It seems like anyone these days who has a credit card account or has had technical issues with Windows based operating systems has encountered the experience of calling customer service and having the call answered by someone with a noticeable Indian accent reminiscent of the Indian convenience store owner from “the Simpsons” answer the phone, “thank you for calling Microsoft technical support, my name is Bob, how can I help you today?” This scenario is something I have personally encountered although it wasn’t really until viewing the two news reports presented in class that the world on the other side of that telephone line was revealed. I worked at a call center briefly when I was really desperate for a job—any job. I called it the seventh circle of hell. It was a Verizon Wireless port center in Beaverton Oregon that served customers who wanted to “port” their phone numbers into or out of Verizon Wireless. The company boasted that it did not outsource their customer service to overseas call centers boosting its appeal to customers who have difficulty completing technical tasks with someone who doesn’t speak perfect American English. This experience gave me a good idea of what a state side call center environment is like. It’s a relatively new twist though to place a US corporate environment somewhere in India. Doing so creates something of a culture clash the media has already picked up on with shows like “Outsourced,” a sitcom based on a Midwestern call center manager who has to move the entire operation to India. The readings regarding the cultural, economic and self-identity issues seem to focus on what would be considered losses as opposed to gains as we become more entrenched in a global society. Answering the Call tended to point out losses to the individuals who work in these call centers as though they far outweighed any secondary gains. The concepts really in all of the readings were the hybrid cultural mores and a sort of dualism that developed as the call center workers are immersed in American culture during their work shifts; a discussion regarding a virtual diaspora; confronting the reality of white privilege; interconnectedness and interdependence of nations; and globalization.
Outsourcing and the issue of cultural identity
When considering all of the readings, discussions, video journalism, and issues brought up in these various sources, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two works of science fiction the first author of whom imagines “A Brave New World. ” Even though it was originally published in 1932, the author correctly identifies some of the trends that we’re seeing today first with the embrace of technology, then with the depersonalization and complete disregard for the individual in the social structure of a massive totalitarian one-world government. This world government envelops all individuality and people are psychologically and biologically conditioned to not have any sort of identity other than citizens of the world state. The state systematically drives the individuality out of them in favor of the greater good of the larger community. It also teaches them to be docile consumers as the world government is based on a consumer driven capitalist system. Huxley wasn’t the only one to envision a future where conformity and devotion to the state were prized above the needs of the individual. In his book, 1984 , George Orwell describes “thought police.” The idea of privacy is completely obliterated in his futuristic vision of the world as big brother monitors your every movement and even thinking a dissenting thought is punished. Isn’t that what we see here with these call centers? A sort of quasi-totalitarianism only instead of the state having absolute power, it is the corporations that are playing the role of big brother. Any thoughtful person who has read these books would recognize the parallels. The call center employees are having their individuality and cultural background driven out of them as they become nothing more than mere commodities used to fuel a capitalist system. Having worked in a call center, I know that part of the training is to condition the workers to behave much like robots. You are trained to respond a certain way to every scenario. Some companies have tried to do away with the human element altogether as anyone who has experienced the frustration of getting caught in a labyrinth of automated voice recognition response systems while your primary goal is to get through to a human. There is no sense of individuality in a call center cubicle. They all look exactly the same. The corporation monitors your every move and even listens in on whichever calls they wish. In that environment big brother knew what time you logged on, which sites on the computer you were browsing, which headset you were using, what time you took your breaks, how many calls you took and how many seconds were required to resolve the customer’s issue. It was really creepy. I only lasted three months in that place.
Orwell speaks of language as an instrument of control. In his vision of the future, English is replaced with “newspeak” effectively eliminating words or phrases that could possibly be used to incite a rebellion against the absolute authority of the state. It is interesting that learning American English has played such a crucial role in conditioning these workers over in India to think like Americans, act like Americans and study the culture thoroughly so that they are able to chit chat with Americans while completing their various transactions. It reminds me of another fictional character from science fiction, Lieutenant Commander Data—an android who in one episode installs a subroutine in his computer matrix that allows him to engage in small talk.
What does it mean to “be American” or to “be Indian” where the lines of engagement are intentionally blurred?
That’s an interesting question because as Americans, we represent an amalgamation of many cultures that have been integrated into our society. We don’t even have our own national food (except maybe corn). Two of the most widely regarded American foods, the hamburger and the hotdog, are not originally from here. We assimilated them just like we’ve assimilated so many other cultural artifacts from all over the world. Still, there are distinguishing characteristics that have been woven into American culture; competition is one of them. We value prosperity, ingenuity, and a collective determination to overcome adversity. The second part of that question is a little bit more difficult to answer since I’m not an Indian. My sister-in-law is from India. She and my brother run a school called the Center for Music Education in Bangalore but Vennie has never really talked much about her cultural background other than mentioning the tradition of afternoon tea. My parents have been over there for a visit but I haven’t so really all I have to go on is pictures from my parent’s trip as well as some of the cultural distinctions mentioned in the reading that are slowly eroding as the influence of the West impacts their society. In the faculty shot that is on my brother’s and sister-in-law’s school’s website, it is interesting to note that all of the men are dressed in western attire while the women are dressed in more tradition Indian clothing. It gives a vivid visual example of how east meets west and I would not describe it as a melting pot so much as a salad. Some of the traditional cultural identity is maintained while integrating Western values.
Family time and sharing meals as a family is valued in Indian culture and call center employee are prevented from participating in that particular aspect of family life. As in many eastern cultures, it’s not unusual to find three generations living under the same roof. The question though has wider ramifications. While it’s true that the Clifford article, Appadurai article and Rowe/Malhotra/Perez articles all address the Americanization of India’s youth, we’re seeing the impact of globalization affecting even the most primitive tribes of Pau Pau New Guinea. South Korea is another place where globalization has deeply impacted the traditional culture. Their embrace of American culture is clearly evident in the city of Seoul where one can find the Outback, Bennigans, TGIF’s, 31 Flavors, Burger King and of course, McDonalds.
I’ve mentioned two classic Science Fiction literature references drawing parallels to the reading. It was the Clifford article with his discussion of migration and diaspora that brought to mind another literary classic by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath . Devastated by a natural disaster, the Joad family in this story that is set during the Great Depression is forced to migrate to California to try and find work as fruit pickers. While the comparisons to the scenarios outlined in the readings are obvious, the differences were not as easily predicted. All three of the literary references are made toward pieces that were written in the 1930’s and 40’s. While the science fiction authors were true visionaries, it was really quite beyond them to begin to imagine the infrastructure required to make a virtual migration possible. Routine instant global telecommunications from the other side of the planet in real time isn’t one of the things they predicted. They would no doubt marvel at the rapid advancements in technology that make the discussion of virtual migration viable.
When agents are asked to undertake a daily “migration of the mind” in order to service consumers in the U.S., does this fracture their sense of identity and subjectivity?
Coming from a Theatre Arts background, the idea of a daily “migration of the mind” is not that much different than assuming a role or getting into character. There’s a degree to which we all behave differently according to the circumstances and people with whom we’re dealing. Shakespeare wrote that all the world is a stage and we are merely players so I don’t subscribe to the notion that call centers are producing a generation of youth who are susceptible to multiple personality disorder although I can see how all of the cultural indoctrination they are subjected to could create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. It was especially interesting seeing corporate religious services at the call centers with several of the locals participating: attending the services is likely voluntary. In fact, it’s difficult to couch these workers as innocent victims of corporate tyrants when they are working for these western companies by choice.
In closing, technological developments may eventually make the points made by the article’s authors somewhat moot. Voice recognition software has improved significantly over the past two years and there’s already a push for increased automation taking the place of real people. Some companies already have in place a tier system for people who call in for technical support. If their issue is too complex to be handled on the lower tier, the call is routed to a group of people who have more advanced technical expertise. It’s likely that automated systems will eventually replace humans with routine customer service issues with a remnant of technicians staying on to resolve more complex matters.