"Virtual Assistance" Humanizes Outsourcing

By Roberta Fallon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jan. 18, 2011

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Boatload of work: A blueprint for a toy that Akhil C., a virtual personal assistant based in India, drew up as part of a collaboration with Andrew Norman Wright.

“Think of us as a regular assistant who is sitting in the next room. Anything that you would ask that assistant to do, we could probably handle. Except that the next room is in another country, so we can’t handle anything physical. We can’t get you your daily cup of coffee, but we might be able to get someone else to deliver it to you.”

—GetFriday’s description of their services.

Virtual Assistance is great, and a great rarity: political art that’s poetic, elliptical and practically gleeful. Without being heavy-handed or preachy, the videos, photos, printouts and objects in the show deliver a story of successful human interaction in the face of globalization and a corporate-dictated power structure.

Andrew Norman Wilson, a 27-year-old MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said at the opening that Virtual Assistance began when he heard about outsourcing of personal assistants to India. Intrigued, the (Caucasian, American) artist (who goes by Norm, which is how we're going to refer to him here) called up Bangalore company GetFriday in February 2009 and was assigned to 25-year-old Akhil C. For a flat rate of $10 a month plus $15 per hour, Norm could ask Akhil for assistance with “Calendar Management, Customer Interaction Management, Home Assistance, Online Research, Purchases, Phone, Travel, Data Entry, Database Management, Follow Up and Reminder, Secretarial” and the catch-all of “Personal.”

How the two ended up spending their billable hours would probably fall into that latter category. Norm didn’t need flowers delivered or flights booked—he wanted to subvert the whole enterprise, to examine the strange situation in which the assistant is so literally unseen and remote that it’s easy to start regarding him or her as not quite a full human being—almost like a very advanced machine, or a character in a video game. They fall into a limbo zone, less tangibly real than someone working in the next office, but with humanity less ignorable than, for example, the person who made your shoes.

Norm (and eventually Akhil) came up with playful, collaborative tasks that messed with that one-way power flow, blurring the lines between boss and assistant and sparking a more human interaction. For the first task, Norm asked Akhil to sit at his computer and write his thoughts for 40 minutes while he wrote his own thoughts at his computer in Chicago. The two lists are displayed via video, the words scrolling across the screen as if they’re being typed. Norm's list is full of silly wordplay—“Extra excess,” or “Please mind the magma below.” Akhil is more rooted in reality, though with occasional philosophy thrown in. He wants to go to Kerala for a vacation. He had an argument with a friend. He should drink more water. “All truths are being told in jokes.”

Then Norm tasked Akhil with giving him a task. Akhil, who knew that Norm makes videos, requested one about fighter jets, and received a marvelous piece combining family home movies, YouTube videos of real fighter jets in action and virtual fighter jets from video games like Total Air War. Akhil’s voice can be heard in the piece and the dedication “To Akhil C.” is poignant—friendly, human and empathetic.

Even more poignant is the toy boat task: Norm asks Akhil to design a boat, and receives a penciled schematic of a battery-powered toy Akhil had built and played with as a kid. Norm builds the boat and mails it to Akhil, who then takes it with him on that vacation to Kerala, and has his cousin video him playing with it in the waves at the water’s edge. You can see this video and a replica of the boat in the gallery. It shows Akhil’s level of commitment, where someone less obviously entertained by his odd client might have balked at doing these things in his or her spare time.

Virtual Assistance is a triumph of communication, empathy and friendship over rigid corporate intent. The ideas raised about power, equality and technology are far from clear. It's not saying technology is bad for human communication, but his points about taking something inflexible and transforming it through humanity is a great one.

Akhil was on task at the opening—he’s been booked to gchat about the project or anything else on a computer in the gallery on Fridays in January from 1 to 4 p.m. He was away from his computer when I said hi and asked how many people worked with him. When I checked back later, Akhil had responded, apologizing that he had been on a call. 150 people work at the company.

Through Jan. 28. Closing reception Jan. 28. Extra Extra, 1524 Frankford Ave.


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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Michael Andre said... on Jan 19, 2011 at 07:10AM

“I keep wishing mankind would collectively say, Damn, this computer shit was a big mistake. I always dirty my fingers with the ink version of Roberta's column before going on-line.

That said I envy Norm and his dear friend Akhil.”

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2. Extra Extra said... on Jan 19, 2011 at 05:54PM

“1 correction norm goes to Art Institute of Chicago.

norm will be speaking, with akhil (via gchat) at the closing reception at 6 pm”

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3. roberta said... on Jan 20, 2011 at 10:09AM

“Hi Michael, after a day on the computer my eyes are killing me. I'd rather have inky fingers than eyes that hurt, but computers are here to stay. And I hope Norm gets to meet Akhil some day. That would be something. ExEx, thanks for the correction and the add about the closing reception!”

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4. Michael Andre said... on Jan 21, 2011 at 03:34AM

“No one can predict history but it's hard to imagine the world abandoning computers. I don't believe in magic. Reading screens makes reading words on paper physically difficult. An old friend and linguist now makes serious money working for Microsoft but reports that thanks to her Kindle she is now unable to read words on paper. For a while I used a magnifying glass or thick glasses to read paper. Now however I simply read paper for an hour or so in the morning along with my shower and shave. Who knows? Who knows how we'll live in ten years?”


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