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Attack of the Robots

Posted Friday, February 27, 2009, at 11:03 AM

There's a new call in town. Please press 2 to find out important information about it.

The writing was definitely on the wall last year when a political group in Ohio came up with an anti-Obama campaign telephone call so odious that the employees of the call center walked out rather than read the script. That's right. In another great milestone of the 21st Century, someone managed to come up with the first script so dishonest that professional telemarketers couldn't bring themselves to read it.

This really just points up the fact that the greatest hindrance to completely successful telemarketing is the human factor. (It isn't worth discussing the speed bump they call the Do Not Call List.) People are too slow, too inefficient, and, worst of all, one cannot be certain that for the glowing promise of slightly more than minimum wage they will always be willing to utterly suspend basic common decency. I experienced this myself. Once, a caller actually apologized for bothering me with such a stupid call (in a low tone, obviously with one hand over the receiver while looking furtively around the boiler room to make sure no one was listening).

If only there was a way to combine the can't-ignore-it promise of the telephone with the soul-less, ethics-free efficiency of e-mail spam...

Presto! Enter the robo-call!

These pre-recorded, computer-placed calls got their start, as so many horrible things do, as part of political campaigns. While they may not have the immediacy and effect of real human beings who actually believe what they are saying, they eliminate the hassle of having to gather together large numbers of people who believe nonsense. One velvet-toned, preferably amoral announcer or even the candidate him- or herself can record the message in ten minutes, and tireless computers can then send out the calls around the clock, spreading the lie du jour quickly and cheaply to those too stupid to just hang up on the damn thing.

And now, as the great new technology grows, there's this bizarre new generation of calls--bizarre because, at least at first blush, it is difficult to see how they could work. For instance, one simply says, "Please stay on the line." They call you up and put you on hold. Short of poking me in the eye, there is little you could do to make me more hostile more quickly. I am tempted to in fact stay on the line so that I can yell at whoever eventually comes on, but I realize that is just what they want me to do. And it would probably just be another recording. There is little satisfaction in cursing a recording--even less than in cursing some poor shmoe in Bangalore who barely understands the script they're paying him to read.

When we get into the solid, "How is this not illegal?" territory is with the cheerful recorded lady who tells you that there is an issue with your "account" (bank account, credit card account, who knows what account?) and you should press 1 or 2 or whatever to speak to someone and sort it all out. Obviously, this is a lie. I have also received a call warning me in a scary tone of voice that, while I may not be aware of it, my automobile warranty has expired and unless I press "1" right away, my "case will be closed." Yikes!! This, of course, is a brilliant way to pre-screen me for gullibility, saving themselves loads of time over simply trying to talk to everybody who answers. If you are dumb enough to press 1 even though the warranty on your car expired 28,000 miles ago and nobody having anything to do with your car ever had access to this phone number, they know they're already on third base.

So I have pretty much stopped answering my phone. If it rings and I am not standing near it, I don't even bother to get up. What are the odds that it is even a human being, much less someone I actually know and/or want to talk to? And now they somehow have my cell phone number, too. We're doomed.

Movies have always led us to believe that the robots who will threaten humanity are scary silver cyborgs with glowing red eyes or gigantic engines of destruction that lay waste to cities. They turn out to be little beige boxes that just sit in an air-conditioned room and hum quietly. Just like the truly destructive Nazis were the little, near-sighted guys with dandruff sitting at desks pushing around papers, not the tall, lantern-jawed blondes with lugers and eyes like blue ice.

Real evil is so boring.

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