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World deflation

Tech support is closer than you think.

The scare word being bandied about these days on the economy is deflation. Everyone knows what inflation is. We saw enough of rising prices in the 1970s. But to understand deflation, you have to go back to the 1930s.

They say we had a pretty rough patch back about then. It was characterized by falling prices, which sounds sort of good to us today, but was really bad, because it meant no one had any money, and no one could make any money.

And I’m thinking, haven’t we been experiencing that in desktop technology? We frequently cite a law concocted by a fledgling Intel Corp. executive named Gordon Moore in 1965, saying that computing power will double every two years, without adding to the cost. Increased value at ever-falling costs amounts to systemic deflation. It has been technology’s gift to the world, and its curse to itself–tight margins and too-rapid change.

Just last week I decided to replace my three-year-old desktop machine with a new one. This meant going from a bargain Pentium III system with 20MB of memory to one with a bargain Pentium 4 chip, 60GB of hard-disk space, plus a DVD player, all for $90 less on the barrelhead.

And it’s been like that ever since my first PC, back in 1983. Every couple of years, a new machine, with lots more power, for a few fewer bucks. Great for consumers, but a killer for PC makers and the software companies that bundle their stuff. They all somehow have to squeeze a profit out of the $500 I’ve paid them.

How do they counter deflation? With robots, just-in-time inventory, and offshore outsourcing.

One sure way to make money when margins are squeezed is to fire expensive domestic employees and contract with cheaper vendors in another land. If you have called, for instance, a tech support line lately, you know it is increasingly unlikely that you will speak to someone with native English skills. It’s part of deflation: Lower prices means cutting corners.

Setting up my new PC, I ran into a problem with the McAfee VirusScan program, and contacted McAfee’s support department online. It has set up a special real-time chat room where you ask the question, a minute passes, and a tech rep types a personal response to you.

The tech support rep is often typing from a corner of the world far from your corner, because they are cheaper, and they can handle several conversations at once.

Regardless of cost, I would have given $10 to print the conversation from the chat room and share my conversation with the tech rep, whose name is Anisha, because it was hilarious in a xenophobic sort of way. But the makers of the chat room purposely designed it to be unprintable. Fewer witnesses, I’m guessing.

The experience began badly, with me elaborating up-front that the program could not be enabled, that I thought it needed reinstalling, but I couldn’t reinstall without first uninstalling, but the corruption prevented the uninstall program from working.

Anisha proceeded to tell me I needed to enable the software. After I told her that wasn’t possible, she told me to reinstall the software. After I told her that wasn’t possible either, she told me I needed to uninstall the original version. In other words, she appeared to be ignoring everything I told her.

You kinda want to go arrggh. But of course you don’t, because it’s not Anisha’s fault she isn’t a better parser of English. How good would you be if you had to do tech support in her language, which I imagined was Hindi or Bengali or Urdu? And you don’t want people around the world to think Americans are all turkeys.

I’m glad I stayed nice, because after the initial display of linguistic inflexibility–or maybe she was trained to ignore people’s claims until she cross-examined them, point by point–Anisha proceeded to show me to use the registry editor to manually uninstall VirusScan, and then download a fresh copy from McAfee’s Web site. Her prescription worked flawlessly.

And as I thanked Anisha, I decided to reach halfway around the world and salute her. “It was a pleasure solving this problem with someone so far away,” I said. “May I ask where you are from?”

Anisha’s reply: “Utah.”

“Well,” I said, thinking the balloon that is our planet still hasn’t fully deflated, but my ego pretty much has, “that’s still pretty far away.”

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