Mastering is my dream job, I guess. But for everyone, there’s also the opposite: a ‘nightmare job’. Maybe it involves tragedy, death, or suffering, perhaps the harsh outdoors or the banality of a cramped space, the hell of other people or enforced isolation. The one job you “just couldn’t do”.
I’m sure there are elements of all of those that I’d find insufferable. But of the gigs I’ve actually had, here’s my personal hell: performing web chats for a large public organisation. It worked like this:
- The customer enters the chat and your cheery salutation is automatically populated back. The system knows the time of day, and it inserts your names too: “Good morning Emma, my name is X how can I help you today?” You just need to hit ‘send’, because of course having that small level of autonomy is enriching. You could manually fix the lumpen sentence structure, but after the hundredth time you don’t bother.
- Then the customer asks a question. The system cleverly highlights key words they’ve mentioned and clicking on those words brings up one of 15 to 20 stock answers. To be clear: every query you receive should match one of these 15 or 20 pre-programmed responses. If the system can’t suggest an answer for you, you need to manually click through the same list of stock phrases and find one, then the system pastes that into the chat box.
- It’s important to stress that the answers you provide are always telling them to go away and do something else — in other words, it was never about resolving anything, just ‘signposting’, the digital equivalent of a guy holding a lofted street placard saying “CHEEP EETS THIS WAY →” You’re not feeding anyone with that sign, bucko, so just hold it straight and don’t skive off, yeah? And so you give them a web page with actual information, or an address to send their stuff, or you tell them how exactly they should go away.
- If the customer’s question doesn’t fit any of your stock answers, you might you get a helpful on-screen ‘whisper’ (that’s literally what it’s called, reader, and ain’t nothing creepy ‘bout that…) from a supervisor who’s monitoring you, or else as a last resort you can give the customer a link to email someone who actually knows. This last thing happens a lot.
- Then you categorise the query and the sort of ‘outcome’ you’ve ‘delivered’, which was of course to make them go elsewhere. (Funny quirk: none of the available outcomes are “I actually provided a helpful resolution” or anything remotely similar. Huh.) And of course these outcomes, and everything else about the chat including their ‘tone’, are made into reports about you, the customer and your transactions together.
As I’ve said elsewhere:
“And so we enter a private sector totality, an ineluctable realism where the priorities are: Get rid of them as soon as you can. Stop them pestering you. Tell them to use the web instead. Scrimp on equipment. Maximise your time. Get your metrics up, whatever the hell they measure. Keep costs down, however you can. Ideology.”
Swallow a question, shit out an answer. Easy money, right?
*sigh* Maybe it’s me.
I literally knew nothing about the subject I was answering questions on. Nada. No training, no instruction besides a quick primer on how to use the actual web chat software. And, moreover, I was told my ignorance was absolutely not an issue, even though I had no way of knowing if my answers were correct or even relevant. It’s a living embodiment of John Searle’s Chinese Room.
The Chinese Room is a thought experiment about intelligence and understanding. Imagine a room where tiles are passed in to you via a hatch. The tiles have Chinese characters on them. You follow a program that tells you to take a tile from your supply and push it back out, so you do just that, over and over.
Do I speak Chinese? No, I don’t. I may be able to follow a procedure, but I fundamentally lack understanding.
I, professional web chat charlatan, fundamentally lacked understanding of the topic I was answering questions on. And, as far as my superiors were concerned, that was fine.
So why did it not feel fine? Why did it feel fucking awful?
As is often the case with theory about the modern workplace, it’s useful to turn to the late David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’:
“Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at… This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”
Or to quote Uncle Karl:
“What constitutes the alienation of labour? …The fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e. does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.”
Or Murray Bookchin:
“Man-the-machine is the bureaucratic ideal”
Or how about Charlie Chaplin?
“Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts? You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men!”
Perhaps the point is laboured (no pun intended), but hopefully it’s coming through. This is no way to earn a living.
More than all that, though, we can say that Searle’s room itself doesn’t understand Chinese either. And, in tandem, the system I am working in lacks understanding.
You see, it’s unthinkable for anyone to have purposely designed things this way.
Imagine: You are a huge organisation routinely failing to do things, or to do them passably, and that causes your customers to endlessly contact you. The technical term for this, from John Seddon, is ‘failure demand’ (as opposed to ‘value demand’ which is just people normally contacting you with regular requests). You don’t simply go about doing the stuff you’re meant to do, because you now have all this other stuff, the failure demand, to do as well. Crucially, you don’t differentiate between the value stuff and the pointless, avoidable stuff, because it’s just a BIG PILE OF UNDIFFERENTIATED STUFF to you. So you eventually hire ‘new stuff managers’, and buy ‘new stuff systems’, and build an idiot-proof way of dealing with the new stuff, hiring what you presume to be idiots to hopefully make that awful whinging stuff go away.
This is not the behaviour of a rational beast.
“The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel…
We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death”
The analogy is what I call The Mop. In a street, houses are flooding, water pouring down from holes in the roof. Shouts ring out for help from these houses. Do you fix the leaks? Oh no, you grab a mop and feverishly try to deal with the deluge, dashing from house to house. But there are too many shouts, there’s too much water, so perhaps you need a bigger mop, or how about a better mop? Wait… let’s just get lots of ignorant underlings to do the mopping because they’re cheaper. But don’t ever stop mopping and look up...
In this weird paradigm, being busy counts as being useful. This is most pronounced in outsourced contracting, which is often charged per transaction regardless of the merit of the contact. It doesn’t matter if anything is resolved, because activity is productivity. A full bucket is an emblem of pride.
It’s clearly insane. Nobody involved thinks it actually makes sense. But there’s a lot of vested interest in mops.
All of a sudden, instead of shouting over to you, the residents start to send you emails, tweets and Facebook messages about their flooded houses. The moppers, the mop whisperers, the people who read the mop reports and the mop salesmen all say, “People want to contact us digitally, so we should give them a way to do so.” Well, they say when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re in the mop business and it’s raining tweets there’s only one thing to do, and that’s to invent a mop with a smartphone gaffer-taped to the handle.
This really shouldn’t need saying, but those people DON’T want to send you tweets. This is because THEY DON’T WANT TO CONTACT YOU AT ALL. They want the flooding to stop. Every penny you spend, every moment you take dealing with these puddles, is one lost on dealing with the roof. If you would only fix the hole, there wouldn’t be any flood. You wouldn’t need a SmartMop.
It should go without saying that the digital realm can be profoundly useful. Just look at the way it has allowed people to maintain or even build new connections during the Covid pandemic: it’s been a genuine lifeline. It has also been estimated that having access to, and skills for the internet saves individuals an average of £744 a year (think utilities/insurance switching, better deals on shopping, journeys saved), so there’s very clear evidence about the positive impacts on poverty. Then there’s hobbies and interests, keeping up with loved ones abroad even without Covid, increased access to services for those with disability… the list is unending.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is a nail. Digital is a means to an end, never an end in itself. To riff on an old trope:
- Tired: “We have all this contact about failure…”
- Wired: “…so let’s save money by making it happen electronically.”
- Inspired: “maybe, uh, just get better at doing stuff?”
At this point maybe you’re thinking I’m a snob who’s read a few books and thinks he’s too good to mop. The fact is, mopping is no way to make a living for anyone, not when it’s such a soul-sucking and self-evidently pointless exercise — see Graeber above. And that’s before we even get into the emotional labour that’s involved — the forced digital pleasantries, the friendly hard-coded emojis, the omerta on anything besides putting up with the barbed comments and pent-up frustration from customers, even though you’re painfully aware of the downright awfulness of it all, too. Tap out another smiley and give them the email address. Have a great day! :)
What are we building here? Is it McDonaldisation? This concept suggests that society has moved past Weber’s (and indeed Bookchin’s above) paradigm of the bureaucracy to one of the fast food restaurant. As Eric Schlosser explains in Fast Food Nation, the great achievement of burger chains was in replacing the skill of a cook with a division of labour focussed on small activities that were repetitive, repeatable, consistent and easily controlled. Crucially, nobody in the production line needed to know how to cook per se.
As a system, you could argue, the restaurant was undeniably able to ‘cook’. It was, after Searle, a room that spoke Chinese. In contrast, our army of moppers is institutionally, nay axiomatically, unable to effectively deal with an ongoing flood because it doesn’t even perceive the source. It just sees the water on the floor. Mops can’t fix roofs.
But one of the key drivers in McDonalisation is to provide the maximum amount of food possible in the minimum time. As you might expect, it’s not a system built for feeding people well, for sating them while providing genuine sustenance, it’s built for eating-in-the-moment and then getting rid of the punter. Eating is not synonymous with nutrition. Busyness is not usefulness. Replying is not necessarily answering. Mopping is not roof repair.
In this shitty mop life, it massages the ego to speculate that you can change the situation. You could ‘whisper’ back to your supervisor, meekly, that maybe someone should mend that hole — but either they can’t hear you over the rushing flow or they’re too busy to listen. You can hope for automation: a robomop!— when the sad fact is that all too often people are cheaper than machines, at least in the short term (and in a flooded home, the short term is all there is). You can keep fighting the good fight — mopping out the homes of those poor folks who just want the water gone, and leave the big stuff to the higher-ups. You can, ultimately, hope to become a supervisor, or a mopping trainer, move into mop sales or mop development and maybe one day manage the whole street and aw gee, then you’ll really be able to make a difference.
This mindset of feckless hope evokes none other than someone trapped in a bad relationship. “I can change them,” you convince yourself, “I know I can.” But eventually, a reckoning has to occur. I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating:
“What do I actually do? What is the final application and use of the products of my work?” and ultimately, “Am I content or ashamed to have contributed to this use?”
And so, I’m reminded of Mark Beechill’s poem ‘Keeper’:
While I would never wish
Any pain or darkness on you
I wish I could show you
The utter hell
And absolute bullshit
Of a day
For me, right now
And then I would hope
You would see
Why I’ve jacked it all in
As a friend
Once wisely said,
That’s a keeper
Reader, I jacked it in.