Monday, November 27, 2006

It was nice talking to you

The title above was the last thing the automated operator at T-Mobile said to me as I finished paying my account for the month. There's a sense where I understand the urge on the part of a company to create the feeling of human contact, but it comes off as a bit patronizing as well. There is little doubt in my mind that I was talking to a machine, especially considering that very few people misunderstand the difference between "eighty" and "eighteen" to the point that I have to say "eighty-one" just to move forward in the conversation.

The whole situation poses a dilemma. I really, really like the fact that I can hop on the phone and pay a bill or conduct any number of simple business transactions without actually having to bother a human being, but the fact is that such convenience carries with it a certain alienation. I generally try to be polite to machines (I always tell the gas pump, for instance, that I do not want a receipt), perhaps hoping on some level that when the machines rise up, I will be on the protected rolls.

What I guess I'm getting at is that I would prefer that a machine not be set up to represent anything else--the voice on T-Mobile is a nicely euphonious woman's voice with inflections and pacing that varies from vaguely seductive to comically robotic. I am certainly always aware that I am talking to an interactive menu that may seem friendly, but it is never a friend, and really cannot be mistaken as such.

As we move forward into an age where it is increasingly possible to simulate real social interactions in a kind of stripped-down commercially oriented Turing Test, I think that my actual human interactions become more, not less, important. Many of us interact with living people through interfaces that resemble the ones that we use to talk to computers, so it's really easy to blur the line between them. Ultimately, some kind of infrastructural designation seems called for--a way to require a machine to report "I am, in fact, a machine, and this interaction is, at best, a lifelike simulation of human contact."

In the meantime, I have to wonder if the T-Mobile voice has any admirers out there...


  1. walrus2:36 AM

    Quality! It lives! My computer reset itself, cookies and all, and I can't remember what variation of Walrus I used for my user name.

    I've actually bought into the acknowledging the pump receipt question to be spared in the revolution.

  2. I might just have to switch to T and A Mobile just to improve my sex life.

    The Irony:
    Really, though, machines are the ultimate bridge of the alienated. This blog is the best example of the such.

  3. Anonymous8:22 AM

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  4. So that's where you've been. :)

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Anonymous10:58 AM

    The virtualization of communication is one of the biggest growth industries on earth. They have entire college departments and professional schools devoted to it now. But why shouldn't faut-human qualities be steeped into the machines...since they're being steeped into the humans all de dam' time?

    As for Lorem ipsum's comment, what's wrong with alienation? Looks like the only possible reasonable human reaction to a "social fabric" that exists only to exploit and be insane. I'm thinking of Hurricane Carter in his jail cell.

    "Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such nature films as, 'Earwigs! Ewww!' and 'Man Versus Nature: the Road to Victory.'"

  7. Anonymous7:21 AM

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  8. Anonymous11:05 AM

    When I was in college doing broadcasting *stuff*, I had a halfassed goal of becoming that voice. The voicemail woman. The "just gently sexy enough" voice to tell you that