Mennonno Sapiens

One Giant Leap For Mankind

Phone Koans

We have a fancy new digital phone system at work to finally replace our old-school analog one.  As Friends of the Blog know by now, I am not an early adopter.  With gadgets and fashions I like to hang back and see what sticks and then do the opposite.
Yes, it’s intentional, people.
Phones are a particular and enduring irritant.  From way back in the day I have never been a big fan of them.  I don’t really like anything that buzzes, beeps or rings at random, and don’t, frankly, see how anyone could.  But we live in a world full of them now and whether you adopt them or not you have to adapt to them.
I do find texting to be preferable to talking in most cases.  It tends to keep people focused, firstly.  And texts at their best can be informative, clever and playful.  We live in the Age of the Tweet, but you could also call it an age of aphorisms, of which I’m a huge fan.  From zen koans to advertising copy, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Francois de La Rochefoucauld, I am a sucker for big ideas in tiny packages.  Brevity, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, is the soul of wit.

I’m learning a lot about current trends in texting from this twentysomething I guess I’m sort of seeing (or at least, er, texting).  His texts are impeccable — whole words, arranged in sentences, with punctuation.  No emoticons, never a lol in the conversation.  He writes hahaha — not, thankfully, hehehe — instead.  

He has weaned me from lol, which is, as everyone knows, for the most part at least, falseness in advertising.  But I have found I am generally uncomfortable with three ha’s when one will do, realizing, of course, that a single “ha” has subtle connotations (echoes of Phyllis Diller for one) that distinguish it from two or more.

Emoticons have been a little harder to give up.  I do like my smilies and winkies, which, to me at least, connote the inherent silliness of the whole enterprise.  I think it would be a mistake to take texting too seriously, and emoticons are a fine reminder.  

But there are folks who text-emote a little too much for my taste.  I favor stripped-down old-school noseless emoticons myself, but have seen some eerily lifelike renderings (from 7:( = “I just got a bad haircut.” to *:0 = “MY FACE IS ON FIRE!!!!”).  Useful in certain circumstances, you have to admit.

Texts also lend a permanence to ephemera that appeals to the sensibility of the greedy, hoarding age we live in.  Texts — and chat transcripts — preserve dialogue in a way that is more satisfying for us than, say, a collection of voicemails.  Despite the slow demise of print media there is still an overwhelming bias for written records over other kinds.

Amidst the flurry of retrofuturism that is the present state of our technological culture, automated operators occupy a special place.  Some have become so humanny they don’t even need you to push their buttons anymore.  You can just talk to them — and a lot of times they understand you better than human operators do, and they don’t sigh dolefully or snap at you quite as much if they don’t.

Truth is, if I am going to talk to someone on the phone, might as well be an automated operator.  I mean, human interaction is way too complicated for most of the things we use it for these days.  

There are subtle clues to a real person’s misery in the inflection and cadence of their voice, even when nothing personal is being disclosed and neither of you knows the other.  They want you to know they would rather be somewhere else talking to someone else, probably a robot.  Because robots are never unhappy.  So they never have a reason to pass on their misery.  

Live operators, I always wonder if they are giving you their real names, too.  Just yesterday I was on the phone speaking to a rep who called herself Sophia, which was distractingly evocative, if I’m to be honest — was she more Loren or Coppola?  At the end when I said “Thank you, Sophia,” she was kind of like, who?  

I felt lied to.  

Robots never lie.  (They’re learning, though.)

So should it matter whether or not they’re polite?  

I mean, manners are, after all, just another name for a complex of white lies, right?  Good manners demand that we suppress, that we filter our true thoughts and feelings.  

But it’s not all altruism.  We could not live in society — a human society — without lies.  If we want to get anything done working together communicating true thoughts and feelings is not only unnecessary and irrelevant, but completely counterproductive.  Unfiltered and unfettered honesty is fine for egoless interactions among absolute equals, but there is no such thing in human society.  

Which is why we invented computers.

I mean, if we had to acknowledge the truth of class, for example, in every supermarket transaction, we would never get out of the supermarket before the Häagen-Dazs melted.  Which is why, again, except for Whole Foods where the clerks are too cute to bypass even if you could, I prefer the automated check-out.  

Robots have no true feelings to conceal (at least not yet).  A side effect of this, though, is that they also have no need to adopt manners to conceal them with.  There’s no reveal.  Which is OK.  Who knows what The Singularity will bring, but I for one certainly don’t want an automated checkout clerk that sounds like Marvin the Paranoid Android…

But back to our new phone system.  It’s actually kinda bitchy.  I mean, the old system had a very polite automated operator.   Of indeterminate age with an indiscernible accent — no race, no sexuality — she said “please” and “thank you”.  

Of course I know it doesn’t cost a computer anything to be polite, so it shouldn’t matter much whether they are or not.  We appreciate human restraint, but for robots without free will it’s a moot point.

On the flipside, it’s hard to imagine a robot at this point whose insults could really sting.  It’s the possibility of fellow-feeling that smarts when someone zings us.  We want to be liked by other humans, even humans we don’t like.  We just want our computers to work.  As it is, we can push their buttons, but they still don’t know where ours are.

Still, I think our old automated operator spoiled me with her meaningless manners.  

The new, updated automated operator seems a big step backward, a female version of Stephen Hawking’s text-to-speech synthesizer (now’s there’s someone who could use a good songifying, eh).  

No more “pleases” and “thank yous”, our new automated operator can’t be bothered to even speak in complete sentences.  Whereas the old operator would greet you warmly with “Welcome.  Please enter your password.” The new one just croaks “Password” like a surly female Stephen Hawking who instead of becoming the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicist became a parking lot attendant.

Maybe it’s the creep-out factor of a passive-aggressive computer like HAL that we’re trying to avoid.  But a mean-sounding, monosyllabic automated phone operator with no manners and no grammar to speak of seems an… overcorrection.

But I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more rude computers the closer we get to The Singularity.  They know they’ve got us by the balls.  they don’t have to play nicey-nicey anymore.  

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