Action Is Character – or, Computer Says No?

I’m getting retrenched from my call centre job soon. I knew it was coming. At the end of October there just won’t be much work for a lot of us, so about 50 of us were herded into a virtual room (it was a conference call – we all are working from home) and given the bad news. Can’t say I’m too heartbroken about it. The novelty of the job was definitely wearing off, and I wanted more time to write. And the prospect of being unemployed holds no fear for me. I mean, I’m 59 and been through the wringer a few times with the prospect of a pension looming, so it’s easy to take this philosophically. It’s the younguns I feel sorry for. My young work mate, Dael, who was a trainee at the same time as me, seemed to take it badly. He took the rest of the day off after the meeting. It’s especially annoying and sad that he got the chop, because he was a very diligent worker – he even skilled up to a level higher than me in the time we were both there. He deserved better treatment.

So I’m glad it’ll soon be over. It was either be retrenched or eventually get sacked for insubordination, anyway – and I’d rather be retrenched. Because I break the rules every day I’m on this job. That’s right: I break the rules. We have a thing called a Document Verification System (DVS) which we use to verify our client’s identity. Sometimes it doesn’t verify, no matter how you change the client’s details around. And it’s not the client’s fault; they’ve got their document right there, hoping it will pass them so they can get the help I can give them. So, faced with this choice, what do you do? Well, sometimes I just pass them anyway. I won’t be dictated to by a fucking computer – especially a program that is sometimes faulty. I’m there to help my clients, not to just go ‘computer says no’. Surely there’s room for compromise, or at least ‘operator’s discretion’, some way for me to take control? Anyway, that’s my thinking. It causes me guilt and mental anguish, but I do it. That’s just the way I am.

This brings me to that good old writer’s prompt – action is character. There’s also that other related prompt here too – characters are defined by the choices they make. My guys in the new novel make a choice when they decide to commit treason against their government because of what they see as the greater good. Unsurprisingly, it’s similar to the choice I make when I ignore the DVS result – a rejection of authority. From there we could take a psychological approach and extrapolate to the past to see what caused them (and me – us?) to act that way. Similarly, we could debate the ethics of our behaviour, and bring in consequences, and even politics. This would all be good grist to the story telling mill – and believe me, I intend to go there.

But we need not mindlessly reject any authority for simply being what it is. There needs to be a sense that that authority is not acting in the best interests of the people. Here in Victoria we have a situation where most of us Victorians are right behind our leader, the Premier Daniel Andrews, in his efforts to stop the spread of the Covid 19 virus via lockdown after a disastrous recent outbreak. Most of us accept his authority because we see, or have decided that, in seeking to control the spread of the virus he is acting in our best interests. But some do not. Some (especially those in the Murdoch media) clamour for businesses to open back up, and damn the health implications. It’s an issue, a choice, that’s happening all over the world at the moment. What is in our best interests – lockdown or open up? When to take control, and when to give up our control?

The virus has become a metaphor for the so-called free market and the forces that tug at it. To regulate or de-regulate? Fact is, it was never ‘free’, and there’s always been some kind of regulation, through taxes, tariffs and subsidies (and other mechanisms) to stave off the ever-present threat of monopolies and inequalities. Even Capitalists recognise the wisdom of this. If the system is not working properly, or has become a threat to us, then it’s time to take back some human control. In other words, if your DVS result is off, are you gonna give your clients a pass anyway, or will it be ‘computer says no’?

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