17.1. Press "1" for Frustration
If ever there is a populist uprising against the usurpation of human functions by mechanized intelligence, surely it will be provoked by the stupidity of telephone answering systems. Or, at least, that's what I thought the last time I found myself pushing buttons in tune with some anonymous programmer's infinite loop a time-consuming journey, incidentally, that my pocketbook was funding.
But, hope as we might, the rebellion will not happen, for a simple reason: most of us have been convinced by a simple lie, namely, the lie that the worrisome effects of our answering systems will very likely improve with future generations of the technology. The lie deserves precise dissection.
Technology pundits have long put us on notice that more sophisticated voice recognition software will lead to more user-friendly computers. The frustrations of the current telephone answering systems will yield to have already in some respects been yielding to kinder, gentler, more solicitous capabilities. When I call a business in the future, the options will be more numerous, and I'll be able to negotiate those options with voice commands more complex than single phrases.
True as this may be, it ignores a pertinent fact about the new capabilities: their reach will be extended. Where primitive software eventually routed me to a human operator, the "friendlier" version will replace the operator with a software agent who will attempt to conduct a crude conversation with me.
So the earlier frustrations will simply be repeated but at a much more critical level. Where once I finally reached a live person, now I will reach a machine. And if you thought the number-punching phase was irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of four hundred words, and the compassion of a granite monolith!
In other words, the technical opportunity to become friendlier is also an opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level. This is no accident. The technical improvements we apply within a restricted arena entail exactly the sort of broader reach that carries them beyond this arena. Programs that do a better job recognizing spoken words like "one" and "two" are almost certainly based upon technology that we can now apply, if only clumsily, to a much wider range of speech.
Certainly the technology is getting more sophisticated no one would deny that. But my frustration on the telephone was not, in the first instance, a frustration with the state of the technology. What bothered me was an artificial disruption of the normal potentials of human exchange. Yes, an ill-considered use of technology was the cause of my discomfort, but what I wanted, in a direct sense, was relief from the disruption, not technical advance. And if the technical advance prepares the way for a yet more critical barrier to human exchange well, forgive me if I say this does not necessarily imply progress.
My own observation suggests that, since I first voiced this concern about telephone answering systems several years ago, many of them have gotten much better. Some designers have paid attention to the needs of the actual users of these systems and to the limited domain within which the software can operate satisfactorily. But, at the same time, many other answering systems have gotten horribly worse. And this dual potential was very much my point. Nothing about the technology as such can infallibly deliver us from the negative to the positive potential.
So long as we look to externalized technology for the improvement we seek, we only participate in a vicious and endless cycle: technical progress comes between us and certain of our expressive powers, and we complain. The complaint is met by an honest assurance that the responsible technology is getting better which we all can see is true so that the remaining, muted complaints are dismissed as Luddite. Never mind that the improvements at issue may move the spear point of the complaint yet a little closer to the tremulous heart of the human condition.