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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Cyber Infection? An Appeal to Call Centres

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Amiya Dev

To err is human. But does the computer ever err? Or rather, does it recognise the probability of human error? If you are giving it a command, does it give you a second or even a third chance to make sure that you are giving the right command? It better do so, else you may nose-dive an aircraft into the ground and go up in flames. But I have a suspicion that it does, only our computer-happy call centre personnel may not always like to allow it that leeway while dealing with computer-clumsy clients. I recently had an argument with one such centre. I had inadvertently pressed the wrong key. I say inadvertently, for the recorded voice didn’t say in so many words what would happen if that particular key was pressed. It merely gave out the sequence of the keys quoting their domain. Indeed, if you are not particularly geared to such voices, you have to be on your toe lest you miss a word. I am sure such voices are trained to keep an even keel of articulation, yet the fact remains that the assumption behind recorded communication is that all listeners have the same quality of audition. Anyway, I should not be unfair, for call centres do have a man-to-man component called ‘customer services’. They answer your queries with all politeness, but would not admit that your inadvertence was in any way due to their incomplete input. They will tell you that they are truly sorry, but the mistake was yours. There is a mechanical tone to it that eventually shuts off communication. This is no slur on their sincerity and efficiency, but fear lurks that living in a cyber environment they are taking to an over-determinate behaviour pattern.

Man and machine is an old theme, but it has assumed immense proportions now. We remember a head of state temporarily forgetting the keys to his country’s nuclear arsenal once, sending tremors through the whole nation. Of course, Dr Strangelove pushing the button in a fit of insanity was fiction at the height of the Cold War. The point is the Frankenstein psychosis at work and the concomitant dehumanisation. It has taken a modest new shape in the call centre with claims to purported omniscience. It has all the related data stacked away in a computer. Fumble not, you are told. Yet it is human to fumble. Well, be a little less human then and more tuned to the machine, the gain is yours. In other words, gear up to become the perfect client. Your human individuality or what you would perhaps call personal traits can just be a liability. It may be that without knowing it we are headed to what Rabindranath Tagore once called the ‘land of cards’.

But surely we haven’t come to the end of the tether. Even in their cyber vicinity the call centre personnel have their human identities in as much as they have homes to come to work from and homes to go back to. By no means are they mere simulated functions. Besides, it is they who programme the computer—whatever Spielberg might have shown in his science-fiction film Space Odyssey, the computer doesn’t have a will of its own. Some correction can surely be added to the programme for the benefit of potential fumblers like me. And we may be quite a few. May I then appeal to call centre personnel to give up any righteousness they might have picked up in the company of the machine, and be more accommodating? The computer is the means, not the end; to take it off its iconic niche will serve humanity.

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