The Ethics of Outsourcing

School is now officially back in session for me. This fall, I am taking two classes, both of which will be exceedingly fascinating: Transnational Media Theory and The Time and Space of Cultural Studies. Since I’ll be doing a ton of writing about media and culture for these classes, some of my work will likely trickle through to this blog arena, starting with today’s post. 

Disclaimer: This post contains some references in the latter paragraphs that are not appropriate for younger readers. 

Several of the articles I read this past week explored the formative nature of offshore call centers in the Philippines and India–countries chosen for US customer service outsourcing because of their large English-speaking populations. While the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry opens up new opportunities and usually higher incomes for Filipino and Indian nationals, it simultaneously separates its workers from their families, friends, and society-at-large. For instance, standard call center shifts begin at 8pm at night to accommodate for US time zones, forcing employees to sleep during the day. Their work then requires them to take on a fake American identity, adopt an American accent, and immerse themselves in American pop culture, all of which further influence the alienation that call center workers feel from their community.  In “Offshore Identities”, an article addressing Filipino call center workers, Allan Punzalan Isaac notes that, “While the BPO worker has fiscal power . . . she has no social capital as a call center agent (18). Another academic, Reena Patel, addresses the social stigma attached to call centers in India in her book Working the Night Shift. She writes, “The underlying tone of sex and fast money associated with the industry is used to denigrate workers and is part of the backlash that workers experience for not paying their dues and instead achieving a salary level that was previously unavailable to an even narrower segment of the population” (17). This social isolation within their homelands largely stems from an often-overlooked element: while these workers do not physically move to the United States, their work necessitates a temporal migration and a cultural adaptation. In the end, Filipino and Indian call center employees find themselves caught between their physical location and temporal positioning, between their national identity and their American “cultural uniform.”

By Diana Varisova (www.plantronics.com) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://bit.ly/O4HoxD)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Diana Varisova (www.plantronics.com) [Creative Commons License 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

But call center workers are not the only offshore identities. As global technology develops, our needs evolve. Now most of our communication has moved online, resulting in a massive amount of content that is uploaded daily to the World Wide Web. As we navigate our social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, we are comfortably unaware of the invisible bodies patrolling this new frontier on our behalf. These unseen individuals, also from countries like the Philippines and India, are responsible for content moderation. Put more frankly, these offshore identities are relegated the unpleasant task of picking up our Internet garbage.

Adrian Chen of Wired Magazine recently drew attention to this developing industry with his article, “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” He writes, “Companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.” Call center workers are trained to sound American, so clients remain unaware of the outsourcing in action. In a similar fashion but with even greater consequences, these technology companies would rather that customers were unaware of the human effort involved in curating a positive online experience. “Within 25 minutes, Baybayan has eliminated an impressive variety of dick pics, thong shots, exotic objects inserted into bodies, hateful taunts, and requests for oral sex,” Chen observes while shadowing a content moderator in Manila. Though these workers receive regular psychological counseling, this type of work does more than just temporally or culturally isolate them from their peers. These offshore laborers are physically carrying the weight of the garbage in our society that we would rather not see. Chen aptly notes, “Staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll. Workers quit because they feel desensitized by the hours of pornography they watch each day and no longer want to be intimate with their spouses.” Our comfort comes at the price of someone else’s mental health–a someone else that we don’t see. Eventually technology will be able to handle this type of moderation, but by that time, no doubt we will have found a new unpleasant task to pass off on the unseen.

How should we respond? Is technology the answer to this problem, or are we in need of addressing more systemic concerns? Were you aware of this type of content moderation outsourcing?
I encourage you to read the full article over at Wired and share your thoughts on the issue. Also if you do not already subscribe to Wired Magazine, do it! Your first subscription is just $5, and you get a free hat. It has quickly become my favorite magazine.
For a different perspective on international call centers, you can also check out This American Life’s podcast episode entitled “No Place Like Home“. Thank you to April M. for pointing it out to me.

Media Cited
This week’s featured image is courtesy of Paul Keller. It was shot in Bangalore, India and is republished with permission of a Creative Commons License 2.0.
Patel, Reena. Working the Night Shift: Women in India’s Call Center Industry. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.
Isaac, Allan. “Offshore Identities: Ruptures in the 300-second Average Handling Time.” Archipelagic American Studies. Awaiting Publication. Print.

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