Always at a Distance: The Decline and Fall of Direct Human Relations

The other day, I called around to find the best deal in town for getting my cracked windshield replaced.  I had been given a couple of recommendations, one form a friend and one from my mechanic.  So, of course, I did an internet search for windshield replacement shops nearby.  I picked three the two that had been recommended and a third that was a larger corporate operation.

I looked at customer reviews and saw a very bad one for the shop my reliable mechanic had recommended.  I always look at internet reviews with a skeptical eye, since some can be either self-serving in all the wrong ways, or spiteful for questionable reasons.  With windshield repair shops, you don’t find large numbers of reviews such as you might for books on Amazon.com.  So, I called all three and found a wide range of prices, from around $150- to $225-.  But something more interesting and annoying happened.

When I called “Safe-Shield” at its 888 number, it turned out to be a national corporate telemarketing site, tho the local shop.  I should have known.  When I told the woman on the other end of the line that I wanted a quote, she began asking all sorts of demographic and identifying information about me.

Finally, I said, “you don’t need my life story to give me the price quote I asked for.”  That was not what she wanted to hear.  She attempted to get through her scripted marketing pitch on all the reasons “Safe-Shield” was a better choice.  When I finally insisted on and got a price from her, I was shocked that it was nearly $75- more than the price my friend’s recommended shop had quoted.  That’s a third more!

I had finally gotten that quote after having run through a long automated menu tree before being subjected to the tedious sales pitch.  Why?  Because the local shop that is either a franchise or a wholly owned subsidiary entity had no control over its own relationships with its local customers.

Fact is, auto windshield repair and replacement is an inherently local transaction.  Each shop does not produce its own product or have its own supply chain.  They all draw needed parts from the same wholesale distributors of auto glass.

Later, I had a conversation with the owner of the locally owned shop, which I had chosen for the job.  He had the best price and had quoted it to me immediately without asking me for any information other than the make and model of my vehicle.  I could not resist telling him that the corporate shop’s telemarketer had quoted about $75- more than he had.  He simply replied that he could not understand how people could charge so much.  This man sells and installs products for people in his own town, with whom he may have other relations as well.  His responsibility is personal not merely a matter of being employed by a largely anonymous organization headquartered in some other state.

The implication I took was that an honest man would be embarrassed to be known to overcharge his neighbors like that.  Such a man does not objectify his business relationships with others as a distant telemarketer would.  He views them with human respect and makes a good living in the process.  Whoever runs that local shop for the corporation probably makes much less money than an honest shop owner.  The corporation, of course, makes more.

The point here is not how much anyone makes, but how humans relate to one another in an economic context.  As complex modern economies have “integrated” and corporations merged and consolidated, less and less room has been left for immediate interaction between two individuals, each of which has a personal stake in the interaction.  “When Corporations Rule the World,” as David Korten puts it, humans interact at greater and greater social distance from one another.  Their mutual indifference to their mutual humanity is correspondingly greater.

A lot of people are starting to get it.  They realize that the way things have become organized, nothing human matters any more in the conduct of business, except the pretense of human caring.  They [we] want to engage with other people in real transactions close up, as actual persons — not just actors in a scripted business ritual.  This is part of what the “buy local” movement, as well as the “slow food,” the “farm to table,” and the local and public banking and finance movements are about.  People in communities are doing business with their neighbors instead of being subjected to distant corporate criteria for economic transactions about which no negotiation is possible.

It is important to note that reducing distances in economic exchanges is a critical element in transforming the corporate growth economy into many local ecological economies.  Only by breaking the cycle of growth addiction and financial centralization will there be a chance to transform our failing economic systems to make them both humane and compatible with the earth systems upon which they depend.

Solutions to seemingly diverse problems appear to converge.  A recent and growing body of research on happiness and human well being is informative.  Beyond the basics, happiness and subjective wellbeing do not increase with greater wealth and power.  Happiness is greater in nations with lesser GDP [gross domestic product] than in the economically “advanced” nations.*

Both happiness and survival of the human species is now dependent upon reorganizing social relations.  We need steady-state local economies where transactions occur primarily among  people who engage with each other, not at a distance,, but in good old face-to-face interaction.

——————–

* James Speth provides a good summary of the research fields of happiness and well-being in chapter 6 of The Bridge to the Edge of the World (Caravan Books, 2008).

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