Tom Friedman Likes Visiting Call Centers in Other Countries

Tom Friedman’s Wednesday column is another example of the man’s self-parody. In this episode, Friedman gets excited about the fact that operators in Kenya, working near an “abandoned avocado processing plant,” answer 1-800 calls from Americans.

This schtick sounded familiar to me, and sure enough Friedman wrote about an Indian call center in 2004. He also talked about a call center located in Bangalore in one of those Discovery Channel documentaries and in his book The World is Flat, leading to this response:

Friedman completely ignores the problems created by the Indian call center industry, such as the imposition of fake Western identities and the harshness of constantly working at night. He talks to timid employees and industry flacks and comes to the conclusion that all is well. In Friedman’s world, “Indian call center operators adopt Western names of their own choosing.” And the night shift fits “in very nicely with the Indian day,” as he told Terry Gross of Fresh Air. He would have had a much less one-sided evaluation if he had talked to people like Arjun Raina, a call center trainer and theater performer featured on 60 Minutes who has written a play, A Terrible Beauty Is Born, on the plight of call center workers.

None of these factors are even hinted at in Wednesday’s column either. Instead, Friedman discusses the politics of getting the higher bandwith that makes the call centers  in Kenya possible. He concludes with classic Friedman silliness in the final paragraph.

Don’t give up on Africa. KenCall is a reminder that with a little less government regulation, a little more democracy and a lot more bandwidth, African entrepreneurs can play this game too. “In the old days, ‘landlocked’ meant you didn’t have a harbor,” said Mr. Nesbitt. “In the new days, it means you don’t have fiber broadband to the rest of the world. This whole market here is just waiting for that.”

Kind of like in the 1990s, this kind of writing actually seemed somewhat original. Not so much any more.


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