I’m listening to Pachelbel’s Canon. The effects of this piece are amazingly powerful. I am calm, I am soothed, I am contented. I think it’s almost impossible to feel anything but these emotions when listening to Pachelbel’s Canon. And incredibly, just thirty seconds ago I was stressed, exasperated and fatigued. Maybe everything would be fine after all. I began to go deeper into my blissful trance as a further melody was added to the piece, perfectly interplaying with the others. It was pointless getting wound up and stressed by such trivial events. I wouldn’t let any of it bother me. I began to smile. I was truly calm, contented and at peace. All stress had evaporated and was forgotten, and …
“Thank you for waiting, we will be with you as soon as possible. Please continue to hold.”
“Oh, piss off you stupid little …”
But then Pachelbel’s Canon returned, and suddenly my negative outburst seemed silly. I was astounded by how quickly I’d managed to move from anger and stress, to calm and contented, back to anger and stress again in mere seconds. This cycle continued for about ten minutes: Pachelbel’s Canon interupted with frequent automated announcements, reminding me that my call was important and that they would be with me as soon as possible.
I was starting to doubt whether this was really a call centre, but rather a scientific experiment to monitor the mood altering properties of various stimuli, from Pachelbel’s Canon tos a litany of insufferable condescending announcements from a machine. Perhaps I was inadvertently involved in some research by the military on effective interrogation methods. If this was the case then congratulations, you’ve found a keeper, especially that bit where after twenty minutes of waiting you told me that I might like to consider visiting the website rather than phoning. I thought my call was important to you, and now you’re trying to fob me off, and I know from experience that the website won’t be any use. All that will happen is that I’ll just have to call back up again and waste even more time.
I’d decided to spend today sorting out the various things that I’d been putting off for some time, not relishing the prospect of wasting my life on the phone in queues. But today I bit the bullet, and made the calls, which all comprised about two minutes talking to a lovely and very helpful human, after half an hour of first being interrogated by a series of automated operators.
One of the phone calls was to HMRC which now has this new system installed whereby before you reach the talk-to-a-nice-helpful-human level, you first have to have a conversation with a machine which thinks it’s much cleverer than it actually is.
“Hello, and thank you for calling Revenues and Customs.”
I’ve always found it a bit weird when machines use words like please and thank you. It suggests that they have feelings. Thank you and please are personal emotive words that don’t belong in a machine’s vocabulary. A machine doesn’t have any real comprehension of manners and politeness.
“Before I connect you to one of our operators, I need to know the reason for your call. So, go ahead. Tell me why you’re calling.”
There is a pause while I try to process this and work out what exactly to say. The trouble is, I know nothing about this machine, except that it has good manners and is a bit too nosy for my liking. I have no idea how clever and sophisticated it is. By sophisticated I mean how advanced it is, rather than how cultured it might be. This machine is already trying to be human enough, without it assimilating a cultural identity as well.
“I trust you enjoyed Pachelbel’s Canon sir? My own choice. One of my favourite pieces from the Baroque period. Now, before I connect you to one of our operators, I need to have a little discourse with you about Renaissance art. So, go ahead, tell me your thoughts on Botticelli’s Primevera?”
But it’s probably only a matter of time before we reach this level of ridiculousness.
So now, I have to try and work out how to communicate with a machine, having been asked to try and explain the purpose of my call which I was hoping to discuss through with a human, rather than a courteous yet needy robot. I’ve been given no prompts as to how much detail I am meant to provide. Does the machine only understand key words? Or does it expect full sentences?
“I think I understood what you were trying to say sir, but your grammar and your sentence structure was, quite frankly, sloppy and disjointed.”
“Overpayment,” I tried, annunciating as clearly as I could. There was a pause, before the machine spoke again.
“OK, I got that. Tell me more.”
Tell me more? What is the purpose of this rigmarole? Surely it’s just to ascertain a rough idea of why I’m calling so that I can be transferred to the right department, even though I’m convinced that this is all a waste of time anyway, as I’ll no doubt just be connected to the same department as I would have been if we hadn’t gone through this pointless charade. The time it took me to try and come up with a more detailed response was obviously too much time for the machine’s liking, which spoke again, reiterating its request.
“Tell me more.”
When I called up HMRC I hadn’t anticipated duetting a strange tax-based rendition of the greased Lightning song with a machine, albeit a much more wordy and less catchy version.
“Tell me more, tell me more.”
“I have been sent a letter containing an incorrect calculation of the amount of money I need to pay back to HMRC.”
“Tell me more, tell me more.”
“er, er … Well, I, er … Oh for pity’s sake, just connect me to a human!”
So, not quite as catchy as the original song.
I tried to be patient with the machine. I was careful not to lose my temper, as I knew that it had the power to punish me by putting me on hold and taking up the next half an hour of my existence by ruining pieces of classical music with a litany of irritating messages. In the end, the machine’s good manners chip seemed to prove more dominant than its excessive nosiness chip, and I was connected to a human being, where the problem was immediately rectified by someone who was communicative, lovely, and blessedly unmachinelike.
During one of the many calls I had to make today, I was connected to a machine that asked me lots of questions. Finally, it got to the part where it just needed to verify that all the details it had accumulated during our ten minute phone call were all correct. Astoundingly, it had seemingly heard everything I’d said, and had seemed to understand it all. Maybe this machine was more advanced than all the others I’d had to deal with during the day.
“If this is correct, please say yes. Or say no if there’s something wrong.”
“Yes,” I said, relieved that my final call of the day was coming to an end, and I could soon hang up and do something more productive with my life, like reliving the horrors of the last few hours by typing it up for a daily blog. But my relief was cut short. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you say that again please? Just say yes or no.”
What do you mean, you didn’t get that? You’d managed to understand everything else that I’d said, proper big grown-up sentences and everything, but now you were struggling to understand the one final syllable that would bring this torture to an end. I started to reconsider my military interrogation experiments theory. Maybe I hadn’t been making separate calls to different call centres after all. Maybe the line had been jammed, and I was merely talking to a series of different machines and hearing a range of different on hold music and irritating message combinations, all the while being under the illusion that they were different companies.
“Yes,” I said again. There was a pause. And then …
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. There seems to be a problem. Please hold the line while I connect you to won of our operators.”
I was then put on hold for another ten minutes, before I eventually got through to a human. We had to go through the exact same questions that the machine had asked me, only this time it was much quicker, because I wasn’t having to say things really slowly for the benefit of a robot. It was also a much nicer experience because the person was friendly and it was nice to actually talk to a person, rather than a machine pretending to be a person, with its fake manners and irritating neediness.
Eventually, the call centre hell was over, and I logged onto my website to write this blog, only to be greeted by a load of new comments in the comments section, awaiting to be approved. None of them were approved because they were all spam. I don’t normally get spam comments on my site, but today I had about twenty. These are simply comments that are designed to promote a product or get people to visit a website that will probably give the visitor a computer virus. Obviously people don’t do this individually, they set up what are known as spambots, which trawl the internet pinching comments from other people’s blogs and then regurgitating them onto another blog, hoping that they’ll be deemed as authentic comments from a human. But these comments clearly weren’t from any of my readers or listeners. They lacked the erudition and wit that my commenters possess. These were machines pretending to be humans. They have followed me out of the phone and into my blog. I cannot escape them!
If you are a human, feel free to leave a comment. Maybe you could comment pretending to be a machine. Let’s beat the machines at their own game, and see how they like it.