You may not have read the book Are Women Human?" Don't worry - neither have I. But the book sits on my shelf staring maliciously at me.
The précis is simple:
- "Human Rights" prevent slavery, promote equal treatment, etc.
- Women are sold into slavery, are discriminated against, etc.
- Therefore, women aren't human.
I'm a reformed 21st century kind of guy. I believe in treating women as if they were equal to men. I'm a non-violent, non-sexist, non-homophobic, vegetarian tree-hugger, who believes in peace and love.
Except when it comes to people who work in call centres. Fuck them. I would quite happily eat the world's filthiest curry and shit on every single "customer service" agent I've ever had the misfortune to deal with. I'd reserve a special place in Guantanamo Bay for those who said "I'll get someone to call you back" and never did.
Human rights? If you work in a call centre, you are sub-human scum.
Let me back track. A few months ago Owen Jones wrote a fabulous piece about the indignities of working in a call centre. Begging publicly for toilet breaks which are then precisely timed is fairly common in the call centre world - and pretty dehumanising.
Donata Huggins (whose bladder control is legendary) seems to think this is a laughing matter. She represents a certain type of person who sees nothing wrong in shaming people lower down the social pecking order than her. They're lucky to have a job. Yes, it's undignified to have to hold a card up to say whether you need to wee or poo - but these people aren't really human.
Donata has never worked in a call centre. I have. I did outbound "market research" cold-calls for a while - the sort that end with you saying "...and would you like a no obligation quote, sir?"
I also, for my sins, worked for a debt collection agency. Ringing people up, running through a script which ended with the words "we'd hate to have to take this further, madam..."
Dispiriting and depressing. I lasted at each job for a couple of weeks before the temp agency found me something better.
I suppose it should give me a modicum of sympathy for the call centre drones I have to deal with. It doesn't.
Battery (Powered) Hen
This SwiftCover advert demonstrates how most people feel about call centre workers - they're little better than battery chickens.
Here's what stops people from having sympathy with the humans who inhabit the other end of the phone...
- They are disembodied. All we hear is a voice, so there's little chance to have a human connection.
- We tend only to call them when something has gone wrong - so we're already angry.
- They follow a script without deviation. They may as well be robots.
- Lack of empowerment. When you complain to a call centre worker, you know they're not going to do anything about it. Their bosses don't give them any power to make changes.
- Acting merely as an interface. Every call centre worker I've spoken to listens to me, types stuff into a computer, then reads back what the computer says. Why not just give me access to that computer? The worker is little more than a cheap "speech to text" interface. Like Siri without the personality.
- Zero continuity of personality. Each time I ring my insurance company, I speak to someone different. There’s no relationship or rapport - just another lonely voice which doesn't really care about my problems.
- It's easier to understand Stephen Hawking's rudimentary text-to-speech interface than it is to understand some people's accents. Language skills are a key element of the Turing Test - if I can't understand your language, can I properly regard you as human?
- "Can you wait a moment, sir; my system is running slowly today." Every call centre worker I've spoken to has a slow computer. Without their computer they are unable to function. They may as well be that computer.
- "I'll make sure someone calls you back." No you won't, you lying sack of shit. No one ever calls back.
And so it goes on. The people running call centres don't treat their staff as humans. They don't allow them any autonomy - either over their body or their words.
When we ring up a call centre, the first thing we're greeted with is a robot asking us to punch in numbers. When we finally get to a real person, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're engaged with a not-very-lifelike artificial intelligence.
Sympathy For The Devil
Most of the people who work in call centres are fairly decent human beings. But everything about the environment and interaction conspires to dehumanise them.
There's a fine tradition in computing of HCI - Human/Computer Interaction. Sometimes it's called UX - User Experience.
The aim is to make the interaction between man and machine a useful, pleasant, empowering, and delightful experience.
I think we need that for call centres. CCX - Call Centre Experience. We need to find a way that when we do reach a voice at the end of the line, we recognise then as a fellow human being. One who is empowered to help us, and is willing to do so.
Humans deserve respect - even if they work in a call centre. That should be obvious to everyone. Those who operate call centres have a duty to ensure that their systems do not distract their customers into forgetting their manners.