Despite technology's advance, our tolerance for defects rises

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The screen on my cellular phone faded and then died two weeks ago. I have no idea why. In the days since, I have continued to use the device, engaging in the telephonic equivalent of Russian roulette: Since I cannot see the numbers I am punching or the commands I am giving, I cannot tell whether an attempt to call my boss will result in a conversation with, for example, my mother.

As you might assume (if you are, as I assume, another user of cellular telephony), this is not the only problem I have encountered with my mobile phone service (which is provided by AT&T; the phone itself is made by Nokia). Every time I travel to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, as I do frequently on business, I am confronted by a vast no-service swath in northern Virginia. And every time I head north from New York, toward Greenwich, Conn., I enter a similar black hole. I've marveled at these gaps, if only because they occur in areas where our defense establishment works and our finance establishment lives, places you'd guess would receive, or at least demand, superior telephone performance.

But our generals and investment bankers seem to be reacting the way I do, every time I pull out my cell phone: I seethe-and I accept. And therein, I posit, lies a moral for our times. To summarize it rhetorically: Have you noticed how resigned we have become to inadequacy and imperfection?

True, there were always categories of products and services where consumers made allowances for defects-Detroit, before the Japanese automotive invasion forced it to raise quality standards, was a signal example. But by and large, the post-World War II trend, aided and abetted by increasingly rapid rates of technology transfer, rising education, and cheaper consumer technologies, was toward a broader assumption of perfection in consumer goods and services. Lord knows we'd achieved excellence in enough areas to know what it was we could expect; consider, for example, the quality of domestic telephone service before the breakup of AT&T.

But in recent years we've been backsliding into a level of defect-tolerance that's turning modern life into a version of "Survivor"-and no one's really doing or saying anything about it. It's not just phone service. TV signals and sets used to be clear and colorful; today, my cable signal, more often than I'd like, is as snowy as Montana-and my Sony digital TV has a chip that likes to black out on startup. Supreme Court justices used to be models of probity, else they'd be gone in an instant; yet New Jersey's Peter Verniero is managing to hang on, despite memory lapses (on racial profiling) that would disqualify him from consideration as dog catcher. Utilities delivered electricity-but not anymore, not in California. Presidents were once statesmen; Bill Clinton's high approval ratings up through the bitter end testify to a mass acceptance of buffoonery. Voting machines, needless to say, counted votes; if they didn't, political machines did. Either way, there was a clear winner. But today, both machines are out of order.

The best example-a phrase I use ironically-of this transcendent public acquiescence to the new culture of inadequacy is airline service. When I read in The Wall Street Journal several months back about a nightmare Northwest flight that imprisoned its passengers on the tarmac in Detroit for some 14 hours, I thought that spelled the beginning of the end for customer-antagonistic airline management. But then I found myself subjected to six-hour jailings by United and almost routine indignities by most airlines, at least at LaGuardia-where the fault, by the way, lies clearly with the airlines, which have exploited deregulation to crowd their slots, creating schedules they cannot possibly meet. We passengers grumble, certainly. But aside from the occasional outburst of air rage, no one does anything about it.

In his wild, caustic new screed "Why I Hate Flying" (Texere, 2001), management guru Henry Mintzberg blames management for the triumph of deficiency. "I know that everything is a product and everybody is a market," he says. "I know that human values must all be reduced to shareholder values. But in hospitals? Churches?" But I'd go Prof. Mintzberg one further. Management isn't the only problem. Customers are, too. Until we stop tolerating the defects-in our suppliers, providers, and leaders-they will continue.

I welcome you to call me on that. If you can reach me.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at [email protected]

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