December 19, 2000


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Rohini Balakrishnan Ramanathan

The Brave New World

The 21st century is quite a brave new world all right. In no other time probably that great Italian writer Luigi Pirnadello's warning, 'if your eyes are closed, we will rob you', has come to haunt us more. While growing up in Delhi, the maximum theft I have seen in business transactions was when the vegetable vendor would give, maybe, one small lemon less, while weighing a pound of it.

I remember the milkman bringing his cow to our front yard to milk her so my mother was sure the milk was not diluted with water, which was not so uncommon. This guy would actually show my mother the empty bucket first. Other than such minor occasions that demanded a bit of vigilance, life was quite simple. So I brought the same ethos into my adult life. I did pay attention to the "buyer beware" credo, but did not obsess over it. But recently I had a wake up call. I woke up to the fact that it's not my mother's uncomplicated era anymore.

It's not a small inconsequential milkman adding a little bit of harmless water to the milk anymore. It is the big guys like AT&T, America Online et al who have begun to pick my pocket. There is so much wheeling and dealing going on in business these days that a consumer sometimes gets crushed under the business wheels so easily and casually. Playing upon a consumer's gullibility and yes, greed, too, the clever marketers entice the potential customer with various enticements. Only after we sign on the dotted line do we realise how we have been really had. The enticements actually end up being traps. Many times we fall into the trap of signing up for things we don't even realise we don't need. By the time we wake up, it's too late. We have been hoodwinked in the blink of an eyelid and we have been robbed royally.

Suddenly it feels like 24-hour vigilance is the name of the game to survive in this "winner take all" world. Suddenly Darwinism's "survival of the fittest" theory has taken on a whole new meaning. These days I am beginning to feel that I am in a teeming Middle East bazaar of yore, where I have to hang on to my pocket book tightly at all times.

If this is how a fairly intelligent, educated woman of the world like me feels, I wonder who's really protecting the truly weak from the vultures. As a consumer I have my own perspective on globalization. The brand name toaster-oven I had found to be superior in the past is not the same anymore since this magical globalization began to take root.

I am all for spreading the wealth but cheap labor available in many parts of the world has also come to mean cheap quality. This particular brand of gadget on my kitchen counter that I bought after the advent of globalization began to look old before its time. Time was when it was possible to clean these gadgets without their paint peeling off, or the inside soot collecting on their exterior, but gone are those sparkling days. As someone coming from a Third World country originally, I am all for creating jobs in the Third World, but I am not willing to pay a price in compromised quality that seems to be the result of cheap labor.

Tomes are being written on the shoddy working conditions and the low wages of the laborers in the Third World, where many multinational have set up manufacturing plants. So under the circumstances who's really happy? Must be only the multinationals, their top honchos collecting excessive salaries, and the company shareholders. The two ends of the spectrum -- the consumer and the laborer -- are not.

So after this rude awakening that, ultimately, it's my responsibility to be awake at all times, when the time came for me to renew or cancel my present cell phone contract I decided to start with a clean slate. I did extensive research on the new service provider I decided to go with, read all the fine print on their ads that my eyes could possibly digest without popping out of their sockets, and asked the sales rep all the "right" questions. This company's promise of Nirvana seemed to come without any gimmicks.

Finally, feeling satisfied that I am a fully educated customer now, I walked into the store. Mustering up a lot of grit, just as I was about to tell the sales person, "Yes, I am ready to sign away my soul, er, sign the contract for this cell phone service," a local woman, another customer, standing beside me shouted, "Don't!" I stopped in my tracks when I heard this tall, dignified looking woman, probably in her early 60s, cry out. I turned to her and asked bewilderedly, "Why?"

The answer tumbled out quickly, "Oh, I have them (that is, this particular service provider I was considering) and I hate them." Hearing this a shadow fell upon the sales clerk's face. Anyway, when I investigated a bit further, it turned out that both that woman and I were just two unhappy consumers overall, a common phenomenon these days. In other words, we consumers do not like any of these fast-talking, hoodwinking companies, their only goal seemingly being how to make you part with your money and quickly. To safeguard oneself, one is "forced" to ask so many questions before one can get one single right answer. Even then the answers are not always entirely correct.

It is true that competition has benefited the consumer in some ways, but while the inducements might have increased, it also seems that so have the chances of getting robbed. Sometimes, it even feels like these big guys are in cahoots with each other. They all seem to be members of the same insidious club.

The relationship between consumers and business seems to have come down to playing cops and robbers as a friend put it.

A couple of years back when the Senate anti-trust hearings began on Microsoft, I sent out a strongly worded letter to Senator Moynihan, my state's Senator, urging him and his colleagues to make sure they took a long and hard look at the entire software industry. I also expressed my opinion in unequivocal terms how in the software industry speed seems to rule at the cost of quality, and that Bill Gates was one of the most culpable in this respect. So don't let him off the hook so easy.

Nobody seems to care to do things right anymore but only wish to get to the finish line first. Competition has given rise to so many unethical practices. One of the latest news stories to come to light is the one about the genetically altered corn. Half of the corn produced in the state of Iowa is unusable because the farmers were not given right information regarding the seeds they were sowing. They did not know that their regular seeds had been contaminated with gene altered seeds, whose crops are fit only for animal consumption and industrial use.

Every day there is a new story that brings to light either intentional cover-ups or unintended oversights. The Firestone tires and air bags that were responsible in several hundred deaths are just two examples. Now, after the fact, it's revealed that a certain technology used in making one kind of air bags as opposed to another technology is substandard and that, this caused many deaths or permanent bodily damage to many riders. In one case, a healthy woman-turned-paraplegic won an award of six million dollars against the car manufacturer. Personally, I would rather go through life without such tragedies or that tainted money and rather be served the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth at all times.

Talking of untruths, which can translate to spins, it's fantastic how persuasive these big companies can be thanks to their all out public relations efforts -- one way to keep the consumer hoodwinked for a while. Especially if these companies show enough remorse or plead innocence -- part of their PR strategy -- very often the public seems forgiving.

We live in a culture where forgiving is considered a great virtue but should not telling the truth be a virtue, too?

I always try to look for a lesson in every incident. The lesson I am beginning to learn is: stay alert at all times! Don't be lazy or bashful about asking questions, verify the answers several times, and remember that only you can protect your interests. Nobody else! More than ever, having to be "an educated consumer" has become imperative. And yes, the human being has been reduced to a consumer in every sphere, including medicine and even education. Business is the only game in town with its inevitable need to stay competitive, and hence having to turn a new trick almost constantly and almost at any cost, including human. First it was Man against Nature, then it was Man against Wars, followed by Man against Bureaucracy and now something even more powerful: Man against the forces of Business. What a brave a New World we have wrought!

Rohini Balakrishnan Ramanathan

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