The bureaucracy beneath

How brands use bureaucracy to keep us around.

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” - David Graeber

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David Graeber, anthropologist, professor, author, and activist unexpectedly passed away last week. I was first introduced to Graeber in college when one of my friends recommended his Intro to Anthropology course as both ‘interesting’ and an easy ‘A’. Both turned out to be true. Arriving to class in rumpled clothes that rejected ironing as he did orthodoxy, he’d intrigue us with anecdotes about witchcraft and the aftereffects of slavery from his time conducting field research in Betafo, Madagascar. On the day of our final exam, he arrived 45 minutes late, and with the zeal of a TSA agent approving a driver’s license, announced: “Don’t worry, everyone’s getting an A.”

In his 2015 book, “The Utopia of Rules”, Graeber contends that Western countries are living in ‘the age of total bureaucratization’. In this era, we’ve become inured to the myriad forms to fill out, red tape to snip, and lines in which to fiddle with our phone. For this reason, he argues, we don’t critically analyze the bureaucratic structures we’ve built for ourselves nor do we pay attention to the damage they inflict. 

Breaking Down Brands’ Bureaucratic Bonds

According to Graeber, bureaucracy’s endless tedium reduces our imagination, inhibits our capacity to empathize, and generally makes us miserable.

“Bureaucratic procedures… have an uncanny ability to make even the smartest people act like idiots”

Brands utilize the damage inflicted by bureaucracy to their advantage. This unspoken edge gets us to buy more stuff, increase our switching costs, and dissuades us from asking for better service or our money back.

Switching cell phone carriers nicely encapsulates all the ways brands tacitly use bureaucracy against their customers:

  • Buy more stuff: Lest you want to void your phone’s insurance (which is with a different company entirely), thereby causing you to wait on hold, navigate a phone tree, and fill and send in forms, you’re encouraged to purchase the provider-recommended accessories.

  • Increase switching costs: Many smartphones purchased via a carrier only work with that carrier. This means if you switch from say, AT&T to Verizon, it’s likely you’ll need to purchase a new phone. There are also early termination fees, as well as the prospect of driving to another carrier’s outlet, waiting to be helped, signing the requisite paperwork, and following the proper steps to make sure you keep the same phone number. 

  • Dissuasion from asking for money or service: If you’ve ever called your provider to get help about a broken phone, the first thing you do is navigate an automated call-tree. Having traversed the tree, you eventually reach a person and begin a low-stakes cross-examination: “Are you using any accessories? If so, which?”, “Have you reset the phone?”, “Is the phone wet?”, “Have you factory reset it?” By way of the interrogation, the process is slow and adversarial. You’re pitted against a call-center operator trying to make a living and a monolith moving as sluggishly as possible - all so you can use the warranty you’re entitled to.

That Baked-In Bureaucratic Taste

Grinning customer service agents, cozy ad copy, exciting pricing - brands want us to like them. We want to like them as well, why else would we purchase from them? Beyond money, there’s trust at stake when we commit to buying. In handing over our cash, we hope the brand won’t screw us over. It behooves us to like them back; it gives us a false sense of security and lulls us into thinking the brand is on our side. 

In addition to the mental drudgery outlined earlier, brand-based bureaucracy causes cognitive dissonance. How do we reconcile Flo, the perky lady with the karen-cut in the Progressive auto-insurance ads, with the behind-the-scenes bullshit we’ll endure if we ever want to file a claim?

Watching the Flo ads and knowing that Progressive could easily make my life hell if I were to get into a serious auto accident is like looking at pictures of cops playing basketball with kids. They may be executing sick jump shots, but there’s still a gun holstered on their hips. If one of those young (probably black) men brandishes anything resembling a weapon, they’ll stop their crossover mid-dribble, unholster it, and point it at one of them. 

“Police are bureaucrats with weapons.” - Graeber. 

The tacit threat of harm (albeit minor compared to a gunshot) undergirds our interactions with brands just as it does police and is in part what gives brands the requisite space to prop up their friendly facades. 

Brands, Now Bureaucracy Free

It’s worth pointing out that not every brand is capable of doing this. Buying shoes from Adidas offers a good counter-point. The transaction isn’t as prone to subsequent interactions: you buy the shoes, wear them, and move on. If you need to return them, the process is straightforward. Bureaucracy may not be at play here, but cognitive dissonance is. How else can we harmonize our daydreams of performing feats of athleticism in new high-tops with the knowledge that whoever made them is probably not being treated all that well? It’s not bad to buy shoes, or most things for that matter, but it does require reflexive dissonance to make our way through the day without having an existential meltdown each time we spend money. 

In some ways, the market has sought to address the pains of bureaucracy with startups in banking, telecom, and insurance all geared towards streamlining services and reducing legal hoops. Companies like N26 and Revolut want to give us bank accounts and debit cards without having to look up from our phone. Companies like Oscar and Lemonade try to make insurance easier and customer service less menacing. Despite friendlier user-interfaces and streamlined support, we’ve still created regulations - bureaucracy - around how all of these companies behave. It then remains to be seen if their attempts to close the gap between a friendly corporate face and what lies beneath will be successful.

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Song of the week: Tricky came out with a new album this past month. It’s his least angry album from recent memory. This song is particularly mellow and beautiful. “I’m in the Doorway”: