Kafka and Cable

By on Nov 19, 2013 in Essays, Humor

Man shouting into phone

Today I had a Kafkan experience. It is no longer the Count in the Castle who surrounds himself with so many maddening layers of bureaucracy. Now our “service providers” have done it. Or, to put it another way: corporations.

Consider this: I call the cable company.

Me: Yes, I couldn’t help noticing that my cable bill went up by twenty dollars in the last two months.

Functionary: Yes, your two-year plan expired.

Me: What can we do about this?

Functionary: You could certainly take on an even higher bill, by adding services.

Me: I don’t want those services.

Functionary: Why not? You already have these services? Who gave them to you? Give me their names. I can assure you that our services are far superior to theirs.

Me: That may well be, but I don’t want them. I don’t use these additional services and, if I do, I’m content with the corporation that’s already providing them.

Functionary: If you will cancel the other services and adopt ours I feel confident that the corporation will look kindly upon it, and offer you certain compensations.

Me: Such as?

Functionary: Well, for instance, we will charge you only an additional five dollars to add one of these services.

Me: This seems very strange. You’ll charge me an additional five dollars for a service that is currently costing me over $30, but you can’t find a way to give me back the rate I had two months ago?

Functionary: There is nothing strange about it.

Me: You don’t think so? I mean, imagine that I offer to sell you a gallon of gas for $3, or you can have a gallon of gas and a 15-pound bag of potatoes for $3.15. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?

Functionary (bemused): You understand that I am only a low-ranking official in this corporation; and as for yourself … Suffice it to say that changing the situation is far above, frankly, both of us.

Me (chastened): I do understand that. I don’t mean to be rude.

Functionary: I can tell you, though, that the rate has just changed today, and we are prepared to offer you a ten-dollar discount on your bill.

Me: That’s still too high. I have a colleague who has this service from you, the same company, and he pays only half of what I’ve been charged for it.

Functionary: It must be an introductory rate.

Me: No, the introductory rate was one third of what I’m paying. Then it went up to half of what I’m paying.

Functionary: Well, that person must have a trimmed-down version of the services that we’re offering you.

Me: I think he does. I’d like the trimmed-down version, too.

Functionary: The trimmed-down version is no longer being offered to customers.

Me: My colleague is getting the trimmed-down version. I just spoke with him about it.

Functionary: He must have been grandfathered in. But customers who add our services now can no longer get the trimmed-down version. All new customers now are given only the full service package that you now get.

Me: The full service package is more than I need. Is there any way that I can get a lower rate?

Functionary: If we cut the full service in half, you can save five dollars.

Me: Really. Five dollars, to cut the service in half? You’re sure this is the best rate I can get?

Functionary: Yes. These are the only rates I can offer you.

Me: I can tell you what’s going to happen. I’m going to cancel your services and find another provider. Then, after I’ve signed with them, I will receive a flyer in the mail offering me the introductory rate that my colleague is getting right now. I’d rather save all the trouble and just get that rate now. Can’t we just do that?

Functionary: I’m sorry, but these are the only rates that I can offer you.

Me: Then good-bye.

Language aside — I made some adjustments — these were the actual arguments made by me and the person I spoke to today. Actual sentiments expressed. Actual guilt and paranoia placed upon me. Actual failure to negotiate rationally.

In addition to the surreal quality of the arguments themselves, part of what is “Kafkan” about this exchange is the overarching perplexity about who (if anyone) should be blamed for what is obviously, on the consumer’s end, an unfair, even unjust practice. The corporation in question has a monopoly on cable service in my area. They can offer me whatever they want to, and I have to accept it or do without. They compete for customers only on their “additional services,” which they are willing to offer at something closer to a competitive rate, for the sake of luring new customers away from their rivals. But once you are in the system, they do nothing to make your experience pleasant or to maintain your loyalty.

I can almost guarantee that all of this was dreamed up in an accountant’s office. But I will never get access to that accountant; and my complaints, while “duly noted” by the underlings, will never rise to that accountant’s attention. Meanwhile, on some level, I can’t help feeling guilty about tearing the functionary to shreds with my unassailable logic (logic of which Kafka would be proud). But I also have very little pity for this functionary. Because, like a cog in a machine, he was so focused on his minor bit part in the corporation’s bureaucratic script, that he made the absurd, Kafkan machine run exactly to spec. It’s hard to have much pity for him, and I refuse to have any for the corporation. So it seems obvious that I should blame the corporation and not any individual employee for this (in my view) dehumanizing, numerical treatment of me and my “business.”

The perplexity deepens, however, because (though I disagree with its philosophy) I can on another level understand the corporation’s desire to earn profits. And it is also obvious that without a lot of cogs, the machine won’t run. People who are cogs are not exactly paragons of humanity, at least in the moment of their cogdom. Should I expect them to be? Are they capable of transcending their cogdom? Can corporations transcend their evolutionary adaptation —namely, their almost biological need to maximize profits?

Even so, in my poor human condition, I must resist absolving corporations for needing, and making use of, cogs. To maintain my dignity, I must repudiate their Kafkan reflex of placing guilt on puny citizens (customers) who are bold enough to protest the coggishness of the system. This, after all, is not the kind of world I would like to live in. It is not much of a legacy from the ’60s, for instance. It is not the America I hear extolled in Presidential orations, or that I find in the small-town shop where once upon a time I could buy a few nuts and bolts, just enough for my current needs, thank you, and none more.

So I am left with this Kafkan situation. Somewhere, someone dashed off a memo, and someone else passed it on, down a chain of command, until there is this functionary, who is (I admit, unfairly) put in the place of representing the absurd logic of the corporation’s number-crunchers to the real flesh-and-blood customer that is affected by it. All humanity has, by now, been lost, and I might as well have been speaking to a machine. In a sense, I was.

And how long can you stay angry at a machine? I’m sure, somewhere, an accountant knows the answer to that question.


John Pyle is an Ohioan who lives in the foothills of North Carolina, currently living his life-long dream of raising two active boys. He writes about the absurd and wonderful, in stories and creative non-fiction. His writing has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine and The Father Life,. You can find links to those pieces, and to reflections on literature, nature, and more by visiting http://john-pyle.com.