I went for an interview at a call centre recently. I spent a lot of time in call centres in the early 2000s, working for six or seven different companies, mostly as a customer service advisor, occasionally with some telesales or lead generation involved. I know the drill; how these places work, the temp contracts they use to keep people in insecure, non-permanent positions, the often unsociable hours, and the factory-line nature of the work itself. I’ve been out of the call centre loop for a number of years now, working as an administrator, and later a college tutor. But my experience at interview reminded me why I have such a disgust for the whole culture of call centre work, and why we can truly consider them the equivalent of Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills.’
Upon entry, I was directed to a tiny waiting room, where four other candidates were already seated, awaiting the start of the 3-hour interview process. There were two sofas in the waiting room - space for five people to sit. The receptionist asked me to turn off my mobile phone for the duration. I did as asked, noting the large, red-bannered warning poster above his desk - no phones, no laptops, no tablets, no USB devices. The warning read in bold red capitals: PUT THEM AWAY. DO NOT USE.
Already, we were entering a restricted infosphere, an information-space where all communication was to be strictly vetted, controlled, logged and exploited. Obviously this edict was necessary because of the difficulty of directing employees’ efforts while they can still access the internet freely through their devices, and because of security concerns - sensitive data could be stolen. But to have this warning and instruction be not just the first, but the sole greeting offered by our prospective employers was significant.
Nine more people showed up for the interview. We stood around like naughty schoolchildren waiting to see the headmistress. No-one spoke, except the receptionist, patching in calls and telling everyone to switch off their exocortexes as they entered the building.
Eventually, we were herded into a featureless, poorly-heated conference room and given an introduction to the company - a Powerpoint presentation full of corporate slogans, gimmicks and jargon. The most offensive of these was a positively-spun McCarthyite scheme whereby employees ‘nominate’ (read: inform on) those of their colleagues who embody the ‘core company values’ for whatever reason. The winners would be rewarded with vouchers for high-street stores, and would have their faces put on inspirational posters, to be hung around the company’s three offices.
The gentleman leading the introductions was a nice guy - I felt pleased for him, he having obviously managed to transition from team leader or ‘expert call handler’ status, a minimum-wage job, into the hallowed heights of staff training, enabling him to earn at least £8 an hour by reading exactly what it says on the fucking Powerpoint to a room full of silent, doomed cattle.
After the introduction, we all filled in forms about ourselves, after handing over proof of address, passports and our national insurance numbers. The information requested included: 5 years address history, 5 years employment history, with names, addresses and phone numbers for each referee, and a statement about criminal convictions. Given that many people work a number of jobs, or a sequence of short contracts as opposed to long-term roles, this took a while. We were informed that a basic disclosure check and a credit check would be performed - these guys were going to do a full scan of our economic, social and professional life. It went unsaid they’d be checking our Facebook pages, too.
We did an ‘icebreaker’ exercise - the one concession, all day, to the humanity and separate identities of the interviewees. In the space of about two minutes, we stated our names and our favourite films. I learned that Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is a popular choice among young people who grew up in the 1990s. Jim Carrey in general. Each to their own. The point of the exercise was to make us feel that we were speaking to humans, as represented by the five ‘role play co-ordinators’ and their ringmaster, Mr Powerpoint. “Ace Ventura,” we all smiled, and said to ourselves. “That’s a film. People watch films. We’re people.”
The pretending-to-give-a-shit-about-us-as-people ended, and the role-play began. I was whisked off through a series of doors accessible only by holders of the corporation-issue magnetic swipe card through several pens of call centre workers, corpulent and sedentary, budded off in their own tiny, anonymous cubicles. It occurred to me that because I had no magnetic card, I would be accompanied by my warden (sorry, role-play co-ordinator) for the duration of my visit. Unaccompanied, I would have been unable to navigate the maze of featureless, identical, honeycombed rooms, nor gain egress through any of the doors. This wasn’t stated, nor was it meant to appear totalitarian… but the facts of the situation were what they were. Without a guide, I was lost in one of the infinitesimal, microbial suburbs of the customer service Inferno. I was led meekly to a small, even more badly-heated room for a thirty minute one-to-one role play scenario. This involved me playing the part of the advisor, and my interviewer that of a customer with a specific set of problems, which we had been coached to spot with the aid of a useful ‘fact sheet.’
Then there was an interview, which I won’t describe because we’ve all done them before, you know the drill: “Describe a time when you did X.” The interview wasn’t the interesting bit. It was what the room said about the company. The heating was fucked in the whole building. This room was a tiny ante-room, a cupboard. It had four computer terminals in it. The interviewer and I huddled over the plug-in electric heater provided for us, like Russian peasants around a samovar, trying to catch a bit of heat from its dying embers. As I answered her competency questions, I was physically unable to control my shivers.
I sincerely hope they do not offer me the job. Because once you’re in, it gets worse. Every call follows the same structure. Even if you try to deviate, put some personality in, they’ll beat it out of you with call scripts, impossible-to-stay-awake-through training sessions where people read off Powerpoint slides at you, FOR DAYS. The whole point is repetition. But also, the whole point is sameness, the hive mind. It is the voice of the company which speaks through you. You are merely cells in its body, or tiny micro-organisms that scurry over its stomach and breasts, replicating and carrying electronic impulses from one section of its amorphous, fungal consciousness to the next. And yet there is a vicious, disease-like, fractal symmetry to the corporation and its constituent parts - a unity. Each small worker drone is supposed to be an image of the company in miniature - a grinning archetype who can display core competencies, and embody the company’s values.
There is no room for individuality here. Nor creativity. Nor personality. Those things may make you more fun at the office party, or bring colour to your weekends, but they are barely tolerated. What is encouraged is uniformity. Conforming to the median is demanded rather than expected. Stray too far from the ‘corporate spirit,’ sing a song sufficiently different from the company mission statement, and you will be discretely removed.
The end result is to literally make you into an organic battery, a la The Matrix. It goes like this. You will sit in your cubicle. Information will be relayed to you - a repetitive sequence of data you will learn to recognise implicitly. You will process this data. The energy generated by your data is quantifiable as profit – each battery generates a dollar value. A tiny fraction of this value will be given to you to spend on comforts and necessities, for the brief periods of time when you will be outside of the corporate entity. You will never see the people who convey the data to you, will never meet them face to face. You will never know how much money your processing produced. You will know the people in the adjacent cells. You will know the supervisor, the overseer who runs your part of the hive. But apart from that, you will be a drone, isolated and distanced from anything and everything in the realm of the real world. You are just a voice on the end of the line. The voice of the corporation.
"Hello, how can I help you?"
And they can’t, they really can’t. No-one can help you. Bank managers don’t have the authority to help customers. You have to call in. Speak to one of the cells. The cell will speak for the corporate ubermind. COMPUTER SAYS NO. They aren’t there to help. They’re there to tell you the latest fluctuation in value on the small pile of credit you’ve amassed by working for the corporation. They are mouthpieces.
The ultimate act of rebellion and revolution even POSSIBLE in a call centre is to hang up. At least that’s you off the call. The customer will come back and speak to another Paul, another James, another Helen. There are always more.
These factories process our children. Listen. I’m an experienced, well-trained, intelligent, hard-working person. If I choose to work in an industry that is creative, full of intelligent people, and opportunity-driven, I barely make rent. If I work as a drone, I earn more, but I am barely able to function well enough to find fulfillment. I’m not an anomaly - most people feel this way, I think, or at least know someone who does.
Something in the working culture of this country needs to evolve or change. Because call centres aren’t even a sure thing - you can work in one for years and suddenly your job is outsourced to another country, or your office is moved wholesale to another city. They aren’t based in any community, they aren’t invested in any people, no matter what the fucking plaques on the wall and the made-up awards they give themselves say. They can find drones ANYWHERE. We are interchangeable, faceless, anonymous by our very nature.
Corporations only care about profit and growth. Sometimes that means expansion and more drones, sometimes it means cutting the dead wood. We are all potential dead wood. There’s no value at all in ten years of customer service experience. You’re still just a drone. You have no relationships - not with your clients, not with your employers. You are just a fucking piece of clockwork in a vast, unfeeling machine.
This is where we’re sending a generation of kids to work. That’s IF they can get one of the ever diminishing amounts of jobs.
I have no answers. I have no questions, really, I don’t know what to ask. I just wonder if in the future, we’ll see that chucking a generation of brave, unique, creative, interesting young people into the maw of these dark satanic mills, these call centres, was as dire and damaging a mistake as sending them out to the battlefield to die riddled with bullets in some stinking, corpse-filled trench.
When you work in one of these places, you have become part of the corporation. You aren’t an employee. You’re a body part. Less than that - a cell. But even that image is deceptive. Corporations are not alive. They are not people, not beings, not even creatures. They have no compassion, no ethics, no values. They are dead things - slimy, unpleasant, un-natural dead things which we have animated. They merely seem alive. They are our gods, and we do their bidding, blind to any meaning or purpose. We are merely bacteria, maggots among the pus, hiding in the cracks and tears in their putrid, necrotic flesh.
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