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Offline: Bills

Offline: Bills


In his continuing Offline series, Paul Miller deals with bills without an internet connection.

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paul miller offline phone 2
paul miller offline phone 2

I don't know a better way to put this: I have a fear of mailing things. Postalphobia? I don't know what it's called, I can't look it up. But I'm not kidding, it's a real fear. I start shaking when filling out an address, and get the double shakes when it's a FedEx envelope — so many checkboxes! The cacophony of terrors in my mind climax as I near the mailbox. What if the comma is supposed to go after the state, before the zipcode, instead of between the city and state? What if I put the wrong DVD in the Netflix envelope? What if I actually forgot to put anything in the envelope? What if the USPS Routemaster has forgotten about this box entirely, and my letter will languish for decades?

And then I drop the letter, slam the door shut, let out a huge breath that I've been apparently holding for hours, and hum a tune of accomplishment and confidence as I proceed to the rest of the day's mundane errands.

My hope was, given that this fear is irrational, and given that the absence of the internet would require a certain amount of mailing on my part, I'd be able to overcome this phobia at last. Isn't that how people overcome arachnophobia and claustrophobia? Immersion? Again, I can't look it up.

But my hopes were ill-founded. The only things I've mailed so far is a rent check — far overdue — and my very last Netflix Blu-ray, Brazil, which I actually considered just keeping and swallowing the penalty to save myself the trip the the Big Blue Box of Horrors. Despite the immense collection of addresses I received from well-wishers, to whom I promised postcard tweets and eventual penpaldom, I remain mail mute. And then there's bills.

My last day on the internet was an information overload blur, but I do recall remarks like "I look forward to seeing how you deal with paper billing," and "oh man, you're going to have to mail all your bills," and "lol, bills are going to suck." But these billing obsessives overlooked a crucial loophole: pay-by-phone.

Hand-wringers like myself often remark on how the internet shapes our thought processes and expectations, but it can be hard to offer examples outside the abstract and "Twitter, man." I think phone trees, however, provide a concrete example.

The first thing you need to know about calling a corporation is that it really wishes you wouldn't. You're greeted by a robot who talks very slowly, offers you options in the inverse order of usefulness, and reminds you constantly as it shuttles you between tree nodes that "if you'd prefer not to wait, you can go to our website." My recent call to a health care provider had at least five different phrasings of this offer, at different stages of my progress. And they never say "please go to our website," but instead recommend their website like a friend recommends the only sandwich worth having at her favorite haunt.

If you're willing to approach a phone tree like an animal, they're more likely to treat you like a human

It's telling that a common technique for blasting through the options and the queue is to start jamming on the zero button and yelling. This is actually an expected and watched-for activity on many automated phone systems. It's typically rewarded with a quick ring and then a cheerful voice. If you're willing to approach a phone tree like an animal, they're more likely to treat you like a human.

Meanwhile, websites are so happy to have you, and reward precise clicks and form entry with rapid progress. If you act like a computer, you're not necessarily treated like a human, but at least you're treated humanely. While the Googles and Amazons of the world optimize their sites to the pixel and milliseconds, service sites like banking and cable service are universally horrible — by web standards. Still, the delay of seconds, and goofy moving-target security protocols implemented by the likes Bank of America and Time Warner are a far cry from the tears and premature aging caused by phone transactions, which are measured in five minute increments and often require deeply personal confessions to prove your identity and sincerity.

And that brings me to the true bane of phone calls, and its primary metaphor shift: the lack of browser cookies. As I'm sure you know, any complicated phone-based maneuver will eventually result in a "that's not my department, but if you'd like I can transfer you to..." This person, whose role seems infinitesimally granular, will indeed transfer you, but only to a brand new phone tree, where you have to start from zero with a whole new robot defense system. Before you're finally connected to what is presumably the correct department, you have to identify yourself again with a long series of numbers: your Social Security number, your account number, your phone number, your zip code. You're never greeted by name, only by a question: "Is this Paul Miller I'm speaking with?" Then you have to give another numeric identifier, even though you just touch-toned that number to a synthetic mere seconds ago.

It's harder to ask to speak to a manager, but it's easier to get the sense that you, in fact, are the manager

A website, on the other hand, remembers who your are, and greets you by name. Your login is a username and password, which are typically English-derived words, and then maybe there's a picture of a shoe or hat that you have to verify is the correct shoe or hat. Phone systems require you to constantly numerically prove and re-prove who you are, and reiterate what you want; on the web your reputation precedes you, and your desires are obvious. It all comes down to the simple nature of the hyperlink. The web expects you to move laterally, not merely hierarchically. It's harder to ask to speak to a manager, but it's easier to get the sense that you, in fact, are the manager.

Of course, there are many other changes the internet has made to bills, billing, and other forms of personal administration. Banking is a browser tab, while the quaint concept of "balancing the checkbook" used to be an activity my mom would spread across an entire dinner table. When I finally got around to dealing with May's post-internet series of bills, it involved dozens of pages of paper, found within a series of envelopes, more than an hour of phone calls, and a general sense of powerlessness in the face of these institutions. On the internet I could pay off a credit card in four clicks, with a bird's eye view of that bill's relation to my bank account.

I've always found myself frustrated and handicapped by the internet and modern computing's tendency to push me toward multitasking. I know my brain doesn't work that way, I know it hampers my productivity and muddles my thoughts. But the no-internet alternative is mono-tasking, on both ends of the line, and that requires a hard-won, old world virtue: patience.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.