Gothic Steam Phantastic

Helpdesketeers ferries and the Schwebebahn

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I have worked at a helpdesk for many years now. If someone has a problem with or question about the companies software, they phone us and hope to get an answer soon. Sometimes they really, really ask stupid questions. Many times, it’s like they don’t know a thing about the business they are in, buy a computer with the appropriate software and think this solves everything, including their lack of knowledge.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Walther Christaller did town planning research and used the existence of a telephone in a settlement as a certain state of civilisation. He counted the amount of persons per square mile and the number of telephones in that square mile to determine the service level of the settlement - in short. Telephone was a luxury.

I wondered how people worked before the telephone:

Richard, Lord of Hereandthere, has some spare money and decides to invest in a machine. He buys the machine, gets it installed in an old shed near his mansion. And then... nothing happens.
Oh panic! Now what? It’s a weeks journey to the man who has sold the machine. He can either spend two weeks on the road or try to solve the problem himself.

Nowadays a simple phone-call to the helpdesk will tell Richard to steam up the machine, and if he doesn’t know how he’s either told to read the f***ing manual or -if he’s got an expensive service level agreement- he will be told exactly how to do it.

Richard can’t leave the mansion for two weeks. He decides to read that book that came with the machine. With a good cup of tea he sits near the fire, opens the book and soon comes to the conclusion: an idiot must have written the book. He isn’t given a clue what it is about. It’s technotalk, gear-gibberish. Just the fact that he has bought a machine doesn’t make him a mechanic, does it?

Wait a minute, maybe the blacksmith can help out. He knows about things made of metal and about fire. So Mr Smith comes over. And probably gives the solution.

Modern communication with helpdesks makes people more stupid, I am afraid. Instead of trying to find a solution themselves, they just take the phone. About 90% of the calls I get a day could have been solved if the caller would have taken the time to
  • read that f***ing manual
  • use the help function of the software
  • take a look at the service pages of the companies homepage
  • use his brain
It’s much too easy to let others think for you, they are only a phone-call away. You don’t need friends or handy men (like Richards blacksmith) around who can help you out. You don’t need any education anymore. Every question can be answered by a helpdesk, each problem can be solved.

As I said before, I work at the helpdesk. My customers work in the finance branch of business. They are administrators of sorts and have to do their own business administration. I haven’t got a clue about money, after all I’m more in the software and on top of all, I’m a townplanner. However, I have to tell these persons how to run their businesses. Their call for help goes much beyond the way the software works.
For example, the software can be used to calculate with tax rates. You have to fill out the percentage of tax that should be paid. So people will call and ask “how much tax is on a car insurance?” I have no clue, it’s their job to know, not mine.

Now back to steampunk and other retro adventure. There can be two scenarios when it comes to complicated machinery:
  1. There is complex machinery, but the communication is not really high-tech. To use the machinery, one has to be educated, or have friends around who are. Most probably, there is a qualified operator around who knows how to handle the machinery. This person deserves some respect, because without him, nothing works. This means he has some power over the owner of the machinery, and might use the machinery for his own goals. In more ways, he can be compared to a hacker. At times, the owner might have benefit from the new functions of the machinery that are discovered or hacked by the operator.

  2. There is complex machinery, but also a cheap and simple to use system of high tech communication. This makes helpdesks possible. When you want to operate a machine, you don’t have to know a thing, except for how to reach the helpdesk. The helpdesk has no real power over the owners, because they are at quite some distance and if they can’t help, another helpdesk can.
    The construction makes it possible that everyone who can afford it can buy machinery and make it work. There’s a catch: if you have no clue how to operate machinery, you only call the helpdesk for the use you think it might have. Either the owner calls to ask how to do things that are not possible with the device, or the owner doesn’t call how a certain part of the machinery works, because he doesn’t know it’s there. Depending on the helpdesk, the owner will not tinker with things, and there’s no development of machinery.
    Hackers in this scenario are the people who do have a clue, possibly the helpdesketeers who can afford machinery, or educated workers who are able to buy rusty second hand machinery (from an first owner who gave up understanding the device) and modify it to their own ends. A conflict might be there when the hackers with their modified old machines are mocked by the owners of flashy new devices, or the other way around, when the punks in their pimped old machines make fun of the clueless rich in the shiny machines.

In the end, the question will be who actually has the power over the machinery, it it the owner who bought the thing and pays those who operate it, is it the operator who can do whatever he wants with the apparatus, or is it the helpdesketeer who can tell the owner how things work (or don’t tell if they abuse their power)?

© Yaghish 2007
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