August 5, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Internet makes it easy to get things done, right? Fat chance

What are we going to do when the robots take over? When artificial intelligence gets good enough that your refrigerator knows when you’re running out of milk, and it silently orders more, and it gets delivered by drone? How will we spend our time?

Some think we’ll write poetry, watch the sunset and play the zither. Others think we’ll get strung out on drugs and sit stupefied in front of screens or end up enslaved by our oligarch overlords. They’re all guessing.

The truth is we will spend our time updating our passwords. I have evidence.

Events in my life have conspired to provide a natural experiment. I need to get vaccinated. I had to rent a car. And my wife got a new cellphone that had to be activated. Three modern concerns. And through the miracle of the internet I should have been able to take care of all of them easily online, right?

Fat chance.

I am a member of the Michigan Bar Assn. It has a deal with a prominent rental car company. I have rented cars before. I have a Wizard Number.

Ah, but if you don’t use your Wizard Number for some undisclosed period of time, it stops working, and you have to apply to get a new one. But before you can get a new Wizard Number, you have to get an access code. And before you can get an access code, you have to register.

Tried to register. Entered email address. Entered password. Password didn’t work. Tried again. Still no dice. Hit “Forgot Password.”

“We can retrieve your password and email it to you. Just enter your Wizard Number.”

This hustle has been around forever. What’s new is that we’ve all become stuck in it. Remember the Tootsie Frootsie ice cream bit from the Marx Brothers 1937 movie “A Day at the Races”? Chico sells Groucho a tip on a horse, but to read the tip he needs to buy a codebook. And to read the codebook, he needs to buy the master codebook. And to read the master codebook he needs the breeders guide. That hustle.

My experience with the cellphone company was eerily similar. “Enter your phone number. Enter your account number. Click here and we’ll send an access code to the email address associated with the account. When you get the access code, enter it in the box.”

Easy enough, right? Wrong. “The information you have entered does not match our records.”

Started over. Several times. Gave up and called the customer service number and waited on hold.

Allegedly, all this is necessary because there are bad guys lurking everywhere trying to break into our cellphone accounts and our rental car accounts, hoping to steal our passwords, our access codes and our Wizard Numbers. There are enemies everywhere. It’s like we’re in a spy movie.

The vaccine story is the same but worse. Trying to get vaccinated is like trying to buy a bag of weed 50 years ago. You’d hear a rumor that Frankie P. was selling lids. You could meet him behind the Burger King. But when you got there, nobody’d seen Frankie. Somebody said it wasn’t Frankie, it was Sammy. And it wasn’t Burger King, it was the parking lot near the ball field in the park.

I got a call at 5:30 the other morning from a friend who was waiting in a hospital parking lot. She had heard through reliable sources that this hospital was giving vaccines to people over 65 who showed up early. She was calling to tell me that information was no longer operative.

Instead, she gave me a phone number. I called the number and waited on hold for over two hours. Then a voice, not a person, asked some questions. When I gave the right answers, “she” gave me, no, not an appointment, an access code.

On the hospital’s website there were more questions, more boxes. When I finally entered the access code into one of the boxes and pressed “Submit” I got, no, not an appointment; I got my name on a list.

In theory, there is some relationship between having your name on that list and one day being offered an opportunity to apply for an appointment to get a shot. In theory. But things are changing all the time. So be sure to check back regularly.

I am on several such lists. And that’s what I do: check back regularly. I answer the questions. I enter the secret numbers. I submit.

More and more our lives are conducted online. More and more of our online lives are “protected” by layers of verification. More of our interactions are not with people but with algorithms and AI robot voices. And more and more we seem to be stuck in this endless cycle of waiting on hold for the privilege of entering numbers into boxes and then waiting some more.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator in Michigan. He is the author of “The Science of Settlement.”