In the month that Terminator 4 and Transformers 2 both opened in the cinema, I am being stalked by the MBNA computer.
I think it’s because I forgot to make any payment off my credit card before the 8th and, though I’ve now made one, it takes 3 to 5 working days to be credited, so in the meantime a computerised voice rings my house each day and tells me to urgently ring a number in London (in London? Feck off, ye have an office in Carrick-on-Shannon, why can’t I ring that?).
We are all of course used to talking to machines by now. It began with the humble answering machine, where you got the chance to listen to a friend tell you and any potential burglars that he was not home right now. He would then proceed to give you a twenty-minute lesson in how to leave a message after the tone, often speaking over the tone itself.
As time went on people got more smart-alecky about their message, saying things like “Hi, this is Joe, you know the drill”, or just “Speak!!!”. Others took to singing their message, or couples in the early soppy stage of living together would speak alternate words.
While much of this was fairly sick-making, at least you could recognise the voice of your friends, and at least you were only speaking to their machine because they weren’t available. But big business took the idea, Frankensteined it, and came up with machines that you had to speak to even if the company was open.
These have now morphed into two types. There is the standard one, which asks what your call relates to, and offers you four or five options. None of these options will match exactly your reason for ringing, but each will sound just relevant enough to leave you unsure. As a result you will select none of them, and the machine, muttering an almost audible “fuck’s sake”, will put you through to one of their representatives, since it’s only they who know how to cut you off while trying to re-direct you.
The other newer type is the one where the machine asks you questions, then repeats your answers back to you and asks is it right. You can always tell when someone in your office is in conversation with one of these, as their side of the call will consist of long silences punctuated by the occasional word spoken in a monotone, followed shortly by “yes”. At least once during the whole ordeal the machine will say “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that”, the implication being that your thick regional accent is a bit too rough for its tender ears.
One slightly endearing thing about these machines, though, is that they will always try to interpret what you’re saying. I know this because I had to ring the Tax Office recently and, just as their machine said “please state which type of tax your query relates to”, I sneezed. There was a brief pause, and then the machine said “You have selected Relevant Contracts Tax. Is this correct”? I had to hang up in the end, because my resultant fit of the giggles was frying its brain.
Still, it was theoretically possible to avoid all of this by refusing to ring such companies, and corresponding with them only via post or e-mail. Now, however, machines have taken to ringing you at home, so there is no escape.
And they are ringing you with the same lack of cop-on that led the Daleks to believe they could rule the universe as long as the universe agreed to live only in bungalows. So far the machine has spoken to Mrs Tin, Tinson2 and then Tinson1. On each occasion it has blurted out that this is an urgent message for Tinman18, ignoring the fact that I might not want members of my family to know that there is an issue with my credit card, and has gone on to state the number that I’m to ring, just once, so that none of them have had time to find a pen and write it down.
While any day now they will register that I have paid them money (why does it take five days? It only takes three to fly to the moon) and the problem will just go away, I do hope that they ring at least once more, when I am actually at home. I want to hold the phone up against my iPod, play music at them, and every now and again pick up the phone and apologise for the delay. I might occasionally try and sell them something.
After all, their call is important to me.