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David Bouchier: Every day is Judgment Day

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Sue Seecof
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The plumber came to make a small repair and, almost as soon as he drove away in his truck, we received an e-mail from the company asking us to rate our satisfaction with his promptness, his work and his attitude (but not, we noticed, his bill). The house was not knee deep in water, and what more can you ask of a plumber? We gave him an A.

We all love making judgments — it gives us a sense of power. In the relationship between homeowners and plumbers, power has traditionally been on the side of the guy with the wrench. But now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we can all be judges of everything all the time. No special qualifications are required.

In the old system we only complained about a product or a service when we were dissatisfied. Now we have the customer Satisfaction Survey, taking much more time and asking to know much more. This seems harmless enough on the face of it and may even be a good thing. Anonymous feedback, just because it is anonymous, is easier and safer than a personal confrontation and may produce more and better results. But the appetite for making anonymous choices and judgments, once liberated, seems to be out of control. Some judgments take the form of trivial “likes” or “dislikes” on the social media, but others expand into full-scale questionnaires that feel like an interrogation by the FBI. I had one from a computer company that demanded all kinds of irrelevant personal information, well as true confessions about my experience with the product. Fortunately, it was one of those questionnaires with a box at the bottom for comments. After having spent two days on the customer helpline with the experts in Bombay before I could get the product to work at all, I had plenty to say in the comments box, anonymously of course, and without any result.

If you buy a book online or stay in a hotel you will probably be asked for a review. Doctors and auto repair shops are anonymously rated on numerous websites. Stores, real estate agents, handymen and even boarding kennels suffer the same fate. College students can rate their professors, and see their own ratings, too, which is the end of all polite dishonesty in that relationship. Now Uber taxis allow drivers to rate their passengers, as well as the other way around. Think of that next time you take a cab and behave yourself — this thing works both ways.

The perpetual rating of other people and their work makes me uneasy. It evokes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where everyone was a spy and was spied upon in their turn.

There is no truth test in all this — any anonymous judge can claim anything about any place, person or product. What are such evaluations really worth? We’ve all had the experience of (for example) visiting a hotel described on some travel web site in ecstatic terms and discovering that it is just one step up from the black hole of Calcutta.

Also, I have noticed that those who most need our feedback often forget to ask for it — airlines, emergency rooms, DMV offices, the IRS, prisons. They never ask: “Did you enjoy your experience with us.” It is almost as if they don’t want to know.

Copyright: David Bouchier