[LINK] Telstra - talking to a machine
Tue, 13 Nov 2001 00:33:59 +1100
This morning I called 132203 with a billing enquiry about my fax line.
Previously, and now again, this lead to a message for pressing buttons
do transfer me to the appropriate section. But this time (perhaps I
dialled the wrong number) the Recorded Voice Announcement (RVA) said it
was for mobile enquiries, and that I should say "Mobile" (I think) or
"Inquiry" depending on my purpose in calling. I said nothing. After a
pause the voice returned - again, the same very clear diction woman's
voice. This is a kindly and clear voice, not the tense, vaguely hostile
one which features in Telstra RVAs such as for Calling Number Display
status announcements (127220).
The RVA said something like:
"I am sorry, I did not hear you."
I slammed the phone down.
Half-wits are doing cutesy things with RVA and voice response stuff and
they need their arses kicked. Their arrangement fudges important
distinctions and coerces people into actions which are violations of
what is commonsense and natural.
The first problem is that the system requires the caller to speak to a
machine in order for their call to progress. This is a violation of
the principle that we speak to sentient creatures. We may speak
*through* telephones and time-delay mechanisms such as answering
machines or voice mail, but we are still talking *to* a person.
Some older people have difficulty adjusting to talking through a
voice-mail system or answering machine, which is compounded by the
awkwardness some people feel when recording the greeting for those
services. But they have already gotten used to the idea of talking to
people through a piece of plastic with wires and electricity.
I refused to allow my speech to be used as a surrogate for pressing a
button. The system's first failing is that it did not do anything
useful with my non-response. I wouldn't really have minded if it had
dropped me through to an operator or a tone-dial system.
But the second RVA was the most objectionable.
A machine should ***never*** say "I".
It is cutesy to think that a machine can say I, but in inviting the
hapless caller to accept this, the designers force them to accept a
machine just as they do a person, or to refuse and so end the call.
(The confusion of the machine saying "I" business is compounded by the
growing pattern such as "My Documents" in Windoze computers, where the
system labels things as they would be labelled by the person - but only
a person who labels something can make something genuinely "mine" to
There was a real woman who said the words "I did not hear you." But it
is false to pretend that she was ever going to hear my words. This is
another mental contortion the caller has to deal with, assuming they are
fully conscious, fully conversant with English, and are hearing the
voice responses clearly. But what if the caller is not fully aware of
what is happening? They may be confused into thinking they are talking
to a real person - but that would sucker them into doing things which
lead only to frustration.
My answering machine (a dual cassette Phonemate machine which has been
100% reliable for years) uses a highly intelligible synthesised voice
(which is also very clearly synthesised, rather than human) to give
options when calling in to get messages. It generates (I won't use the
term "says") "Hello, you have three messages.". The use of "Hello" is
debatable and redundant. But the mistake is when it "says": "You can
hang up now and *I* will erase your messages."
Machines should never say "I".
Telstra's RVA is worse than a synthesised voice saying "I". It is an
actor saying "I" but the system expecting us to respond as if:
1 - The system was a person-like entity, in being able to identify
itself as "I".
2 - We accept that the system is designed for people who are so dumb
as not to be able to understand a system which works in any other
way - so casting doubts about the intelligence and sensitivity of
There are plenty of alternatives. An RVA system can function with the
messages clearly being pre-recorded by humans, as a guide to the caller
on what to do next - and to thank them on behalf of the organisation.
In these instances, the actor is talking to the caller in a one-way
communication, but there is no notion of the actor pretending to speak
as if they were the the machine, and no use of "I".
The designers of this Telstra system no-doubt think it is smart - to
have a machine talking and responding like a human. But it is dumb,
cheap, annoying and confusing.
The worst aspect of this sort of system is that it may cause ordinary
people to fudge the distinction between talking to a person and talking
to a machine. This encourages the development of the socially
degenerate trend in which real live people will not be treated as such,
or in which some people will not really care whether they are talking to
a person or not.
I called another number for billing enquiries and worked my way through
three bright sociable women in order to resolve my difficulty. I told
the first about the voice system I just encountered - and she said that
Telstra staff sometimes have to negotiate these things in order to do
Later, calling a number at Victoria College of the Arts, an RVA gave me
four numbers to choose between - so I pressed the appropriate key. Then
an RVA said "I will try that extension"!!!