The story is one of those bizarre ‘small world’ moments that happen from time to time on the internet, but over the course of the last few months, Valerie and I have been instant message pen-pal-ing, sharing stories and articles, histories and theories. When she told me she was coming to Copenhagen to visit her sister, of course I wanted to meet her in person.
On the surface, we have little in common. I’m from the Northeast, and she’s from the deep south. She’s retired, no kids, likes dogs…yet we connected through a commonality: looking for a little bit of orientation in a world that to many, seems to have turned upside down.
Sitting across from one another rather than across a computer screen, we talked about many of the same things–politics, women’s rights, travel. We talked about her work. I asked her, as a doctor who has done a lot of work with veterans, what she thought was wrong with healthcare in the US. She paused, considering before she answered.
There’s no autonomy in the way doctors are allowed to work anymore, she said. It’s all about codes and numbers, squeezing in as many patients as you can. Eventually, she said, patients stopped being patients and started being customers. They’re even referred to as such by some.
It’s the same complaint I’ve heard from teachers. Students are no longer students, they’re test-takers. Many teachers I speak to feel like they’ve lost the autonomy to actually teach to a group of individual children, but now must teach to prospective test takers, teaching to achieve test results. Students, like medical patients, are reduced to numbers and output. Customers for a huge test-taking industry in the United States and elsewhere.
A string of numbers in a column somewhere that will be tabulated and calculated and crunched.
Somewhere along the way we it seems we stopped being human beings and start being customers. In a never-ending quest for bigger profit margins, happier share-holders and bottom lines we have certainly succeeded in lining a lot of pockets. We’ve saved some big corporations some money. We’ve saved some businesses from going under.
But at what cost? I worry we are also stripping the humanity out the very things we need to keep us human: medicine, teaching, the arts.
The day after our lunch, I read that several high-profile authors have decided to quit Twitter. Another up and comer lamented she would do the same, but didn’t have the luxury, she was still building her brand. I get it, because I do it to. An author with an as yet unpublished book, a writer shilling my work for shillings, if not for free, the first piece of advice you get is not about polishing your work or honing your craft, it’s about building a brand for yourself so you have a base to market to. You need a brand.
We’ve all become brands to a degree. Individual social media logos. Profile pictures and Snapchat avatars. Billions of individual brands. We merge and acquire with other brands to form supersized corporations. The GOP is a nothing more than a massive corporate machine made up of millions of individual brands. The Democratic party the same. We may as well all be walking around with corporate logos tattooed on our forehead.
We’ve become Coke vs. Pepsi.
How do you successfully treat a patient when the end result is not to treat, but to code the right diagnosis on the insurance form? How do you gain a skittish patient’s trust when you have quotas to meet? How do you teach a child when the end result is test numbers, not learning?
There is a place for business. Marketing of goods. Marketing of services. Commerce. Trade. But increasingly we are treating all of our interactions like business transactions. We shouldn’t be trading in human beings. We shouldn’t be using our own lives as currency.
Medicine, teaching, jobs that require face to face interaction in order to do successfully-those are not businesses where you can just come in, look at the numbers and say, cut this, do that, increase productivity. The results are physicians like Valerie who end up retiring out of frustration, because they can’t do their jobs the best way they know how. You can’t come in and look at the numbers and say, these students need to score higher on tests or we will cut your funding. All that’s doing is tying the hands of teachers who know how to teach those kids, who are all individuals and learn differently.
The United States is about to swear in a leader who ran on a campaign promise of running the country like a business. It makes me pause to think what that really means, in real terms, for the people who make up that country.
We are not customers. We’re not numbers to be crunched or cut when it is going to save a few pennies. We are citizens.
We need to keep shining a light on the human part of humanity. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s as easy as going to meet someone you’ve never met and sharing stories over lunch.