Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"And They're Telling Me Lies"

My older son has swapped conventional education for the University of YouTube. As a result, he know nothing about the Wars of the Roses or the Industrial Revolution, but is becoming something of an expert on 9/11 conspiracy theories, UFOs and cats that look like Hitler. He's also good at hacking, so it's probably only a matter of time before he's extradited to the US.

I've been trying to make him think more critically about the information he finds on the internet, questioning the sources and asking what their motivation is. It's been an uphill struggle, but I'm glad that he now accepts that the moon landings were genuine.

The internet is a minefield of lies and half truths. Many of us are able to negotiate it successfully, but the more vulnerable struggle to separate truth from fiction. It doesn't help when companies that we trust lie to us.

Sometimes the lies are easy to spot. This display in Tesco, which I tweeted last week, is one of the most absurd things I've seen for a long time:

I would love to know how this nonsense got to the stage of being signed off and printed. Do we even want passionate people to prepare our food? As one person commented, "I'm not sure which sort of passion would be worse. If they're angry they'll have spat in it, if they're amorous, well...."

Aside from the fact that passion is a bit foreign, I'm also concerned that Tesco are violating Equal Opportunites legislation, discriminating against those who are unable to feel strongly about manufacturing yogurt.

The Tesco example is crude and obvious. Other lies are more subtle, such as these depictions of helpline employees:

Apparently, when we phone call centres, we will speak to attractive, slim, middle class people who can't wait to speak to us. Perhaps they're smiling because they know that the caller has just been listening to a loop of Richard Clayderman for 37 minutes.

The adverts never feature anyone who is fat, depressed, ugly or scruffy and the employees are shown sitting in rows in a light, airy office. In reality, people are treated like battery hens, squashed into tiny cubicles in a noisy room with no natural light or fresh air.

It's not quite the Lancashire mills, but it's still pretty awful that anyone should have to spend 40 hours a week working somewhere like here:

I've never quite trusted corporate websites after an experience with this company, in the pre-internet era:

In the 1990s, I constantly received catalogues from a UK stationery company called Viking.

Unlike most junk mail, I used to enjoy browsing through the contents because at various points, a man called Ian Helford would be shown using the products. In the illustration above, Ian is merely pointing, but it got more exciting inside and he could be seen in a variety of positions, carrying boxes, labelling shelves or testing a broom.

I began to develop a mild fascination for this publicity-shy businessman in his 60s and envisaged him speaking with a slight London accent and living in a vulgar new mansion in Billericay.

You can imagine my horror when I discovered that it was all a fiction.

On a trip to the US, I saw a Viking catalogue on a table. "It's good to see a British company doing well in the US" I thought, and decided to have a look. Ian was on the front page, pointing at some A4 paper, but in this catalogue he was called Irwin.

Who was this man?

Further investigation proved that Ian really was Irwin and that rather than being a British company doing well in the US, Viking was as American as apple pie. 'Ian' didn't live in Billericay, but if the portrait below is anything to go by, he did live in a vulgar mansion:

I can see why Irwin Helford was 'rebranded' for Viking's entry into the UK stationery market. Irwin is one of those very American names, like Elmer, Chuck or Hank that would have identified the business as a global corporation. Ian Helford was a local man. Someone you could pick up the phone and do business with.

It was a fib. In fairness, Viking never clained that Mr Helford was British, but by changing his name there was an element of disguise. As internet usage grew, Viking wisely changed this to 'I. Helford' .

These days, there's no excuse for ignorance. With the click of a few buttons, it's possible to find out that Innocent smoothies is now owned by Coca-Cola and that Starbucks is guilty of tax avoidance in the UK. But we have to learn how to use the internet.

I'm concerned that my son's critical faculties aren't being developed. I do what I can to discuss things with him, but teenage boys aren't naturally inclined to listen to their fathers. Ideally, he'd be able to discuss issues in a classroom environment, but my son's school have admitted that they don't know what to do with him and his days are now spent indoors.

With no qualifications, my son's job prospects will be grim. But as he has displayed an aversion to daylight and fresh air, preferring to spend his time hunched in front of a screen, maybe there's a position waiting for him at the nearest call centre. He's also quite passionate, so perhaps Tesco would be interested too.

But I'm not giving up yet. I hear that they're paying people who know how to do coding up to £18 an hour, so I think I'll put the call centre on hold. Who knows, in a few years' time, my son could be richer than I've ever been.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

I hope your son reads this posting to give him an overall picture of what he needs to be wary of in life. But he could well make a fortune as a computer hacker or programmer, so don't be too quick to doom him to a future in call centres. In any case call centres require you to talk to customers, which doesn't sound like his metier. I worked in a call centre with 150 other people and fewer than half a dozen looked anything like the 'lying' photographs you so insightfully highlight. And of course many are based abroad as we know so probably have no white middle-class model types working in them at all, much though white model-types should not be influencing anyone's choice of bank or insurer. A sublime post Steerforth and so true. Good luck with your son's quality control filter development. He is certainly not too young to know that the world is full of liars and crazy people but that there is honesty and truth out there too. I hope he stays right away from those cyber-bullies as well and learns how to recognise them and cut them off. Evil people.

Brian Busby said...

The thing that strikes me most about those call centre employees is their impeccable grooming - that, combined with uniform cheery expression remind me more of a cult than anything else. On the positive side, it would appear that call centres have extraordinarily generous dental plans.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Never was offered a dental plan in my call centre Brian. If only!

Anonymous said...

I don't think I watch a lot of YouTube but I do subscribe to one channel that may be of interest to your son. Look out for just about any of potholer54's videos. He's a british journalist called Peter Hadfield. He's based in Australia and has spent the last few years debunking pseudo-science and creationists.
Even if your son is not keen he's great to listen to hen you're in need of some level-headed reasoning with a good helping of humour thrown in.


Steerforth said...

Laura - Nobody in this house reads my blog, which is probably a thoroughly good thing, but I think my son's becoming receptive to the idea of turning his IT skills into a career. I've made sure that he's fully aware of what happens to people who hack into the US military. We're also watching Breaking Bad, so the "Crime doesn't pay" message is coming across loudly.

Re: cyber-bullies, he's remarkably feisty when dealing with them and gives as good as he gets, so that's encouraging.

I also worked in a call centre for a market research company. As it was based in Richmond, most of the staff were out of work actors and it was quite funny listening to someone reading out a questionnaire in an absurdly thespain voice.

Brian - The Stepford element is absurd isn't it (over here, Amazon UK is showing an advert that suggests that a rather gorgeous Irishwoman is waiting to help me deal with any Kindle-related issue, but I know that if I dial the number, I'll get a man whose accent is so strong I'll end up saying yes to the wrong thing).

It's all part of a trend that values fake enthusiam, 'passion' and excitement over genuine politeness, competence and professionalism. I can't bear going in clothing stores any more because the staff are so desperately manic it feels as if their loved ones are being held somehwhere at gunpoint.

Josh - Thanks for the tip. I've just watched one on climate change and it was wonderfully clear-headed and succinct. I'll see if I can get my son interested.

Canadian Chickadee said...

What a great post, Steerforth. Your blogs really are some of the most interesting I've ever read.

One thing about call centres that you failed to mention: in the USA, they give you a wait time, pronounced by a cheery voice that says something like, "Your customer satisfaction is very important to us. Today's average wait time is 47 and a half minutes." I'm always left expecting Mrs. Bales to give me the weather forecast for the English Channel!

Universal Acknowledgement said...

Have you come across this company? http://specialistpeople.com/specialisterne/

There could be an element of cynicism in leveraging "the characteristics of people with autism as a competitive advantage" but in fact the story behind the company is a little more enlightened.

martine said...

Having worked in a call centre I can honestly say it's not the worst job I've had and although the booths were small we did have natural light and scheduled breaks and we could chat or play solitaire when there were no calls.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Yes, I'm familiar with the "Your call is very important to us..." routine. Thank God for hands-free phones, as at least we can get on with other things.

But sometimes I've completely forgotten about the phone call and can't understand why a voice is suddenly blaring out of the speaker.

Universal Acknowledgement - I've heard about this from a friend who worked at the National Austistic Society. It sounds like a rare win-win situation in which the employer gets hard working staff with a high boredom threshold and the employees are spared the ordeal of the usual stresses of the workplace.

Oddly enough, my parents' jobs at the National Savings Bank in the 1950s were very austism-friendly, whereas today's supposedly more tolerant workplace forces social misfits to endure the horror of team-building exercises.

Martine - You had daylight? That's unusual. Out of interest, what's the worst job you've ever had?

By the way, I've just been looking at your blog and have bookmarked it, as I'm very interested in your experiences of children's education at school and home. I'm less than enamoured with the education system.

Anonymous said...

Yours is actually the first blog I have read, stumbled upon when Googling 'oldest buildings' I read your '2nd oldest building' and was hooked and read every entry. Such gentle,insightful and downright laugh out loud musings.
Wonderful stuff and after a particularly rough day, a joy to read. Thank you.

George said...

E.W. Dijkstra said that the requirements for programming were mathematical maturity and the ability to express oneself clearly in one's native language. (Being Dutch, he did not stop at one language: a lot of people disagreed with much of what Dijkstra wrote in English, but none ever doubted what he meant.) There are quite successful programmers who didn't bother with college, and some extremely rich ones who started and dropped out.

Tim Footman said...

I too was traduced by the duplicitous Hughie Green lookalike "I" Helford. I seem to remember that on the French Viking site he didn't have a name at all.

I've spent too much of my life ordering stationery, haven't I?

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - Thank you! If this blog was a book, your quote would be my blurb of choice on the back. It's really gratifying to read a comment like yours and when I have doubts about the point of keeping a blog, they persuade me to keep going.

George - That's interesting, as my son has a very good grasp of grammar and finds mental arithmetic generally easy, so perhaps he is suited to programming. His problems give him a "spiky profile" in which he can seem as daft as a brush in some areas and very mature in others. But I can think of many successful figures who have struggled to cope with ordinary life.

Tim - In France he was probably also confused with Monsieur Le Pen, although Irwin is a little slimmer.

I used to enjoy the customer comments on the back page, with photographs of rather odd-looking people called Keith, Linda and Gary. Bizarrely, one glowing endorsement came from the acclaimed concert pianist, Stephen Hough.

George said...

Also, I meant to remark that YouTube has many presentations about this or that aspect of programming. A co-worker is in the habit of going to YouTube whenever she has questions about some task or another: how do I deploy this kind of web server? How do I make this or that happen? I don't spend a lot of time there, but I can definitely see its uses.

Rog said...

That was actually me, Steerforth.

Pre-internet duplicity once again.

(I used to be able to knock out a passable version of Billy Joel's "Piano Man")

Steerforth said...

George - The challenge is to curate the content, but I'm encouraged by the growing number of intelligent, thought-provoking videos.

Rog - But can you do Goodnight Saigon on the spoons?

Grey Area said...

Conspiracy theorists spend decades honing their fictions into thrilling, elaborate creations that are as seductive as they are plausible - that’s why they fascinate like Hollywood movies and are designed to play on our fears, although personally I’ve always thought that 9/11 theorists in particular are just reacting with disbelief because it’s easier to believe that your government is corrupt - than it is to accept that actually, it’s just staggeringly incompetent. Try getting him interested in the many de-bunking sites, there are some excellent people out there using science and common sense to bring logic and truth to the matter with really great delivery, if he’s the kind of kid that likes ‘finding out’ - then discovering real truth will eventually win over fiction.

One of the joys of the creative industries is that anyone can play their part - it really does not matter who or what you are, or what level of communication you prefer - there will be a place for you, as long as you can do your job and have something to contribute - I’ve never met a coder that was anything other than detached from polite society - most live of the furthest fringes of the autistic spectrum - it goes with the territory, we have one at the moment who is so staggeringly good we can overlook his stranger than strange perspective on the world and total inability to scope social situations like a normal person (whatever that is….), - one of his most invaluable qualities is that he is part of a massive online community of coders who freely exchange problem solving and innovation - the other coder at work is 10 years older at 28 and cannot fathom how this youngster repeatedly creates elegant, unique, problem solving solutions in a fraction of the code anticipated. I also think he’s capable of earning far more if he’s any good, without having to compromise and.. fit in.

Steerforth said...

Richard - That's encouraging. I've seen too much emphasis on social skills and team building in recent years, stigmatising anyone who prefers their own company.

The working world in the past may have been grimmer in many ways, but there were far more jobs where people with Asperger's and related conditions could blend in without being regarded as a problem. These days, it feels as if the fatuous bullshitters have staged a coup.

I hope the I can steer my son towards coding. He's already designing games, so he clearly has an aptitude. His school has said that they won't be able to enter him for GCSEs (a reflection of their budgetry limitations as much as my son's issues), so I'm tempted to ignore the academic subjects and concentrate on IT. I wasted too much of my life trying to do things I wasn't good at rather than pursue the thing I loved.

Dale said...

Another avenue your son might pursue, if the outdoor life does not suit him, is to type "how to cook" in YouTube's search bar.I wanted to cook Tunisian brik and thought that's too obscure even for YouTube - but there were numerous demos of it on there already.There's every recipe you could want there, and also other how tos in any field you can think of.

If you type "How to" on its own, you'll be offered some very rum alternatives, including "How to download Minecraft for free" which could occupy him in a non-productive way.

On the other hand, I've just read Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson's book MINECRAFT: The Unlikely Tale of Markus "Notch" Persson and the Game that Changed Everything, and now firmly beieve that behind every great modern fortune is a socially awkward bedroom dweller married to his computer. The Steerforth household could be quids in! Try finding this book for him, it's a goodie. ISBN 9780753555750

About the fake Mr Helford: I once spent a year I'll never get back working for Time/Life, and learned about the American way of business. All the letters sent out to readers were signed by fake names according to the type of issue they were dealing with. All the names were female, as female names drew less abuse (halcyon days). It backfired on us if an issue was raised more than once by the same person and got replies from another pseudonym, as we were then told to ask our colleague eg Caroline Manne (one of the fake names) what she had done with the information the writer had sent previously.

However one crazed or possibly drugged military individual who wrote nonsensical letters from a US Missile Support Base fell in love with one of our pseudonyms and repeatedly sent "her" gifts of money, addressed to "My girl in Time magazine". We had the grace to add the considerable sum to his subscriptions, instead of spending it on gin, but we did worry about the safety of the missiles.

Steerforth said...

Dale - I wish you'd write a blog, as your anecdote about Time/Life was really enjoyable to read and left me wanting to know more. Failing that, would you consider a guest post here?

The practice of using false names becomes particularly ridiculous when someone from a call centre in India claims that his name is Steve MacDonald. Who do they think they're fooling.

It's interesting how lying is so commonplace in the business world, nobody bats an eyelid. But we all seem to become terribly outraged when someone gets caught, as if we'd been labouring under the impression that the company was a philanthropic organisation.

Re: Minecraft, my son has been an addict for several years and when he wanted to create some images of the characters, managed to down Photoshop without spending a penny and reach a higher level than me within a few hours.

It's a pity that the UK education system doesn't seem to be flexible enough to accommodate my son's quirks.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

It sounds as though your son's already finding his feet , in his own way and in his own time .
Schools have their own agenda . It's unfortunate that this can sometimes have little to do with the development of the children in their care and can make Parents Evenings rather trying .