Friday, August 31, 2007

How to talk about books you haven't read

In this article, I would like to talk about a book I have never read. Strangely, though, I feel justified in doing so, since the book is entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read – it was written by French academic Pierre Bayard.

The book, which I have read about second-hand, is a bestseller in France. In the book, the author, apparently, admits that there are many books he talks about that he has not read. In fact, he says he has given lectures on books he has skimmed.

Bayard’s book is, allegedly, filled with invaluable advice. To talk about a book you have not read, Bayard reckons, you should avoid precise details, put rational thought aside and let your subconscious express your personal relationship with the work.

Bayard claims his coming clean is part of an attempt to break down the pretension that surrounds reading and makes nonreaders feel less guilty. It would seem that Bayard has a point, or has at least hit on something, given the sales of his book.

Then again, perhaps, people are buying Bayard’s book, not in support of his general thesis, but because they would like to join the pompous book-loving sect. They see Bayard’s book as a self-help guide to faking erudite literacy.

Either way, this tells us something – for some reason, books have become mystical. They represent something beyond what they themselves are – mediums for transmitting information. They are rated higher than film, documentary or a good lecture. They are seen as a cornerstone of civilisation.

It is largely true that knowledge, so-called progress and the written word are entwined. But is it not possible that the veneration we attach to books is the exact reason children are put off reading? Is bookish snobbery not one of the reasons those who struggle with reading often end up in a declining self-esteem cycle, which results in their avoiding books rather than trying to overcome their difficulties?

About one-million new books are published each year, and a book is published every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books. This suggests that it is not possible to read all books and that many are rubbish. This links to one explanation for the pretension about books. The well read take it upon themselves to distinguish the good from the bad. Sadly, however, reviewing books has become an elitist sport.

Bayard suggests that, when it comes to reviewing a book, put the book in front of you, close your eyes and try to perceive what may interest you about it. Then write about yourself.

His advice is frivolous, but I like the idea of using books as a platform for imagination and to learn more about one another. Because there are so many books in the world, reading is, by its nature, selective. So we should celebrate the fact that we have not all read the same books. We should spend less time seeking the ‘must read’ book of the year and eulogising about it, and more time in imaginative conversation with one another, learning about what we have not read and what else tickles our respective fancies. As Bayard notes, “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 31 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The art of outsourcing frustration

In the UK and Ireland, almost all telephone queries, helplines, and even booking some domestic services, such as flights, are outsourced. Seemingly, it is cheaper to hire people in the developing world than to carry out such tasks locally. Last week, however, I reached the end of the road with the infamous call centre.

After struggling for a week with a terminally slow Internet connection, I made the dreaded call to the so-called help desk. I was greeted by a cheery voice, presumably in Bangalore. I explained the problem and was passed from person to person for 30 minutes, repeating my story. Eventually, I was told someone would call back within 48 hours. Someone phoned two days later with the joyous news that an engineer would visit between 8:00 and 13:00 the following day.

The next day no one arrived. I called at 13:00 to enquire and was told to call back at 14:00 because they could only investigate the matter from 14:00 because then it could be conclusively established that no one had arrived. I called back at 14:00, armed with the irrefutable knowledge there was no engineer at my house. I was shunted for 45 minutes between different departments, as they endeavoured to verify that indeed someone had not arrived. I was told to call back at 18:00 to check if someone could come the following day.

During the 18:00 call, which lasted a mere 20 minutes, it was established that someone might appear the next day. I was told to call at 9:00 the following day to confirm. I called at 9:00 and, after 25 minutes, was told an engineer was not available. As I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the connection would be repaired.

Having said all this, I do not like to complain about call centres. Complaints in the UK and Ireland about call centres often have protectionist undertones that border on racism. Cursing foreigners for stealing Western jobs is a national pastime, even though only 5,5% of all jobs lost across Europe in the first quarter of 2007 were because of work being sent abroad, according to the Work Foundation.

That said, there clearly is a problem with call-centre outsourcing. How anyone can call the debacle I have been through ‘efficient’ is beyond me. It does, however, suggest that Indian workers are being paid so poorly that using 45 minutes to establish someone is not going to make an appointment is value for money for the employer.

This highlights the real issue, which is the exploitation of call-centre workers by multinationals and the brazen neglect of customers who, they know, have no option but to call repeatedly to resolve their issue.

This is not to say I oppose outsourcing – it has benefits. The West is naive to think the help desk is the flailing pinnacle of the outsourcing revolution. Outsourcing other services, such as software development, is big business. India’s high-tech sector is growing at 30% a year, largely because of outsourcing. It is not just cheap labour that is attracting business to the developing world, but the brain power in countries such as India and China. There are lessons in this for South Africa.

That said, as much as I like to see the developing world winning business from the West, we have to be aware of its price. I shudder to think of the mental impact on call-centre workers who spend each day getting an earful from people like me millions of miles away. Surely, there is a better way that could benefit worker and customer alike. If you want me to explain how this could be done, then call me between 9:00 and 21:00 during weekdays, press 1 to hear more about option 2, or press 2 to hear more about option 1, and when the frustration really sets in, press the hash key.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 17 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The woes of 'affluenza'

In his 1895, novel The Time Machine, HG Wells takes McEnroe’s view of affluenza to its logical (if not hyperbolic) conclusion. The novel centres on a time traveller, who travels forward in time into a world where the previously rich, because of their sedentary lifestyle, have devolved, rather than evolved, into a docile and ineffectual species called the Eloi. Members of the working class, in turn, have mutated into bestial creatures called Morlocks. The Morlocks live underground and toil to keep the Eloi’s world ticking over and bountiful. The twist, however, is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi from time to time to survive. Oddly, however, all have adapted to their roles and the strange world works with a de facto class structure still in place.

Of course, the real world is not as straightforward or as fantastical as Wells’s make-believe world. Many scientists and businesspeople come from wealthy homes and continue to evolve up the prosperity ladder. Some are even philanthropists. Children of high achievers, especially those that have to continue to work hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, are usually very motivated. They are not simply modern Elois. It is equally problematic to paint the working class as inherently brutish.

That said, children born into wealth, who do not need to work to keep their comforts, are, arguably, becoming more Eloi-like. The celebrity world is filled with the offspring of the wealthy who are layabouts with little social utility, typified by Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune.

Now I am not recommending that the working class devour the rich or Paris Hilton, particularly. Publicly endorsing cannibalism seldom wins friends. But McEnroe’s comments and Wells’s novel provide food for thought.

Are sections of the wealthy slowly sinking into Eloi-like uselessness because people are too comfortable? Is the growing wealth gap alienating the needy from the world of cappuccinos and coffee shops, trapping them in a destitute and brutalising world? Will this, in turn, lead to violent revolution? Or is Wells’ two-tier world of haves and have-nots, which ‘functions’ in a perverse cycle of mutual dependence more realistic?

In terms of the latter, I was thinking of writing a science-fiction novel. The story will centre, as unrealistic as it might sound, on a world made up of people who have no choice but to work like slaves for $1 a day. These unnamed individuals work in dark sweatshops to create clothes with fashionable labels on them for others who inhabit air-conditioned shopping malls seldom seen by the sweatshop workers. The people in the malls lust after the clothes with fashionable labels, but only get temporary satisfaction from each purchase so they continually demand more clothes and varied styles. In turn, the sweatshops grind on indefinitely.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.