Computer says no

Call-centres are dehumanizing places, so dehumanizing that it is easy to conclude that at some point there won’t be a role for humans at all. In the novel Eight Minutes Idle (currently being turned into a film) the protagonist who is unfortunate enough to work in a call-centre contemplates just that;

The human element of this sort of service is so unnecessary, and it can’t be long before all telephone transactions are conducted by an electronic voice. The only reason we’re here is for people who still need that illusion of human agency, unaware that all we’re really doing is reading from a computer screen. Sure, we serve as a good front for filtering out the flack, yet it can’t be that hard to programme a machine to make pathetic protests and claim it’s sorry but it can’t do anything to help the caller.

The author of Eight Minutes Idle, Matt Thorne, actually worked in a call-centre himself which gives an air of authenticity to his characters musings – I also like to think that he came up with his theories as a way of retaining his sanity in a mind numbing environment as I know I do. But I do doubt the technology is within easy reach. I only need to think of the inadequacy of those train station announcements – the ones with the tinny automated voice which say; The 8;15 to Manchester is now 20 minutes late we apologise for the delay and leave me wondering how an automated voice can possibly be sorry? Has the train company wasted all its money developing  a machine with a voice like a rusty spoon being dragged across a blackboard which spends its time feeling the collective pain of stranded passengers in the depth of it’s circuit-boards? If so is this why there is no money for enough trains?

I have however, come to the conclusion that any idea of human agency in a call-centre is illusory. My role is simply to serve the system which I maintain a constant connection to through my hand on my workstation’s mouse with my headset completing the circuit connecting the system to the customer through me the human conduit. I relay what the system says translating its esoteric language of jargon, or else input  requests on behalf of the customer again translating them into the systems preferred dialect of codes.

I can compensate for some of the systems idiosyncracies by knowing just which buttons to push and click, or where I can sometimes pull the wool over its eyes, but ultimately the parameters of my every action are determined by the system. Philosophically speaking if the system doesn’t have a word for something then whatever it is simply cannot exist.

Not many of my customers understand this dynamic. I remember one time telling a man that something couldn’t be done because of the way the system worked only to be told “yes, but people control systems.” I resisted the urge to reply with the line from Little Britain… “computer says no“, but that would really have been the truth as for many companies the system controls the entire business from orders through to production and despatch with an iron grip. Take on the system at your peril.

I have no power over the system, in fact I am part of the system, like a cyborg, a fusion between man and machine, for the duration of the time I’m plugged in the systems emotional circuitry. Nothing more.



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