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Computers have got us by the bells

May 21, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Another morning in blissful Technotopia. It begins with the insistent vindictive malicious ringing of our old friend the telephone. Who’s calling at this ripe young hour of 8:30 a.m.? Ah, wrong question. It’s not a “who,” it’s a “what.”
It’s a computer from out West calling to put me on hold. It seems the human operators are too busy to speak to me, even though I am told it’s “urgent” that they do just that, so they’ve empowered their computer to place the call. I’m expected to sit there and wait for what is going to be, all too obviously, either (A) a sales pitch or (B) a reminder that I’ve neglected to pay a bill.
The call strikes me, however, as an affront to human decency. And so, after listening to a few notes of synthesized synthetic music (as opposed to actual synthetic music), I hang up. But the next morning, same time, same call. It’s my new friend the computer again, and now I’m curious enough to hang on and find out which company has the gall to use this intrusive ploy. Besides, firing a barrage of dirty names at the computer is no fun and does no good.
All about my hang-ups
So the syn-syn music plays some more tinkytinky and a recorded male voice says cheerfully, “We know your time is valuable.” Oh, do you? But, please, says the voice, hang on a little longer. After all, it’s urgent! So I wait. And wait. And then-whump. Nothing. An audio black hole. From which finally emerges the sound of a phone ringing and an operator’s recorded voice: “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and” so forth and so on.
Whoever this was, calling me via computer, their phone system was screwed up. Instead of keeping me on hold until one of those busy associates could be bothered to talk to me, it cut me off after about 90 seconds of waiting. Insanity! Calling me up, putting me on hold, and then hanging up on me.
Even in these times of technology run amok, this was amok too far. So I dialed the number that had popped up on Caller ID when the phone rang. A machine answered, naturally. The machine said that I had reached an automated calling machine and that I couldn’t talk to it. It could only talk to me.
The calls continued for a couple more days. I was determined not to let this send me into a violent fit, because if I were to smash a lamp in a fit of rage, I would be handing the machine-All The Machines-a victory. Eventually I found out who was doing the de facto mechanized dehumanized computerized calling. It was the telephone company. AT&T. They were calling to collect about 35 bucks that apparently had stopped the company in its tracks. And it was spending all this time and going to all this trouble in an attempt to drive me insane over this relatively tiny amount of money.
I tried explaining the folly of this to the human operator who finally materialized somewhere along the line. She was dumber than the machine was. She couldn’t understand what I was talking about. It was beyond her sphere of influence, which was a very spare sphere indeed. Whenever AT&T harasses me over 35 bucks, I think back to all the telephone companies I have fought off over the years, the ones that call at dinnertime and won’t shut up and tell me what a fool I am to pay 7 cents a minute when I could be paying 6 cents a minute during certain nonpeak hours when calling certain nonpeak places.
I’d remained loyal and true to AT&T, and my reward? Abuse and harassment. They sicced their computer on me.
My local phone company exists to make AT&T look good, however. These mischievous scamps like to play games, and their favorite is the menu game. You call them up hoping in your wildly naive way that they can solve some problem relating to your phone service.
What’s on the menu?
Whatever button you push, it takes you to another menu, and then another, and then maybe another, and then finally when you think you have won the game and worked your way through the menu maze and run out of options, then-and only then-does a recorded automated voice come on line to tell you that business hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and it’s now 4:31.
Oh you may have started the call during business hours, but by the time you got through the obstacle course of menus, it was after business hours. And who can you get mad at? Who can you punch in the mouth? All you can do is use one part of the phone to bash the other part of the phone and then break the phone and then have to make another call to report a broken phone.
Why haven’t people noticed, I wonder, that we are living in a state of virtually perpetual technological breakdown? Perhaps because it’s the norm. Breakdown is the norm. Anarchy is the norm. If everything started to work the way it’s supposed to, there might be widespread panic. When I sign on to AOL, I don’t expect it to work. I simply assume that I’ll be denied access to my own e-mail, or that all the advertising will come through but the Web sites I want will not, or that at best the thing will work very, very slowly, and I’ll spend a lot of time watching that infernal blue “A” spinning around and around.
No-confidence vote
I could get much faster access to the Internet and all its alleged wonders, I am told, if I found a different means to connect, something hipper than that funky-clunky old telephone line. Like what? Well, they tell me, how about-your cable TV company? Oh yeah, there’s the answer! There’s the wondrous solution! My cable company, which cannot deliver a vaguely recognizable picture even from a TV station whose antenna I can see from my front yard! But somehow they’ll burst into competence when it comes to connecting me to the World Wide Web.
Har har. It is to laugh. Tell me another one. Stop, you’re killing me. My cable company, right!
I should try to be fair to the machines. Some of them do work some of the time. I have a very nice car. I can’t afford it, but I bought it anyway. It goes real fast. Zero to sixty in, like, I don’t know, zero. But it has a computer on board. And every now and then, I would say three out of 10 times that I get into the car and start it up, the onboard computer decides I do not have a CD changer.
No, it hasn’t been stolen. If I stopped the car, and got out, and opened the trunk, there it would be. I could see it, touch it, feel it, even fondle it if I wanted. But the computer says sorry, it’s not there. And so I have to listen to the radio or play a tape or something until the computer decides the CD changer is back from wherever the CD changer went.
My feeling about all this is simple and, I think, calm and rational: We’re surrounded. We don’t stand a chance. The war is over. We lost, and “they” won. All those movies set in the future where the computers are running everything and machines reign supreme and humanity is reduced to the status of drones or slaves or maybe even food? Those films aren’t science fiction. They’re documentaries.