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We used to have an economy based on tangible things with levers and knobs and switches, or perhaps valve handles. They were called "manufactured goods," and our economy was filled with jobs to produce all kinds of these things. They called that "a manufacturing-based economy."

Then, after America stopped making stuff, and we bought cheaper and less durable imported versions of all those things, they told us we lived in "a services-based economy."

That was an interesting notion. An entire economy based on providing services to each other, without anybody actually making anything. It never made any sense, but as long as everyone had some kind of job, it wasn't really questioned.

That once-upon-a-time, manufacturing-based, economy included services like a guy at the gas station who fueled your car, checked your oil and cleaned your windshield. And there was a live person in every elevator who asked "what floor?" and knew where everything was so you wouldn't get lost, and held the door so you wouldn't get squashed. And people had jobs in the movie theatre wearing a uniform with a matching round 3-inch-high hat with a chinstrap; each of these people, called theatre ushers, carried a flashlight to help you find your seat in the dark so you didn't break your neck.

And ANY business number you called was answered by a human being who was physically at that business. It wasn't simply that a live human answered the phone (novel enough in itself, by today's reckoning). The person knew anything you wanted to know about what happened there, or could ask someone else who was also actually at the place you called.

That was all before we got "a services-based economy." Once we switched over to being all about services and not making anything, we lost all those, umm, services.

They kept telling us, for a long time, that we shouldn't worry about not making anything in America anymore, because we could all have jobs in the ever-expanding "services-based economy."

But they kept telling us, for a long time, that we shouldn't worry about not making anything in America anymore, because we could all have jobs in the ever-expanding "services-based economy."

Hmmm. No more good union jobs making things. Just non-union jobs that were called "service sector" jobs, but didn't provide anyone with any obvious service.

Well. Whatever that "services" thing was, at least everyone today is more honest. They do acknowledge, at least indirectly, that we no longer live in a world where you can get any service.

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NOW we are in "an information-based economy." Where you call a number for information - not to be confused with service (remember, we no longer have a services-based economy) - and you get a robotic phone tree devoid of information.

Unless you know the first three letters of some employee's name, which will trick the robot into ringing an actual person's phone. Sometimes I key-in "S-M-I" - figuring they probably have a Smith in the building. I'll take my chances that it's not the executive who yells and hangs-up because she keeps getting bothered by phone calls and can't get any work done. Or that Smith is the one who knows only how to call the vendor that stocks the rubber sandwiches in the vending machines.

Sometimes I press "0" four times. But the robots all talk to each other after hours. They're on to that little trick now, and it usually makes them hang up. Meaning you need to call back and start over with the mandatory "Welcome to the Phone Tree Experience, Now Get Lost" gatekeeper robot.

Of course, if you randomly press enough numbers in their phone tree, you can get somebody in Bangladesh making three dollars a day who has no information to address why you called. Unless it's on a computer screen that's wholly different from any screen you can see if you (even can) bring up your account on their website. Generally, it's not a good idea to know too much when you talk to their call center in Bangalore or East Timor. It confuses them.

Nobody wants you to phone them, anyway. They want you to fill out an eleventeen-page checkbox form on their website so they can "help" you.

What if you try to cut to the chase and directly connect with anyone at a business website? HA!

Their website is where you go for screens that enjoy mocking you with pretty colors and multi-branch pulldown pages that devour your time and never give you access to anything you need to know. Even as you endure uninformative graphics laden with pictures of smiling people (who were obviously not photographed while they were trying to learn anything substantive at that website).

You know they're only doing it this way so you can't take hostages.

Now that we have entered this brave new world of the post-manufacturing-based, post-services-based, now wholly cyber-sourced information-based economy, I've finally got it all figured out: we have the illusion of being able to exchange information about things we don't make, as long as we don't need to ask anybody any questions about any of it.


Larry Wines