You have to wonder whether those interpreters and agency owners enthusing about the Uber/Airbnb/Etsy model of commerce – “disrupting the market” with a “digital revolution” – have actually ever experienced life as an Uber driver themselves.
In the newest series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (which has dumped terrestrial Channel 4 for Netflix, the trendy online service), the story Nosedive depicts Lacie, a young-ish woman, aspirational, neurotic. She lives in an off-white tidy world where everyone, every interaction, every transaction, is ranked from one star to five. Smart contact lenses with facial recognition software ensure that you have instant access to everybody’s overall ranking and their social feeds. Those who are “high fours” – 4.5 to 4.9 stars – are the social elite for whom special doors open. For low level crimes or misdemeanours, private security agents can force compliance by lowering your ranking. Everything you upload to your feed involves a tactical decision around how it might boost your rating; all your social relationships (work, family, friendship, romance) are judged though the lens of that single number. Lacie has plateaued around 4.2 and will do whatever it takes – please anyone, say anything, do anything – to access the privileges and adoration she is convinced will fill the void in her soul, ratcheting up her claustrophobia and dissociation ever tighter to the point where something has to break. I recommend it, it’s beautifully produced and portrayed by an excellent cast.
The immediate “real world” comparison that has come to many people’s minds has been with Peeple, the “Yelp for humans” app that triggered widespread disgust and mockery across social media last year (Yelp is a service which lets you rate and review restaurants). But Brooker says he developed the germs of this story long before Julia Cordray’s barking sociopathy and technical ineptitude “went viral”, and his primary inspiration was Uber, the controversial “direct contact” minicab hire app. I’m given to understand that drivers and customers can rate each other on the Uber app, affecting their ability to hire or be hired: Brooker himself is a 4.7.
It seems that most comfy First World folks have a healthily immediate negative reaction to quantifying social interaction, to being judged on demand, to having your worth as a person turned into a metric. But we don’t seem to have the same issue with businesses – the only people to ever make a real fuss about the original Yelp service have been restauranteurs themselves. And, of course, interpreters are just another kind of business, exactly like plumbers. Right?
For me this issue is right at the centre of my general unease with this job I’ve ended up in. It’s the membrane on the tumour at the heart of 21st century public service interpreting. Let’s not kid ourselves that this “new” kind of interpreter commissioning is any kind of radical change. In fact, it is a distillation of everything wrong with the agency model, the very essence of disempowerment and alienation.
By way of example, let’s meet Tim, who illustrates the children’s television version of interpreter commissioning.
Poor Tim, forced to do his job with less than a day’s notice. All he has to do is load up BookONE, browse a gallery of ‘terps, enter some spacetime coordinates and then press one button. Somehow, the magic of the interwebz will short-circuit the entire chain of supply and demand. Let’s take London as an example: there are, at the time of writing, only 93 qualified interpreters registered with Signature there, just 9.7% of their register’s national capacity. The UK capital hosts about 14% of the nation’s economically active workforce and perhaps something on the order of 18% of Deaf native signers at a ratio of maybe 1:44 ‘terps to clients, but really, you don’t need to think about that. Just press the button and the technomagic will make these awkward socioeconomic problems go away. Meanwhile, Tim’s boss doesn’t need to lift a finger or dip into the company’s pocket because it is, after all, only Tim that “needs an interpreter” and not any hearing people. This is 2016.
Even better, everything from chapter 1 in my interpreter training textbooks around preparation, co-production, trust, alignment etc. are entirely missing from this promo. Tim and his boss don’t have to lift a finger to give the random interpreter that arrives tomorrow any real information in advance about the meeting, the company, Tim’s role, the names of key personnel and clients, colleagues, contractors, competitors, any industry-specific terminology, the multiple lifetimes of experience and expertise. The interpreter will just psychically detect all of that on arrival. Perhaps I’m being unfair and Tim is actually an experienced Deaf professional who is very good at working with new interpreters and knows all about what we need to have the faintest chance of doing a decent job in a professional/technical environment. Even then, none of that is depicted in the dumbed-down video above or in any of BookONE’s millennial gushing. The serious risk here is that potential “consumers” are led to believe that if an app-summoned interpreter (simply press one button) fails, they must be incompetent, when actually it could well be that they were simply not supported to prepare. I have no love for agencies whatsoever, but at least some of them do assist with that.
Of course BookONE is very keen to paint itself as not being a mere “agency” at all. It’s a “service” that enables “direct contact”. Like Uber, it has no responsibilities around insurance, taxation, payroll, supervision, quality checks, training – all of those responsibilities are firmly abrogated to the interpreters so that the “service” can stay competitive and the interpreters themselves have to keep their prices high enough to justify all those additional costs. It seems faintly proud that it has minimal front-facing staff and is almost entirely automated: “the savings are passed on to you”. Because it is not an “employer”, it has no legal responsibility towards its workforce whatsoever, just like Uber and its drivers who remain contractors and not workers, just like all the big, bland agencies that have cornered the Tory public services market (although Uber drivers are suggesting otherwise, in court). The “gig model” of commissioning ensures that workers remain independent, particulate, divided, conquerable, profitable. This is currently spun by BookONE as a push for “sustainability” – individual interpreters will be able to afford to maintain some off-the-shelf standards while the booking fee is less than that of human-bloated agencies – but there is still no sickness cover, no maternity/paternity leave, no worker’s rights, no team. This is a system designed to ensure once and for all that we are finished with the concept of community interpreting as public service, that we are utterly uninterested in economies of scale around supervision and professional development (after all, CPD is just yet another market that we might carefully “disrupt”).
We’re not finished, it gets even better. Tim will be able to review his interpreters online, like Uber (except that here, I don’t see any reciprocity around interpreters rating their clients). Everyone will know forever whether you, the interpreter called to Tim’s emergency meeting, saved the day or crashed and burned. In their FAQ, BookONE assures us that bad reviews will be moderated and interpreters will have a chance to “change” the review somehow, calling to mind Julia Cordray’s desperate eleventh hour manoeuvring to dilute the horror of her social metrics, respinning them instead as central to Peeple’s mission as a “positivity app”. BookONE say that any purchasers who consistently post bad reviews might eventually be banned, calling into question what the point was in the first place. Weren’t we cutting out the admin?
Finally, BookONE is keen to reassure that it gives everyone involved more “control”. Control to pick and choose interpreters, control to pick and choose the jobs. Practitioners are free to pass over the jobs that look more difficult, ignore those clients with a “reputation”, just as we please. Let someone else pick it up (or not – let them go without) because we are all individuals and definitely not a team. This, coupled with the metrics, is the very definition of reactivity, a well-known phenomenon in other hyperprofessionalised and/or over-regulated professions: if you don’t want to risk a bad rating or regulatory investigations, don’t pick the most difficult work, don’t challenge any unreasonable clients, just say and do what they want to hear, just like poor Lacie who isn’t satisfied with 4.2. I’m not saying that this is the automatic instinct of my interpreting colleagues: I know full well that they generally have a better developed sense of integrity than that. But nonetheless, this phenomenon is real and well-researched, and these new systems reinforce it: a tendency, a temptation, a trend, the new normal.
So I give BookONE one star. Not a nice feeling, is it?
There are others in the UK who have attempted this kind of thing, and some are even worse. One literally opted for an Uber-style five star rating system. Another wants 12.5% of the fee for all future work carried out after the initial introduction forever, despite not lifting a physical finger even once. Others may have retained boring old 20th century conventions such as having human staff involved or someone at the end of a phone to help interpreters on the day. I suspect that few, if any, of these revolutionary disruptors are really thriving. BookONE itself, despite heart-warming touchy-feely appeals to “big data”, “monitoring” and the “golden triple of economic, social and financial impacts”, hasn’t actually launched yet after more than two years of low-key promotion. And as ever we are far, far behind the state of things in the US (despite reasonable suspicions and decent questions).
What’s the alternative? What is most maddening to me is the ridiculous duplication and self-interest. If Signature’s or RBSLI’s or SASLI’s online registers (the ones that we as registered professionals are already paying about £230,000 a year for) were any real use at all to the Deaf and interpreter communities in the 21st century environment – if they could produce an online gallery of interpreters filterable and group-contactable by actual experience and specific competencies (ring any bells?) from the data they already hold – none of these digital evangelists would even get a foothold, and direct costs to “consumers” (charming word) would be even lower. But I’ve been over that before.
I’d also suggest some kind of national or regional public sector services (failing that, grass roots co-ops) where we actually have old-fashioned employee rights and we don’t have to pass the costs of our own training and supervision directly to clients, and instead have those overheads absorbed by society or the state, instead of perpetuating the current welter of Thatcher’s Children. This would also enable all kinds of crazy ideas that other professions have treated as run-of-the-mill for years, such as professional development being directed by an experienced supervisor who works for the same public service, instead of merely ticking boxes when people pick least-resistance psychobabble out of a hat.
But I am probably just a dinosaur, Interpreter 1.0, and that last paragraph looks like laughably naive socialism, even to me.
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Addendum (31/10/2016): Less than a week after the above was posted, Uber lost at an employment tribunal in a case brought by two drivers (supported by the union GMB). It was ruled that Uber is in fact an employer and its drivers employees, and labelled their byzantine attempts to distance that relationship as “pure fiction”. Uber has the right of appeal. Unite, the parent of NUBSLI, says it is setting up a special unit to investigate further “bogus self-employment” cases.