Breaking Point

By J.J. Ulm

This is a tech support horror story. And it doesn’t have an ending yet; I’m losing hope that there will be an ending better than my own slow surrender, a forfeiture due to my own inability to keep spending hours on hold with people in India who can only communicate with the repair center in footnotes. But it’s a story that highlights so much of what we idealistically call Late Capitalism that there’s plenty to gain from it even without knowing how it all turns out.

I don’t call tech support often. I used to be tech support. I DO Know Computers. So when I call, it’s because I’ve determined the problem is something I do not have the access or tools to fix. When I finally caved and contacted ASUS support, it was after a few days of trying every software-based solution I could think of to get my 6-month-old graphics card to stop crashing my computer within minutes of starting up a game.

The first mistake I make is contacting them through their web site’s form, because as someone who used to be tech support, I’m what you could generously call “phone-adverse”. That gives them an excuse to forward me, without warning, to another company entirely – AMD, the company responsible for the driver software I’d already ruled out. I proceed to spend several days going back and forth with what I would say was a chatbot if it didn’t take a full 24 hours to reply to anything I send. In my initial message I’d explained everything I already tried, so naturally this person(?) suggests, in one step per night, that I try each of those things again. After nearly a week of explaining that I had done that I reply with an angry diatribe that includes the word “clusterfuck” and they reply, 24 hours later, with my Return Merchandise Authorization.

I have to pay to ship it to them, because of course I do.

A few days later they send it back to me. I fortunately live close enough to the repair center that FedEx’s normal service still arrives next-day (but also fortunately far enough away to be unable to go there and make physical threats). I’m excited. I open it up and reinstall it.

I start up World of Warcraft, go to make some coffee, and come back to a frozen computer.

I call ASUS this time. According to some notes on the case I don’t have access to, there’s a “parts shortage”, and somehow they thought that made it okay to send my broken card back without doing anything. I demand a new RMA and a prepaid shipping label. There’s some ill-defined problem with the “system” at the call center, so I don’t get the RMA for a couple hours. I have to call back for the prepaid label. I drop it off at FedEx the same day.

A few days later I get a new shipping message. I check the RMA notes through their support site and see that they’re sending me a replacement, same model. I get my hopes up again when it arrives.

It’s also broken in exactly the same way. The serial number is three off from the original card, so they seem to have just swapped mine with someone else’s bad card from the same batch and called it a day. Though as I’m on the phone again, sitting on hold while someone tries to find a supervisor, I realize the SN sticker was moved. It’s in completely the wrong place, and there’s sticker residue where it’s supposed to be. Is this even someone else’s card, or just someone else’s serial number?

The ASUS repair center is gaslighting me. They’re sending me something broken and telling me it’s fixed, presumably in hopes that I’ll question my own sanity and/or the possibility the problem is with the motherboard or something and leave them alone.

I send the card back. The next day, once I’ve confirmed it’s in their possession, I call customer service again, because they’re the only contact I have. I try to be nice, I explain to the supervisor I insist on speaking to that I know they are not the repair center but that they’re my only hope of any kind of communication with them. I tell him I won’t accept another of the same card from that repair center because I don’t trust them to do it anymore, that ideally I want something new and at this point it had better be an upgrade. He tells me the card is going to be “swapped” rather than “replaced”. I explain that those words mean the same thing, and he explains that in ASUS repair center language “swap” means another card of the same kind. I tell him that’s absolutely not acceptable. He says he’ll put in a request for a replacement. I tell him I don’t want a “request”, I want a “demand”, but apparently they don’t have that much sway with the repair center.

Eleven days later, I get an email offering me a replacement. I accept the one offered. It’s an upgrade, but “refurbished”, so I temper my hopes. Nine days later, I get an email confirming my acceptance of the replacement and an assurance that it will ship in 2-3 business days. Six business days later, after two replies asking about it, it finally ships.

I’m sure you can guess what happened.

Since this was definitely a different card, I go through troubleshooting again, uninstalling and reinstalling drivers, seeing if there’s any possibility this problem is on my end. But no. I can keep it working by micro-managing the fan settings, but this allegedly-refurbished card shuts down if it runs over 50ºC. (For those who don’t Know Computers, the default fan setting doesn’t even turn it on until it hits 65ºC, so that’s definitely Not Right.)

I haven’t called them back yet. Their customer service only has limited hours and they’ve succeeded in wearing me down. But I will.

This isn’t an unusual story, either for consumer electronics companies in general or ASUS specifically. Late last year I found myself on the edge of a similar problem on a larger scale when my Nexus 5X went belly-up and I discovered it had been happening to lots of people. I was lucky enough to have only started having problems after the repair center got in parts. For the first couple months, people weren’t so lucky. And as I’ve been dealing with this, I’ve discovered that PC hardware enthusiast communities like Reddit’s r/PCMasterRace (which has had to add a note explicitly distancing itself from Literal Nazis) already recognize that ASUS’s repair center is where dreams go to die.

But this is where we are as a capitalist society. Competition hasn’t made anything better, it’s just made things exactly as bad as they can get away with being. ASUS laptops are carried on the shelves at places like Target and Walmart. They haven’t suffered for their terrible warranty support. They’re no worse for contracting out to a repair center that literally does not fix things.

And I find it hard to blame anyone at the worker level, because the heart of the problem is that ASUS is not willing to pay for competence. They could contract to a better repair center, but this one is presumably the lowest bidder, so they keep using them. Even then, I wonder how much of that lowest bid makes it to the employees.

That, I think, is the attitude that will kill capitalism: Competence isn’t worth paying for. It’s why Millennials are struggling, because no one wants to pay them what their skills are worth. It’s why wages are stagnating. It’s why I left the formal workforce, when a new CIO decided the company didn’t want to pay extra for our little sub-department of VIP call-takers. Why pay anybody $50k a year for being competent when you could get away with less?

This broken graphics card? It’s just a symptom of a much, much bigger problem.