Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Together in electric dreams

One day last week, I forget which, I received a phone call. This is an event so rare that it is noteworthy. I have a brutalist office, all to myself. I have a desk. On it is a telephone. It has rung four times in the last year. I get a lot of emails instead. Phones are so twentieth century.

So was the Digital Equipment Corporation. Kids, ask your parents. They made computers, real computers with swapping disks and memory cabinets that filled a whole room, computers like the PDP-10 and the PDP-11/70.Then they made much smaller computers. Then they went bust. No doubt there are lessons to be learned from this, but the Wikipedia account of the firm's demise gives enough clues as to the causes:
In June 1992, Ken Olsen was replaced by Robert Palmer as the company's president. Digital's board of directors also granted Palmer the title of chief executive officer ("CEO"), a title that had never been used during Digital's 35-year existence. Palmer had joined DEC in 1985 to run Semiconductor Engineering and Manufacturing. His relentless campaign to be CEO, and success with the Alpha microprocessor family, made him a candidate to succeed Olsen. At the same time a more modern logo was designed.
Quite. The man who had founded the company thirty-five years earlier was deposed by a man who really, really wanted to be in charge and to have a shiny new title to show that he is in charge. And the firm responds to falling sales by getting a new logo.

So it came to pass that the company was assimilated by the awful Compaq in 1998, and now is just a memory. Which is why my phone call this week came as a surprise, since my caller announced herself as an employee in  customer services at Digital.

Yes indeed. She introduced herself and asked after my wellbeing, in an oddly mechanical way as if she were reading from a card, before telling me that she wished to know about my customer experience with her employer's products. Since the computer in my brutalist office, on my desk and next to my telephone, is a Macintosh, there would be little I could tell her that would be of use to her employer. Moreover, since this employer no longer exists, I suspected that my caller was not entirely frank with me. Since I had heard that alluring women from the Sub-Continent are likely to call ingenuous computer users and employ their wiles to extract vital information about the computers being used, I ended the call at this point. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Yet still, I am haunted by doubt. Maybe I was too hasty and too distrustful. Maybe this woman was not one of Internet's sirens, a Mata Hari of the global superhighway. Maybe her intent was not devious. Maybe she was genuinely interested in my customer experience with the products of the Digital Equipment Corporation.

Consider this. Perhaps this poor woman was a former employee of the Digital Equipment Corporation who simply did not stop providing customer service when the company folded. No, I do not want you to imagine some kind of Japanese soldier hypothesis - that would be cruel. But perhaps she left her cubicle in Clock Tower Place, Maynard MA, on the day of the company's dissolution, picked up her severance cheque and began the long journey back to the village whence she came, all those years earlier - a journey that takes her across the world to the most remote part of the furthest plain in India. She is greeted on her arrival by relatives and friends, feted by all those who wished to hear stories of her adventures in America. She feels good to be home, glad that circumstances have taken her away from the bright lights of Maynard and back to the village she calls home.

But still, she is troubled. "What of the customers," she asks herself, "what will they do now I am no longer able to help them? What is their customer experience?"

So this kindly woman collects her meagre savings and buys a telephone connexion, the first in the village. And in her small but tidy hovel she sets up her own call centre.  Her nephew builds her a cubicle, which she decorates with the Garfield calendar and Love Is  notelets she brought home from her office. Her neices talk to their friends and word goes out across the plain, to other villages and the distant towns. Soon, travellers are bringing gifts - a fax machine, a telex, a terminal, a call logging and administration system. Before too long the call centre is up and running. The woman can return to her calling.

Every day, from 9 to five with an hour's break for lunch, she is there, come rain or shine (in fact, it never rains and always shines). With a customer list - found in a market in Uttar Pradesh - loaded on her computer, she calls around the world, speaking to Digital customers who had long lost hope of ever again being asked about their customer experience. She brings comfort and advice. She brings consolation and joy. She reaches out to the dwindling band of users who remember the Digital Equipment Corporation's  dancing days and offers them the customer experience they thought had been lost in the bowels of Compaq. These customers bring her joy in return, the joy of knowing she had made someone happy, the joy of reaching out across the world to a fellow Digital user, a comrade, a friend.

And then she phoned my number. And I completely stuffed up her day. Well, what do you expect from a Mac user?

This is what the eighties were like. True story.


@simongarlick said...

I rate this post a full Five Undead Gay Vikings.

Peter in Dundee said...

I get these types of call all the time. I had one last week and instead of adopting my best Scottish accent and advising them to go boil their heids I engaged this one in conversation. 'So I have a virus do I' quoth I 'so if you know that you will be able to tell me what system I'm running?' "Windows" came the reply. So told him I now knew he was a shyster as I too have a Mac. I laughed at him and he hung up before I could advise him as to the culinary uses of heads.