this tremendous frustration at the material reality of global standardization and the global rhetoric of free consumer choice and liberty.
And yet, this sour view of the era of personal and business computers does turn a blind eye to the fact that world-wide protests against global organizations are possible to organize because of the World Wide Web and e-mail; that ordinary individuals can find out about company profits and shareholders because of the Web; and that if masses of people want to leave, say, Seattle, and arrive in Prague on the same day, they can organize that more easily and cheaply through a dot-com airline than any other way. Is this the therapy for a 21st century neurosis?
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