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...