One Night @ the Call Centre: Don’t Forget the 35:10 Rule

By Terry Calhoun

Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat was a good read, insightful, and thought-provoking. I read his columns in the New York Times regularly and can count on more of the same each time, but I don’t recall that he addressed the 35:10 Rule. He may not even know about it. Ditto for William Gibson; he of “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

I hadn’t previously realized that out in some of those “other” places, people might think we Americans are pretty stupid. I can sort of handle people envying us, or hating us due to ideological beliefs, or their own ignorance, but I can’t handle the fact that they think we’re stupid.

I’ve probably never been as shocked, in recent memory, as when I read about the 35:10 Rule. Boiled down, this rule (allegedly taught to Indians in overseas call centers outsourced from the U.S.) represents the belief that 35-year-old American consumers are about as smart as 10-year-old Indian kids.

On the other hand, why I was shocked? I already knew that American “apple pie” corporation, General Motors, was selling gas-guzzlers to some buyers in Florida and California and guaranteeing them the difference between $1.99 per gallon and whatever price gasoline rises to for the vehicle’s lifetime. Could there be a clearer example of short-term, next-quarter-profit-based, myopic corporate vision? If our corporations are that stupid, then…

Well, yes, but that could be another story.

So, the gist of Friedman’s thing is that technology, especially information technology, has created a world without much topography in terms of what used to be barriers to sharing ideas, products, services, and other such things that previously existed in a world without fax machines, the Internet, and cheap long-distance telephone service. His focus is on business and commerce, though, and the insistence that nationalism must give way to globalization.

Gibson’s famous NPR quote indicates that pretty much any technology that we are going to be able to experience or use in our remaining lifetimes and those of close-succeeding generations is already “out there” somewhere. Maybe only a handful of people know about it or can afford it, and perhaps at the moment no one knows its importance. But the future is out there; just not spread out evenly.

That’s a sadly limiting thought because the single greatest dissonance in our culture’s technology advances, to me, is the growing gap between how much information can flow – fast and in quantity – over large physical distances, compared to the limitations on physical travel that we still face. Those limitations are likely to get even greater as we face the fact that the brute force and energy used to move materials and humans (relatively) quickly around the planet are harmful (force) and limited (energy).

We can do now what is indistinguishable from magic a generation ago with light waves, radiation, ones, and zeros. But physically moving products or ourselves around takes brute force and energy. How long can we keep it up? And where on earth is the unevenly-distributed technology that will do it? I don’t see anything on the horizon that purports to move physical objects over long distances without a lot of force and the consumption of a lot of energy. Do you?

As 3,000+ higher education leaders prepare to fly to Hawaii for the Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds conference, options are being prepared for attendees to voluntarily purchase carbon offsets for their travel – like the sticker I buy for my own Chevy Suburban each year. (Yes, I need it; and it has averaged over 50 PMPGs since I bought it.) But I have to admit that each time I fly now, I give second and third thoughts to the necessity of the trip versus an ever-growing list of costs that are more and more evident.

So, information flows swiftly all over and around this flat earth, but physical things less so. Partly that’s good, because some of the nasty things that people would like to physically send to each other turn out to be weapons. But it sure can lead to misleading understandings. Or insights.

In the novel, One Night @ The Call Centre, (recently made into a movie) the author:

[D]escribes the frustrations of highly educated Indians giving helpline advice to a series of unintelligent Americans who need assistance on understanding how to use ovens and vacuum cleaners. There is office flirtation and marital infidelity, with plenty of weeping in the toilets.

Here new trainees are taught the ‘35:10 rule’ on day one. ‘A 35-year-old American’s brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian’s brain. This will help you understand your clients,’ training instructors explain. (Hi, It’s Bollywood Calling)

Did we really need to know that the person on the other end of our customer support call is not only difficult to understand (as much our fault as his or hers…or rather, no one’s fault), but may also be mocking our stupidity or ignorance?

Maybe we at least need to be able to say, “Wait a minute, our 10-year olds are smarter than we are, too.” I know who I turn to when I need a new vacuum cleaner taken out of the box and assembled. If I want help putting something new together or understanding how the thermostat controls work, I ask my kids.

I wonder if those Indian kids are going to end up as deeply in debt once they finish their education as our kids? Will they live in a world where having lived on campus at Harvard really d'esn’t matter as much as how much they know and what they can do? Will they like us? Will we care? I predict the following will be a growing perspective, and one that we will find it extremely difficult to alter:

One of the book’s her'es, Varun (or Victor for work purposes) declares: ‘An air-conditioned sweat shop is still a sweatshop. In fact, it is worse because nobody sees the sweat. Nobody sees your brain getting rammed.’

Later he adds: ‘My friends, I am angry. Because every day I see some of the world’s strongest and smartest people in my country. I see all this potential, yet it is all getting wasted.’

‘An entire generation up all night, providing crutches for the white morons to run their lives.’

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