American Times: Los Angeles: Look what's talking now

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The Independent Online
THE PHONE rings, but nobody is there. Or rather, nobody human. "A call is coming through for you," says a computer voice. "Please don't hang up."

The voice sounds at once authoritative and almost comical: evidently, the call has come through at such lightning velocity that even the person who dialled the number is a few seconds behind.

There is a pause. A long pause. "Please stay on the line," the computer voice resumes. "An agent will be with you shortly." An agent? This doesn't sound so promising. What started out as a seemingly innocent incoming business call is threatening to turn into a clammy encounter with some salesperson trying to flog household insurance.

There is a further pause. Finally, the computer voice announces: "We are sorry, but all of our agents are unavailable." And the line goes dead. No explanations. No chance to find out who inflicted this infuriating tease. Not even an opportunity, as the law theoretically demands, to tell the organisation in question never to make such a call again, ever.

Such are the hazards of telecommunication in modern-day America, a place where computers are gradually taking over from human beings and the poor human being, increasingly, is being given no right of reply.

For several years now - and not just in America - the phone user has been confronted with a dizzying range of mechanised responses, from home answering machines to voice mail to answering services. Anyone who calls the switchboard of a medium-to-large organisation can expect to be talked through an often bewildering range of options without ever encountering a live human voice. ("For a full schedule of post-cosmetic surgery therapy classes, press five; to find out more about our rhinoplasty techniques teaching seminar, press eight; to hear a review of these and other options, press...").

In a country quaintly attached to the use of letters as well as numbers on the telephone dialpad, the services of a receptionist are rapidly being discarded in favour of recorded messages such as: "If you know the name of the person you are calling, please dial the first three letters of their name now."

If you don't have any particular name at hand, all you can do is howl with frustration or wait in the ever vainer hope that the computer will eventually shut up to be replaced, as the jargon has it, by a representative who will assist you shortly.

These experiences are alienating enough, but the new trend goes even further. Computers not only receive phone calls; they make them.

"If you wish to try our great range of household cleaning products, please stay on the line while..." Slam. "Good morning! Have you ever..." Click.

Even more insidious than the computers doing their pathetic best to sound like human beings, though, are the human beings on the line who sound disconcertingly like computers.

These are the telemarketers, the women (for they are almost always women) paid some miserable piece rate to recite a carefully prepared list of questions - a task they undertake with about as much passion as Radio 4's shipping news, while talking five times as quickly. "Good morning sir I'd like to ask you a few questions about the car you recently acquired was it a lease or a purchase what was the make of the vehicle was it new or used how did you finance the vehicle?"

You could probably tell them you bought a space shuttle with a stolen credit card and they wouldn't flinch.