Lewis Carroll knew about the many faces of sympathy. In the ballad of the Walrus and the Carpenter — a wonderful parody of Victorian lugubriousness — the walrus and the carpenter weep their hearts out for the oysters they devour while sitting by the sea: “I weep for you, the Walrus said:/ I deeply sympathize.” More than a century has passed since Through the Looking-Glass was published. But the strategic importance of sympathy remains central, not to eating oysters perhaps, but to the selling of smart gadgets. Apple’s secret manual for training customer service personnel in human interaction has been leaked recently. It turns out to be a fascinating document in the history of what might be called “affective commerce”: the use of a rough-and-ready science of human emotions to maximize profit. It says nothing that today’s producers and consumers do not already know. But, in its deadpan, brazen, all-knowing and exhaustive rehearsal of the truisms of consumer psychology, it could well be among the classic texts in the contemporary literature of feelings. Its effect is both hilarious and sinister.
The key words of the manual are sympathy and its close cousin, empathy; “The Power of Empathy” reads one section-heading. The trick is to make the customer feel happy and deeply understood. And the best way to do this is to be able to enter his mind and make him speak a language that he would never feel he is being made to speak. In the process, the Apple service person — called a ‘Genius’ — registers the customer’s complaints, never admits the company’s fault in having caused the problem (called an ‘issue’, not a ‘problem’), makes the customer feel that he is right, manipulates his decisions, but makes him feel that he has made the decision himself. In all this, the manual trains its readers through a form of psychological instruction that makes breathtaking use of the language of emotional manipulation, sometimes of the most intimate kind. Service and courtship were indistinguishable in the courtly tradition of the European Middle Ages, as all readers of C.S. Lewis’s Allegory of Love would remember. Apple’s Genius Training Student Workbook is the 21st century’s allegory of love for the common man (if the Apple-buying man, woman or child is common at all).
This, then, is the century of technology in the service of love. Everything from a kiss and the gift of a rose to an irreparable heartbreak can be expressed instantly across vast distances with an emoticon — to an addressee that the kisser may never have met. Sympathy, liking and love are just a click of the mouse away on Facebook, that grand and virtual democracy of intimacy and access. What better than a software that reminds people of the birthdays of their ‘friends’ while sending off birthday wishes automatically — thus allowing the recipient to imagine that his friends remembered him on his birthday and he must therefore be universally loved and very, very special?