Last weekend, I took part in several recordings. Not for EMI at Abbey Road Studios, although I've chalked up quite a few sessions there. These were purely speaking roles, for the benefit of some well-known insurance companies.
No, I'm not building a new career as a voice-over artiste - although I'm open to offers. I was merely obtaining some quotes for car insurance.
Yet as each chirpy operator answered the phone, the first item on their script was usually to tell me that our call was being recorded for future reference.
A telephone-quality mono recording takes up about 600Kb per minute. Assuming a generous compression ratio - say 10:1 - this could be squeezed into 60Kb of disk space, or 3.6Mb an hour. Suppose call centre operators work an eight-hour day and spend three-quarters of this on the phone - that's more than 100Mb of recording per week.
By that reckoning, a 100-seat call centre will generate 520Gb of voice recording in a year during office hours alone. Add evenings and weekends and you could double that to a terabyte.
The obvious question is where do they store all this stuff? Mag tape is cheap, but searching a terabyte of tape for a two-minute conversation could take weeks. So increasingly the medium of choice is optical disk.
A 5.25in magneto-optical (MO) disk holds about 5.2Gb, so our putative call centre would fill 200 of these in a year.
With call centres widely expected to be the factories of the 21st century, and with MO disks costing #70 a throw, this sounds like a nice little earner for anyone who sells them - not to mention the expensive jukeboxes which hold them. If five million people across Europe are ultimately employed in call centres, the market in disks alone will be worth a third of a billion pounds a year.
The less obvious, but rather more perplexing, question is who the heck is going to listen to this stuff? Most companies install call centres to cut costs, so they're unlikely to waste time by listening to their recordings - unless they reckon it's cheaper than piping Workers' Playtime into the canteen.
I suppose it might make suitable study material for future academics. Just think of all the PhD theses you could squeeze out of a 5.2Gb disk - it's social history in the making.
But we're storing so much information nowadays - what historians call primary source material - that if we're not careful we shall soon have more people studying history than making it.
That might not be a bad thing, since historians have caused notably fewer wars than the average politician, general or media icon. But maybe it says something about our society that we can waste so much time and resources recording the ins and outs of everyday conversation.
It's a good job we've solved all the serious problems - famine, global warming, human rights abuses spring to mind. Otherwise people might think we'd got our priorities back to front.
Paul Bray is a freelance IT journalist.
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