Posted by Lexington Green on November 17th, 2003 (All posts by Lexington Green)
India is becoming the Anglosphere’s back-office. Unlike Jonathan’s experience in this interesting piece a Canadian fellow who had a problem with his computer got good results from the back-office. He called the help line and got it fixed, with the assistance of someone in India on the other side of the phone line.
Call centres, like the one I reached in India, are a creation of global capitalism and a striking example of how technology ignores geography and spreads employment.
Call centres are made possible by toll-free phone numbers, cheap long-distance, special phone banks, and globally linked corporate computer systems. A dozen or so years ago, with those elements all in place, the call-centre business began circling the earth. Soon millions of people were conversing across the oceans, often without knowing it.
What’s missing in this discussion?
Oddly, what is missing is the most important thing. The writer mentions all the hardware, but the human element is the dispositive one, the linguistic element. You have to be able to speak English. Call centers are in India and the Philippines, not Peru or China, because people speak English in those places. The customer base for call centers is the rich part of the world, especially the Anglosphere. The work force for call centers is the anglophone population of the poorer places on the outer margins of the Anglosphere. Modern technology, for most practical purposes, renders all people who speak the same language contiguous, without regard to physical location. These linguistic and cultural zones are going to advance, or stagnate, or regress, as units. The Anglosphere, due to inherited cultural, legal and political forms, is the one best positioned to take advantage of technological changes as we go forward. And one of its many advantages is a gigantic “hinterland” in India, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and anglophone Africa. These areas will provide our back-office, and increasingly, serve as a locale for further investment and development.
Once you start to notice this lapse, this blindness to the centrality of language, you see it everywhere. Dale Amon, writing in Samizdata:
I sat here in my flat in Newtonabbey, on the outskirts of Belfast and worked with a team in the US. On the days of the setup and run, the crew was spread out over three locations in Manhattan, the hotel in Boston .. and my flat in Northern Ireland.
Physical location has little meaning when you meet and work in cyberspace. Borders are a joke: they have been erased by the scouring terrabytes of global connectivity. I can be or work anywhere I want on this planet, any time I wish and no one can stop or question me.
Leaving aside the libertarian chest-thumping, Amon has sinned by omission in writing that “Physical location has little meaning when you meet and work in cyberspace”. He failed to specify “meet and work with other English speakers”, though that is what he means. And those coworkers, and clients and customers, are likely to be physically located in English-speaking countries.
Similarly, this guy has the silly objection to cell phones that they deprive us of a sense of place, or some such abstraction. He does say, correctly, that cellphones make us all contiguous – but, again, only to the extent we can talk to each other, i.e. speak the same language, a point he fails to mention.
The above discussion is reinforced by a column in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscribers only, so no link) by Lee Gomes entitled “Romanians Become Latest Tech Rivals for Offshore Jobs”. Not surprisingly, the Romanian’s, whose Latin-derived language is fairly close to French, have become the back-office for France, forming a linguistic first cousin Francosphere with poles at either end of Europe. In fact, Franco-Romanian cultural ties go way back. Gomes comments that “[t]he high tech boom in India has been due in part to technology-oriented central planning, along with investment by returning Indian expatriates.” Why Gomes doesn’t mention that India has a linguistic advantage, allowing the whole Anglophone world to be its customer base, eludes me. Gomes goes on to note that:
Romania has, perversely, communism to thank for its nascent tech scene. The Communists had an engineering and industrialization fetish; all the massive megalomaniacal construction projects for which the Ceausescu regime was infamous required armies of skilled engineers. Math is still hammered into students, especially the bright ones. The country also has a long computer history. It was building pirated IBM mainframes back in the 1960s … .
etc. While that is true and important, Gomes leaves for much farther down the column this comment: “The locals’ skill with European languages gives Romanians an edge over rivals in India and Russia in attracting help-desk work from European countries.” Why Romania and not Hungary or the Czech Republic? My guess is that it is because the core customer base for Romania is France (the only country Gomes specifically mentions as being serviced from Romania), whose language Romanians either already know or find relatively easy to learn. The Slavs and Magyars have no such advantage.
Contra Amon, despite the Internet, or modern technology more generally, borders are not a joke. You have to put your money somewhere, you have to sleep somewhere, you have to deal with the State wherever you go. The place you want to do these things is pretty much always going to be within the “borders” of an Anglosphere country, especially if you have a family. And even if you park yourself and your computer somewhere, you can figure that your customers will be in the Anglosphere. You have to talk to people to work.
Language matters. Borders matter.