The call centre panopticon

Just what is it about prisons and call-centres which seems to make them such an irresistible combination? According to an article in the Guardian plans are afoot to set up call centres in UK prisons – plans which bear more than a passing resemblance to schemes already in operation in prisons in both India and the US.

It seems some deep elemental level prisons and call centres are more alike than we would at first think with a number of key similarities; Both are places where individuals are subject to regime of almost total control and close surveillance and in both movement of the body is restricted; In the prison isolated in cells, in the call-centre high-sided cubicles.

It is this spatial arrangement which is a feature of The panopticon – a blue-print for the perfect prison created by Jeremy Bentham in the nineteenth century. The sociologist Michel Foucault, who compares prisons with hospitals, factories, barracks and schools, presents the Panoptican a the prison par excellence.

The Panopticon

Foucault describes  its unique layout;

Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen         from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions.

The purpose of this isolation is, Foucault continues, to maintain order:

If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of them committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a complex mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities.

Though in my call-centre there were thankfully no high-sided cubicles we were all fixed-rigidly into an area of space we were told repeatedly not to leave. Our manager continually referred to this as ‘bums on seats’ and in one memo stated:

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated for the duration of your shifts. Everytime some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.

This policy did have the effect of isolating us. Over an entire shift we would only be able to speak to the one or two people at neighboring desks (if we had any breaks between calls). Someone on the other side of the room may as well have been on another planet. Thinking of Foucault’s theories it really did reduce any opportunities to dissent, or to form alliances.  People couldn’t moan to each other, – not just because it was hard to talk, but also as you didn’t really know your colleagues trust was an issue.

A key feature of the panoptican is a central observation tower, from which all inmates could be observed at all times without themselves being able to view the observer. Foucault contends that this results in:

a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action;

Spatially the call-centre was arranged to provide the manager with a maximum field-of vision over the workers in the call-centre, but the crucial difference with the panoptican is, of course, that it is clear to see when the manager is at their desk – hence the more relaxed feel to the call-centre when all the managers disappeared out the door at 5 o’clock, or at the weekend when desks were filled with newspapers, sweets and i-phones.

But there is an all-seeing eye in the call centre continually observing its workers. Technology now allows observation without the need for an observer. In her 1988 book The Age of The Smart Machine Shosanna Zuboff explores the implications of what was then new computer technology. In a chapter named The Information Panopticon she says:

Information systems that translate, record, and display human behaviour can provide the computer age version of universal transparency with a degree of illumination that would have exceeded even Bentham’s most outlandish fantasies. such systems can become information panopticons that, freed from the constraints of space and time, do not depend on the physical arrangement of buildings or the laborious record keeping of industrial administration.

How does working in this kind of technological panopticon feel? Zuboff asks workers to draw pictures of their work before and after the automation of their work:

Sharon Zuboff (1988) asked office workers to draw “pictures that represented their ‘felt sense’ of their job experience before and after the conversion to the new computer system”

At the time when Zuboff was writing call-centres were in their infancy, but despite  the fact that the work-places she studied could not themselves be regarded as call-centres it is in the call-centre where the developments she points to can be seen to have flourished the most.

Workers confined to one small segment of space for long-periods, as they are in the call centre,  make it easier to  use computer systems to effortlessly record an unprecedented array of productivity statistics; Average call times, idle times, wrap-up times, log-on times, toilet break times and whatever else that can be logged, recorded, measured and viewed by management.

In short; if the panopticon is the prison par excellance the call centre is the panopticon par excellance.

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