March 03, 2008

Retardcapades, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Global Capitalism

Imagine for a moment that you are buying, oh, an extremely expensive high-tech pair of hiking boots. After much shopping youâve found the pair that you think will serve your needs for clambering over some hypothetical mountains. These hiking boots cost a lot, as they tend to, but youâve decided that theyâre worth it because theyâll do what you need. And for the heck of it, letâs say that this brand of boot comes standard with a cushiony gel insole. Are you with me?

Now imagine that the store youâre buying them from offers, for an extra couple of bucks, to include an appropriate pair of hiking socks with your boots. Letâs say itâs a special deal on buying the two together. âGreat!â you say. âI need both hiking boots and hiking socks, and they have taken the trouble of finding some that go together and selling them both to me at a discount!â

Now letâs imagine that youâre halfway across the Grand Tetons in your extremely expensive hiking boots and conveniently included socks, when you realize what the store didnât tell you: that they knowingly threw in a pair of socks that, in combination with the cushiony gel insoles of these particular boots, would cause your feet to catch fire. Q: Does this make any sense?

I have a new friend at the tech support call center who seems to have solved the mystery of why Iâve had three (3!) debilitating virus attacks, each requiring a full system wipe, in the two (2!) months I have owned my new computer. The issue becomes clear when I tell you a secret: the above story is merely a fable. Make the following substitutions to decode the secret meaning!

Yup: Stupid Dell runs Windows Vista (itself perhaps the most unpleasant operating system Iâve ever seen) standard on its products. They also bundle their systems with Trend Micro security software. But Vista + Trend Micro evidently = a whole host of problems that theyâre still just hearing about.

This makes perfect sense, of course, if looked at from the point of view of strategic business alliances rather than that of technology. And since I know exactly jack shit about technology, then the former is in fact the only way that I can look at it. In fact, Iâm kind of impressed by the companyâs ability to tune out irrelevant bullshit about whether certain products work together, or whether they, as is in fact the case, mutually interfere and prevent each other from working.
Q: Why are you bundling these two things together?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.
Q: Do they work together?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.
Q: They donât break each other, do they?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.

I finally got the solution to this puzzle last night when I was on the phone, spluttering mad, with my new friend at tech support.
âWhat do you mean?â I huffed. âYou recommend these things to go together!â
The kid on the other end of the phone produced a prizeworthy Derisive Snort. âI donât recommend this,â he said flatly. âThe company bundles it.â
âAh,â I said, as light dawned.

Because I am technologically retarded I donât trust myself with dangerously anarchist operating systems and open-source software; I assume that anything that I can locate for free on the internet is filled with child-porn viruses; and I prefer not to do much else with the computer other than turn it on or off. (Although at this point Iâve gotten so I can restore the infernal machine to factory condition with no help, with one hand tied behind my back and while eating a sandwich.) This is why I wanted someone else to make all the decisions about software and OS combinations for me. Poor naÃve Katie. All I wanted was to take the damned contraption out of the box and turn it on. I donât want to learn about freeware. I donât want to know what any of this stuff does. I just want it to do it.

Last night I finally just talked to the kid on the phone about what kind of system he has at home and what kind of security programs heâs running. Not at all the stuff his company sold me, but he told me heâs got basically the same system as me and has never had a real problem. I made him stay on the phone with me and spell out URLs letter by letter while I downloaded exactly the same programs that he has. I guess itâs a little like if I called from the Grand Tetons about my flaming feet and had a guy walk me through the process of taking off the combustible socks, filling my boots with free pine needles, and then sticking my feet back in. âGosh,â I imagine myself saying, âthat was easy and free. Are you sure thatâs it?â

âYeah,â I imagine the guy replying. âIâve had pine needles in my shoes for like two years and my feet are fine. Feels better than burning socks, right?â

I wasnât able to have this conversation on either of my previous two calls, because, of course, on all previous occasions I have been talking to extremely polite and well-mannered employees working at an overseas call center someplace. Both of the employees I spoke to had heavy South Asian accents and insisted that they had improbably white-bread names like Bob and Justin. Both evinced, in the manner of those not born on American soil, a work ethic, a willingness to stick to the script, and a degree of employee loyalty that made them ultimately completely unhelpful. âI am going to scream,â I would say somewhere during Hour Two of the phone call. âSend me a new computer or I will kidnap one of the children I seem to hear playing in the background and I will sell them on the organ market.â
âYes, Missus Katie,â âBobâ would say. âDo you mind if we start again with turning off the unit and once again pressing F8 many, many times?â

My new friend, by contrast, sounded like a stoned, bored American college student or a stoned, bored out-of-work programmer â in other words, like exactly the kind of person Iâm accustomed to speaking to. In the manner of the lazy, rude American worker, he cut right to the chase. âOh Jesus,â he said. âThis guy last night had somebody with exactly your problem and they spent like a million fucking hours on the phone trying to rule everything else out. Do you mind if we just start from scratch and I help you set up your system the way I have mine?â
âWhat, you mean the rational and easy way?â I asked, startled.

Both of the employees I spoke to at the Bengali call center spoke lovely and articulate English and were much better at differentiating between similar frustrated utterances than I am in any of the languages Iâve âstudied.â They were unfailingly polite. But last night it was a profound relief to talk to someone who spoke my language.
âThank fucking God,â I said.
âNo shit, dude,â he said.

Posted by katie at March 3, 2008 06:10 PM

So, at long last, what did your tech support friend recommend for anti-virus and assorted system protection software?

Do gel insoles in hiking boots actually catch fire under the right circumstances? I ask, not to question the integrity of your parable, but rather to make sure that if gel insoles can, indeed, catch fire, I stay as far the fuck away from them as possible.

I read an article somewhere comparing customer service in America to customer service in a foreign country (I believe it was Japan). As I recall, the conclusion of the article was that American customer service tends to be crappy at day-to-day routine matters, helping customers find merchandise, promptly and politely ringing up purchases, etc., while Japanese customer service does routine stuff very well. Contrariwise, American customer service is far more likely to do extraordinary things for customers, like staying open an extra fifteen minutes for a customer that calls ahead and needs to pick something up, or tracking down a copy of a book that a customer is searching for that isn't in stock, while that sort of thing simply doesn't happen in Japan. If it isn't by the book, it doesn't get done.

I just thought that seemed relevant to your experience vis-a-vis South Asian vs. American call centers.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at March 3, 2008 07:10 PM

The combination the stoned bored kid said he's had no problems with is AVG anti-virus, regular old Windows firewall, and either Spybot or Ad-aware for spyware depending on which I like better. So far they all seem to be staying out of each others' way on my computer and doing what they're supposed to do, although I'm the last person who'd be able to tell if that weren't the case.

One of my students, who has the exact same system that I have, also recommended Zone Alarm firewall and CA Internet Security for the other stuff, so if the current setup doesn't pan out I'll try his suggestion.

That article is fascinating and makes all kinds of sense to me. It's interesting re: the goods and bads of American individualism. I have to admit that I frequently get irritated with anything that looks like an unreasonable adherence to authority or "the rules" -- I actually think the mindset of following the rules for their own sake is dangerous -- and I tend to like the fact that we rude, pigheaded Americans are often more likely to toss out the rules than some other cultures. In fact, now that I think about it, sometimes I like the bumpiness of crappy service with the routine day-to-day stuff, like the notorious incompetence and rudeness of the employees at one of our local health food stores, because it's like a daily reminder that these are people who haven't been made into robots.

What was the article, just out of curiosity? If you remember anything about it I'd be interested in reading it.

Posted by: katie at March 4, 2008 12:58 PM

Hrum. I thought I had a decent idea where that article might be, but upon looking for it there I have learned that it is not where I thought it was at all. Now I'm lost for ideas.

If it's any consolation, when I said "article" it probably would have been more accurate to say "blog post," and I believe most of the evidence supporting the conclusion was anecdotal. If something jogs my memory and I can find it I'll send you a link.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at March 5, 2008 09:09 PM

May I recommend against using zone alarm and CA. Those two will just slow things down and do no extra good. The bored kid is right. The default firewall does a decent enough job. Sigh! I guess he will get fired soon though... for something stupid like acting against Dell policy or something...

Might be good for him though.

Posted by: Anshul at March 6, 2008 10:23 AM

Katie. At bocci (that time when my boyfriend and I handed you your ass), a trip to the Board Walk was proposed. There was to be funnel cake for Christian and no fewer than 3Gs for you and me. If there is still time in your busy end of the quarter schedule, we should pick a day. In all my years living in Santa Cruz, I have never, not once, made it to the Board Walk. Can we fix that?

Posted by: David! at March 14, 2008 12:48 PM

All right, you've been there for 12 hours by now. Are you going to blog about your trip or what?

Posted by: DelightfulFormerHousemate at March 25, 2008 06:19 PM