Last week I decided to check my mobile phone bill. For two months I’d noticed the same mistake. I was being billed for a service I had not used. It seemed such a simple thing to do. I would ring on the assist number provided and discuss this mistake, rectify it, exchange pleasantries with the person who dealt with my problem and hang up.
I hear you laughing. You think I’m Rip Van Winkle and have just arrived down from the mountain. I can understand why you have made this mistake – anyone in this day and age who rings a corporate identity with a query and expects to speak to an actual real live human being must have been in a deep coma for most of the twenty-first century. I admit to the occasional nod-off but, like most people, I have adjusted to our brave new world of automated voice machines. However, I still naively believe that by the time I go through the numbers – press I 2 3 4 and 5 – a human being will speak to me.
While I wait for this human voice to materialise I listen to endless repetitions of Home on the Range, orchestral overtures, violins concertos, drum rolls and guitar riffs. I remain patient when the automated voice thanks me every thirty seconds for my custom, assures me that I’m now fifty-fifth in line and a service operator will be with me as soon as possible. When necessary, I speak precisely so that my voice will be recognised and instructions conveyed to me by a machine.
When I checked my phone bill I hit the requisite numbers. By the end of a long drawn-out numerical exchange, I was informed by an automated voice that my bill was the amount I was querying. As this was not my question I rang again and again. The result was the same each time. I believed I was beyond the stage of temper-tantrums but I cracked on this occasion and bounced my mobile phone off the wall. Thankfully, the phone is still working but it’s an ironic fact that phone rage has become a potent force in this age of instant communication.
I started on-line banking because my bank manager assured me it was the closest thing to Paradise on this earth. And so I have an online account that I can check twenty-four hours a day. But when I log in it tells me I have entered the wrong security code. I know that’s untrue. By this stage the digits are practically engraved on my fingertips. Then, before I can re-enter the code, the system times-out and I have to go back to the beginning. A telephone number in red assures me that help is at hand. I ring it and am greeted by that toneless, pitiless, anonymous, ubiquitous voice. It talks me through 1 2 3 4 and 5 then back to 1… 2 …an endless cycle of numbers all designed to keep the human voice beyond my reach. If this is Paradise then I’m opting for horns and a long-handled pitchfork.
Nowadays, the human voice hides behind an implacable wall of numbers. It’s like playing the lotto – but with no chance of winning. Can you even remember it, that human voice - the lilt, the drawl, the crisp or polished intonations, the accent that conjured a personality waiting at the other end of the line to assist you?
The last time my computer crashed I rang the assist number. After only a few numerical exchanges I heard a human voice and actually had to ask “Are you real?” for reassurance. He insisted he was and proved to be courteous, tolerant, polite and infinitely patient. I followed his instructions but nothing worked. He remained calm. I suspect he was either chewing Valium or was a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. In the end, and in desperation, I bribed him to come to me. I offered him almost all my worldly possessions if he would sit by my side in front of my computer and show me what to do. I thought I heard a genuine note of regret in his voice when he said, ”Madame, I would love to assist you. But I’m afraid it is not possible for us to meet. You are in Dublin and I, Madame, am in Mumbai.”