Published on Jan 22, 2022
Essays

Machine Intermediation

epicerie-1

I got my first job at my father’s grocery store when I was 10. The pay wasn’t that good, there wasn’t any ha! I got to keep a roof over my head (or so I was told). It was a good local grocery store. My dad knew almost all the customers by name and many even paid on credit. I didn’t really understand why my dad let people walk away with items without paying. It was this honor system between my dad and the clients that I didn’t really grasp.

When I go grocery shopping today, I don’t know a single person’s name at any of the stores I shop at. To be honest, I never even think about this question or care deeply about it. I just want my stuff quickly and want to get out of there. If it can be delivered anonymously to my door, even better.

This guilt has got me thinking about our changing relationship with other people, particularly in commercial settings. There is a growing trend that I don’t believe has a name for. Slowly but surely, our commercial interactions are being intermediated by machines.

Peak madmen

I started my career in the digital marketing space in the early 2000s. I spent a few years at a large media agency that sold digital media but also traditional advertising like television, billboards, radio and print. While I was buying google ads directly on adwords, my colleagues on the traditional side of the fence worked with their sales reps directly. Many had long standing relationships, some dating back decades. Their days were spent talking, negotiating and strategizing about the next customer campaign, working hand in hand on the customer’s media strategy.

My team on the other hand knew a handful of people on the digital publisher side, and spent our days mostly in excel and on the online platforms managing campaigns. I got to hang around with folks on the traditional side and it was a glamorous world. Reps would take my colleagues out to expensive lunches, hockey games and industry events. Business was clearly conducted based on trust & building rapport. It remained business of course, yet the human factor played a huge role in securing the next contract.

Fast forward to today and the whole industry is clearly moving towards a machine intermediated process. You don’t need to know a sales rep when you’re plugging into Facebook’s API to run your campaigns.

Later, I worked for a few years at Google in sales and it was no surprise that the organization didn’t really get the human element in sales . Top leadership at the company didn’t believe in it  and why would they? The madmen days were clearly in the rearview mirror.

Slowly but surely

This phenomenon is happening in every spectrum of the commercial world as far as I can tell. We’re seeing this even in sectors where human relationships have historically been table stakes. Take capital investment for instance. If you’re a founder running a SaaS startup today, you likely need capital to grow your business. The good old fashioned way is to meet with potential investors, get to know them and court them when the time is right to raise funding.

There are now new models of financing that allow you to raise without the hassle of people getting in the way. Plug your data into a company like Pipe and transform your recurring revenue into upfront capital.

This is just a micro example. Small businesses are using more & more digital tools to run their business and providing digital interfaces for their customers. Supply chains are being digitally connected. Yada yada yada, you get the picture. It’s not one specific use case, it’s every single use case.

We want everything now

One might be tempted to blame technology writ large. I don’t buy that story one bit. It doesn’t appear to me that technology is the underlying root cause. All we want is more convenience and speed, machines are just the tools. Our behavior has been changing slowly but surely. Who wants to answer a stranger’s phone call anymore, let alone listen to a voicemail. Now, you can avoid calling to reserve a restaurant all together! The industrial age brought industrial scale efficiencies with relentless improvement. With the knowledge age, this process of improvement is only going to accelerate.

Deciding on morality

To be honest, I don’t know what to think about this trend. If you project far out enough in the future, it can be a little terrifying. Part of me is excited because of all the new opportunities that technology will unlock. Part of me is worried thinking about what the second or third order consequences might be. I’m particularly worried about losing our ability to empathize with our fellow neighbors and strangers. For now, all I can do is inquire about the cashier’s name next time I’m at the grocery store.

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