Thursday, March 10, 2011


I’m being nibbled to death by ducks.   I get the mail and the first thing is a notice:  Your Extra Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Costs Notice of Termination. (It’s not much money, but still . . .)
The second thing is another notice:  “You owe $50 on your account with the GF Clinic and we are sending it in for collection.”  AFTER the “extra help” my co-pay was $100, which I was paying in pieces.  They want me to use a credit card.   The doc spent about three seconds max with me and never told me the results, though he discussed his diagnosis with the assistant.  When I asked, he left.  I hounded the office for months before I got a printed diagnosis.  I’m right on the dividing line for glaucoma treatment.  My advice was not asked.  HIS time is valuable.
There are other nibbles, too similar and boring to recount.  Takes too much time.
I call my pharmacist for more glucose diagnostic strips.  She tells me what the price is in her computer -- some mystery app that is a collaboration between Big Pharm and Medicare -- and she says the strips are free.  But when they come, the bill is $35 for fifty strips.  No explanation.  Already deducted from my bank account.  I’ve had refunds as big as $75 and debits as much as $50, all totally mysterious.  The pharmacist never knows why either.  It’s just bookkeeping.
Then I go by the only grocery store in town.  My order has come in.  The cat food cases are 25% more expensive than if I’d bought them in the county seat thirty miles away.  I ordered them when the road was perilous.  When I unpack them, one case is the wrong kind.  The rest of my order was canceled.  The peanut butter I want cannot be had unless I buy twelve jars at once because no one else in town buys it.  (Adams: half as much sugar in it.)   
As directed in order to sort out the first problem with that termination, I get on the phone.  I sit through all the usual advice to push this and that, to use a computer, to leave a phone message, to fill out a form I don’t have, etc.  Then I find another more local phone number with all the same information about stuff I don’t need to know.  I get a person, who is very nice and looks everything up and says I didn’t send in something I was supposed to and I was asked to call them weeks ago but I didn’t.   I did, but got put on hold, left a voice message that was not returned, etc.  Until I just gave up.  
She is sending me a form.  She asks if I’d like to come in in person:  she’s eighty miles away over icy roads and my pickiup is undependable, aside from the cost of gas.  There is no bus.  I’m fairly polite until she asks for time while she looks something up and I say,  “Oh, sure, go ahead.   I’m reading an article on left-handedness on the computer.”  Two things: immediately she wants me to do everything online and then she remarks lightly,  “Oh, the things we do to fill up our time.”  (ie.  I’m a little old lady who is wasting her time.)  Click.   As we used to say in Ms. Mag about feminist moments.
I’m nudged to think of Cass Sunstein and Clay Shirkey, two on my list of heavyduty thinkers.  I google Sunstein and the U of Chicago Law School says they’ve reorganized -- the Sunstein page is gone.  So I google “Nudge.”  This is what Wikipoopia says:
“The book received mixed reviews. The Guardian described it as "never intimidating, always amusing and elucidating: a jolly economic romp but with serious lessons within." But The Sunday Times called it a "very, very dull read" and others contended that the many policy proposals it contained became "a bit wearisome". It was named a "Best Book of the Year" by The Economist.”

And Shirkey?  “Cognitive Surplus” proposes that computers have released so much unused time that used to be sunk in watching stupid TV that we are in a veritable renaissance of creativity on the Internet.  Like starting Middle Eastern revolutions, I suppose, until they shut off the Internet.
Here’s another book to think about (I never buy them -- I just bounce off reviews):   “The Googilization of Everything” by Siva Vaidhyanathan.  It’s about (in part) the secret algorithym by which Google decides what to put on their lists and in what order and this new deal about the “quality” of what’s there.  Evidently, good website design will get you higher on the list which can make a big monetary difference if you’re using Google to sell.  Of course,  you can pay Google to be at the head of the list.   Most people never google past the first page.  

I’m fascinated watching my own name go up and down.  Sometimes someone will pick out a “hook” sentence from the body of the day’s post and put it at the beginning of the entry about my blog.  I try to write a good enough one of my own.  When I tell people this happens, they are shocked.  They think that the stuff that runs like water through a pipe across the Internet is never seen by anyone.  They’ve evidently never been in a tech room with a screen somewhere showing what’s flowing.   

In the early days of blogging, they used to post on the blogger website the titles of blogs as they posted online.  I was always surprised by how many were not in English.  Now, of course, thanks to Homeland Security and Pediapanic, there are filters that can pick out individual bloggers on the basis of their views and vocabulary.  Even their faces.

Evidently some people have just realized that they are being manipulated by their computers, even though Shirkey thinks it’s an active pursuit that lets us be creative.  And Sunstein/Thaler have pointed out that simple small percentages in the way we make decisions can change elections, start waves of popularity, determine your income tax, etc. etc.  (But then along comes the Big Dog of the U of Chicago School of Law and erases your carefully designed website so that Google can’t find it.)  

I see a pattern where banks and retailers (and other bureaucracies) deliberately overcharge or underprovide, knowing that the consumer will probably not have time to check closely and -- if the error is perceived -- will find it too small to spend time correcting.  On the other hand, there are women in this town who spend an hour or two on the phone every single day correcting small errors and injustices.

Getting back to my original experience, which is only a sample of miniature ongoing struggle, minor as it may be when compared with my real work of writing and thinking, it is clear that our world has been particle-ized in the service of commodification.  A million little rules and decisions are guiding things so simple as buying a jar of peanut butter.  I don’t grudge the money so much as I do the time.  I retired early, meaning poor, in order to have the TIME, and I resent that being drained away by trivia in the name of profit.  I keep thinking about the guy who programmed a lot of ATM’s to round off all deposits downward to the nearest dollar and deposit the extra cents to his account.  He picked up millions.  I forget what finally happened to him.  Too bad we can’t reprogram time.

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