Saturday, July 19, 2008

I wanna Diephone

I work for a major telecom doing customer service. It is a mindless, uncompelling job specifically devised for an odd cross section of potential employees: those with no wish to go any further in life, and those with no hope of doing so. The former are often immigrants who find their degrees which, like bartending, should guarantee them employment everywhere, are useless here without more school. The latter are generally engineers recently laid off from salaried positions at large corporations who have just enough dignity, and French skills, to avoid flipping burgers. Everyone is bitter. No-one wants anyone else to have a nice day.

Recently, a new product was introduced onto the market that only us and our parent company were offering. Being too young when the Cabbage Patch doll craze was happening, I had no real experience with a large-scale consumer frenzy. This was to be the first in my life, and it was magnificent.

Being one of the few people in my company without a cell-phone, I'm often able to wax philosophic about the rampant consumerism and mindless consumption in this culture. I get odd looks when I admit I don't have a cellphone and occasionally, I'll ask how an employee account is set up just so I can impart to the person next to me that I am somehow above it. "no no", I'll say, "I don't need to switch it, if I get one, I'll have to set it up from scratch." I emphasize the if, to make clear that somehow, someone is going to have to make it worth my while.

The glut didn't surprise me this time, as I was one of the people who actually did want one of these devices. They are smooth, sleek looking, and they have that next-generation feel of all useless and dangerous technology. "A flip phone?", I'm known to ask friends and friends of friends, "who would put that much faith in hinged fibre optics? Don't be surprised that when it breaks, they won't replace it." This is my final word on both the technology and the managers who own it. Don't expect much, it's only shiny until you use it. Then it's covered in skin oil and traces of earwax.

It wasn't so much the unadulterated avarice surrounding this launch that did me in, this being the default state of being for anyone in their right mind in North America, but it was the depressing residual follow-up phone calls that I had to handle from those people who were offended at the thought that on the first day the item was available in this country, they might have to pay for it. In the build-up, I dealt with many customers who needed assurances that they could get them, that we were in fact selling them. I tried to tell them everything would be okay. A friend of mine in another department cleverly advised a customer who was waiting in line overnight outside a Toronto store to dial the customer service number at 7:30 am and wait on hold until we opened at 8. The phone wouldn't be on sale until 9, but that way, he could choose whichever was faster. He thanked her for her innovative suggestion, you could almost hear his wink over the phone.

The mantra of the day was, 'it's just a phone' all throughout the office. Partially this was to shield us from the live insanity leaking through our headsets at us, but it was also response to the management's handling of the launch. We had been invited to wear white, presumably because in a call-centre environment, not only can the customer 'hear your smile on the phone' she can also tell what promotional colour you might be wearing based on your tone of voice. Managers walked about with baskets of Spartan apples, which I only accepted after confirming that they were from Quebec and hadn't been shipped in from somewhere.

In the days leading up to it, several online petitions and articles by tech reporters had gone far to describe how unfair and draconian the business practices of our, and by extension many, telecoms were. I dealt with Europeans who were shocked at how the business is run here, and a few Americans who were surprised that the system still ran the way it did. A bill had even been presented in Parliament for review and a potential vote, and when one woman from Etobicoke asked me about it, I didn't have the heart to tell her what a 'first reading' meant and that likely she'd get her answer in the next two years or so. When asked in an accusatory tone if we were 'doing anything' about all the people who took seconds from their life to sign an email petition about telecommunication business practices, I looked for a way to explain that for every call to complain, there were 10 to place an order at full-price, while retaining my tone of understanding and helpfulness.

The day itself is passed now, and actually went okay given all the hype from both sides. Comments ranted on internet columns, managers sweated, computer systems crashed. Like any usual day when millions of tons of important information are shoved willy-nilly through overtaxed towers and routers. I often imagine satellites groaning in space under the sheer weight of classroom text messages and gps searches for the nearest 99c pizza.

It's done, we're in it and it's one of our products. The buildup is over and launch day could have been worse. The traditional disappointment in finding the normalcy in your newest acquisition is setting in. And as I prepare for work tomorrow, I can say, with a smile in my voice, that at least for this telecom, it's bark is worse than it's bite.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

go canada! Let's hear it for home grown plastic recycling

This is one of those things that I think the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, or the Canada Foundation for Innovation should be holding prizes for. Also, it should be much much closer to the front page than it is.

A grade 11 kid in Ontario has developed a composting mechanism including the appropriate bacterial culture to break down plastic bags within 3 months. Break down plastic bags in a three month period. Three months. This is something scientists have been working on for about a decade since the plastic developed and produced since it's advent in the 1950's has no degradable component and no naturally occurring microbes yet exist that will ingest it on a large scale. The cleanup efforts this process could assist are breathtaking, particularly considering the monstrous build-up of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean.

The next questions to ask are: how can this be improved on and implemented, what materials are left after decomposition and what should be done with them, and how do we prevent this innovation from giving plastic companies an excuse to keep mass-producing without killing the innovation itself?

A related story was put just as far from the headlines showed the Barrie Metals Group recycling high-tech materials and using some components to make diesel fuel. This was in the small-business section of the CBC and failed to correlate this with another story on the staggering high-tech waste being unsafely recovered in landfills in Asia.

Too often stories like these and others are kept separate, portioned off to us in varying sections of reports, papers and websites. A little momentum if you please? Could we relate the current international food crisis to the need for diesel fuel that can be created from reclaimed laptops, copiers and computer screens? How about the possibility of cleaning up not just the Thames, a section of wetland or a coastline, but in fact a continental section of ocean.

More than cynical commentary or semantic condescention, what we need is actual discussion, some hows, some funding and some linkage to how one technology can affect diverse situations the world over.

And what the hell, it's an Olympic year. Let's shout a little that it's happening here.