Remember When You Weren’t Asked to Rate Every Experience?

Last week I bought a hamburger and fries from a restaurant using its online ordering system. This way I could pick the food up directly at the register without having to stand in line and be around other people. As soon as I was back in my car with an old CD case absorbing the grease from the bag, I received an email asking me to rate my experience in ordering and picking up the food. I was driving so I could not respond until I was stopped at a light, which is both illegal and unsafe in my jurisdiction, but these are the risks you have to take if you want to respond quickly to automated emails.

Then I got home and ate the hamburger and fries, wishing I had taken the ketchup out of the fridge earlier so that it was not so cold. When I was done and trying to digest the meal while watching an award-winning documentary about spoons, I received an email from the same burger joint asking me to rate my eating experience. Yes, the email used the words “eating experience.” The link brought me to a survey that asked me rate a number of attributes about the meal on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 labeled “Great” and 10 labeled “Really Great.

The questions were expected ones like “Was your meal tasty?” and “Was your meat cooked to your exact specifications?” But there were also questions like “How quickly did the smell of the meal dissipate from your vehicle?” and “Did you experience any bloating?”

I answered the questions as quickly as I could, and when I was done, hoped that this was the end of all the rating surveys I would have to complete based on this one hamburger and one fries that I purchased. But the following morning I received another automated email from the restaurant. “Your survey response indicates that you experienced some bloating after your meal with us. Would you have a few minutes to rate your experience so that we can better serve you in the future?”

And below that were another ten questions about my experience getting sick after eating the hamburger and fries. I won’t get into the details, but the questions were extremely invasive and brought up topics that I did not even know existed. What the heck is “good” bacteria?

I completed the survey, cancelled my weekly juggling lesson, and sat on the couch to wait for the next survey. I did not have to wait long. Within ten minutes there was indeed another email in my inbox requesting that I complete a survey about my experience filling out surveys. I thought I was seeing things but in fact they really were asking me to rate my experience in rating experiences related to my purchase of a hamburger and fries.

I took a deep breath and read the first question. “Did you find our rating surveys easy to complete?” It contained so many contradictions that I was unable to craft an appropriate selection of integer between one and ten, and could only stare at the screen and think about what I wanted for dinner.

Remember When Live Entertainment Was the Only Entertainment?

We were looking through advertisements for new television sets. Our 55 inch (which is really 54.6 inches, but under the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Accuracy v. Simplicity, the decimal point gets rounded up) was starting to look a little dated. The faceless demon hounds from the upside-down universe in Stranger Things were not looking as threatening as they should, and what should have been high-definition sound was so delayed and garbled that singing along with the theme to My Little Pony was next to impossible.
So at the next meeting of our community’s Joint Committee on Unnecessary Purchases, our application to buy a new television set was approved, 8-7, and we were officially in the market for a new entertainment center.
The first thing we needed to decide was how many inches we wanted the tv set to be. A screen of 70 inches would be a significant step up in resolution, and would also qualify us to vote in local elections. Screens of 75 inches were also popular, and 80 inches was our neighborhood average, as reported by hackers when their ransom demands were not met.
After taking the required course (“A New TV: Your Window to Humanity”) and watching thousands of reviews, we decided on a TV called “The Globe 9000” boasting unparalleled definition and a diagonal of 118 inches that would give us the largest screen for miles around, as soon as the town building office issued us the permit to knock down a wall.
The workers wanted to keep it a secret so they didn’t tell us they were going to be setting up the tv until they were already there. I was amazed that they were able to do this. It was the first time that I had ever been asked while signing the credit card receipt that I would not be allowed to watch the workers set up the tv because it was supposed to be a surprise.
But I let them do it and when they handed me the remote control at first I did not know what to do. I pushed power, and the tv came on, but instead of a screen coming to life with light there was a curtain and the curtain parted and it revealed four people inside the tv. Like, four regular people.
“My good sir, thank you for choosing the Globe 9000,” said on the people, a man with a deep, booming voice. He was dressed like Pinocchio. “And what shall be your choice of entertainment tonight?”
“Um, well I usually watch Game of Thrones on Sunday night.”
“Very good, sir,” he said, and all four of them got into position. A woman with long blonde hair said to the man with the booming voice, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win, or die,” and then she brandished a sword and stabbed him. But she didn’t really stab him. Rather, she stuck the sword in between the man’s arm and torso, so it just looked like she was stabbing him. But nevertheless the man said, “Aaaagh! I am slain!” and feel to the floor while the other two people watched in shock. After a few seconds of twitching on the floor of this tv, the leading man got up and all four of them got into a line and bowed in unison. I applauded and a fifth person ran out – from where? I don’t know. From further inside the tv I guess – and handed the blonde haired lady a bouquet of flowers.
Then the leading man said, “And that, was Game of Thrones.” I pushed another button, the one that said “Channel up.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the leading man, “but you shall have to try tomorrow, after the players have had a chance to rest.”
“So I can only watch one show a day?”
“Sir, we actors must rest. It is exhausting performing.”
The next day I turned on the Globe 9000 and the same four people were there. I don’t know where they had slept since the previous day.
I wanted to watch Fixer Upper. Don’t ask me why. Okay, it was my wife’s choice. She loves that show. So she said to the actors inside the tv, “I want to watch Fixer Upper.”
The actors immediately started to pantomime fixing a house. One was hammering nails into an invisible wall. Another was painting an invisible wall. And the other two were pretending to carry something heavy, a table from the looks of it.
Then they went out of their positions, and paired up one woman to one man. One of the pairs stood together holding their hands with their eyes closed. And the other pair stepped in front of them and pretended to pull something apart in opposite directions, as if to reveal something to the other two. Clearly one couple was intended to be the homeowners and the other couple was supposed to be Johanna and Chip. The homeowners then opened their eyes, and had a big look of surprise on their faces. They were jumping up and down, and hugging each other, and hugging “Johanna” and “Chip” and even looked like they were crying a bit.
Then it ended and the four of them joined hands in a line, and took a bow, and I applauded and then they drew the curtain and that was all the tv for the day.
The next morning I called the store and said that I wanted to return the Globe 9000 in exchange for a regular 80 inch. Heck, I’d even take a 75 inch. Clean exchange. No refund of the difference in price. Just get me back to regular television.
After going through several layers of employees who happily told me that there was nothing they could do, I was connected with the manager, who said there was nothing he could do at this time, which gave me a lot of hope because it implied that in the future perhaps something could be done.
But I soon realized the store would not take the tv back voluntarily. So I tried to sell it on eBay, but the listing violated the eBay terms of service, and my account was deleted. Then I sued the store under a variety of legal theories, such as failure to disclose that the television was just four people living inside it. But the negative publicity – especially when it was revealed that I was not feeding the actors, and I was subjected to the humiliation of a witty Twitter hashtag campaign – was too much to bear.
I was just going to have to accept that this was going to be my television for the foreseeable future. I clicked it on, and said that I didn’t care what I watched, just make it interesting. So the leading actor stood by himself and pretended to hold a remote control and click it at the other three, who would do one thing, then another, then another, switching to a new pretend scene every time the lead actor clicked the “remote.”
Yes, I saw it now. They were making fun of me. Yes, I suppose it was funny. It is good to laugh, even if it is just at yourself.
When we pulled the curtain back, a group of live actors took the stage.
They looked so real, I reached over to touch one.
“Hey! What are you doing?” he said to me.
“Um, nothing.”
“How would you like it if I just touched you for no reason?”
“I wanted to know if you were real.”
“Well, I am real. What is it to you?”
So we live with a television that has real actors inside it. The menu of movies and tv shows is exactly the same: Game of Thrones, Altered Carbon, Bubble Guppies. I can select whatever I want. Except instead of it actually being the show, it is these little actors inside the television acting it out. I have to say that the performance is not bad. What it lacks in special effects it more than makes up for in passion.

Remember Retail Stores?

It was my first year as president of a major electronics retailer facing a serious financial crisis.

Photo by DMedina at

“Decker, get in here,” I called to the closest analyst who wasn’t watching videos on a smartphone.

“Yes, sir.”

“We have a problem. It’s the future. Our cars are driven by computers. Our coastal cities have all been swallowed by rising sea levels. Tom Brady has finally retired from football and returned to his home planet.”

“Yes, I heard that, sir.  Drew Bledsoe has been practicing his throw.”

“But there are no more retail stores. Look at this map” – I motioned to a large map behind me – “this was once the extent of our retail empire, and now – Decker, are you paying attention?”

“Yes, of course, sir.”

“Each blue pin point was one of our retail stores. Look at how many blue points there are! Ten years ago, you couldn’t drive 50 miles in any direction without passing one of our convenient locations. Now…nothing.  All our stores have closed.”

“I know, sir.  Everyone’s got that new Amazon Think installed in their brains.  They just close their eyes, think of what they want, choose two-day or standard shipping, and…poof, a drone drops the product right on their doorstep.”

“Ok, Decker, I get the picture,” I said. “You don’t have to act it out for me.”

“I wasn’t acting, sir. I need more Raisin Bran. It should arrive by Wednesday.”

I rubbed my face.  “We need to think of a way to get people back in our stores.”

“But, sir, customers stopped shopping at retail stores years ago.  There’s the limited selection, higher prices, long lines. And don’t even get me started on returns. Customers just aren’t willing to go through that kind of hassle for a product.”

“Well,” I said, “if they won’t endure the hassle of retail for the product, then the hassle of retail will be the product!”

The opening of the world’s very first “Hassle’s” was met with little fanfare. So many retail stores had disappeared that most people figured it was another nail salon, or maybe one of those high-end pastry shops that specializes in stale biscuits with a dollop of whipped cream, except calls them “langue du chat” and then charges $7 for each one.

The people who wandered in, however, were surprised to the shelves filled with televisions and computer monitors, and adapters and cables, and infrared trackballs and cell phones and portable a/c units that you placed inside your pillow to keep it cool on hot summer nights.

“This isn’t even the latest model!”

“They don’t have the size I want!”

“And look at the price! At least $20 more than it would cost online!”
And when they took the products to the checkout, they had to wait on a long line of other customers.

“Wow, this line is really long.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe how slow it is going.  Why do they just have one register going?”

“What they are talking about at the checkout? How complicated can it be to pay for something and print a receipt?”

And then when they got home they tried out their item and found that something was wrong.

“There’s a purple line through the middle of the display!”
“Once you turn the volume up, you can’t turn it down!”

“The TV shows nothing episodes of My Little Pony!”

But when they called our customer service number to find out how they could return the product for a refund or a replacement, and successfully passed the seven levels of automated menus so that we could “better serve” our customers, they were told – by a recording of my own voice – that they had to bring it back to the store they bought it from.

And then when they arrived at Hassle’s with their defective product, there was of course a long line of other disgruntled customers, a line even longer than the line they had to wait on to buy the item, in front of the “Returns” desk.

And after they spent more of their precious time standing on the Returns line while holding a heavy piece of electronics, and finally reached the Returns desk, they were told that they would have to pay to ship the item back to the manufacturer, and if the defect was something covered by the warranty, then it would be fixed and the item shipped back to the them, again at their expense.

“And how long does the repair take, sir?” asked Decker some months after Hassle’s had first opened.

“Six to eight weeks is what we say.”

“Six to eight weeks! But…but the History Channel says that the only advantage of buying the item in the store was so that you could have it that very day.”

I laughed. “Yes, we say that in our Super Bowl ad, too. But the real answer is…they buy it in the store so that they can have the experience of suffering with a group of complete strangers.”

Decker shook his head. “But how can that be, sir? Why would people voluntarily choose that path when they can have the same item, but cheaper, easier, and in working condition?”

“For the same reason that people shop in the first place,” I said. “With robots doing all the work, people have got to do something!”