Automated Voice Mail: A Journey to Hell with No Way Back by Marjorie Dorfman

The inventor of automated voice mail has passed away to the other side of the telephone lines. It's a good thing, because otherwise I might have killed him myself. Are you tired of talking to automatons whenever you make a call? If so, join the fight and have a laugh or two, on me.

Those who enter, leave all hope behind. ñ The Inferno, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

I donít know what caused the recent death of the inventor of automated voice mail, but I, for one, suspect foul play. In fact, if Gordon Matthews wasnít already dead, I might consider doing the job myself. He once said that he considered the Doonesbury cartoon depicting him skewered and roasting over a hot pot to be one of the highlights of his career, and that he had come to terms with half of the world loving him and the other half hating him. To the manís credit, he launched numerous ventures in his lifetime and held more than forty patents on a smorgasbord of annoying technological advances, dating back to his days as a pilot in the Marine Corps.

His tour de force, Automated Voice Mail, was originally intended to improve corporate internal communications. It was developed in 1978 after Matthews rooted through his office trash and discovered a trove of discarded messages. His musings on the amount of time wasted by the manual process led to the invention of the automated voice messaging system. It is quite ingenious and like so many mistakes in life, probably seemed like a good idea at the time. He super-charged the answering machine and created an automatic attendant trained by the likes of Danteís Charon, who navigates each caller through a maze of unwanted options. Unlike Charon, however, it is not across the Lethe (River of Forgetfulness) that we are taken, but rather through the labyrinth of automated telephone hell!

Before he died, Mr. Matthews did something else to us as well. He founded Premise Net which last year introduced a unique home networking system called MAXX. The technology creates additional voice paths on standard telephone wire without disturbing the normal use of the telephone. This means that telephone users employ a single line to access voice mail, intercom, Internet and regular calls all at the same time. Up to twelve telephones and/or faxes can be connected to the MAXX system. The snaky fingers of Gordonís gorgon have invaded and taken over our homes. Are our brains next or have they already been sacrificed?

I am so sick of calling the bank, the airlines, the movie theatre or even the damn drug store and reaching a voice that I cannot talk to. I have to go through four departments and six options before I can even leave a message, which they usually donít get anyway. (It seems that Charon is too busy ferrying new people over to telephone hell to care about those who have already crossed over the threshold!) I talk back and sometimes yell to the exasperating automaton at the other end of the line whose only function in life seems to be presenting me with options one, two, three, seven and nine. Itís too late to take frustrations out on Gordon Matthews or to chide Dante about his creationís overflow into modern times, but thereís still time to declare war against automated Armageddon!

Remember that forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying goes. Letís start with that automated attendant. How can we break him or her down? Slashing throats and pulling out toenails is just too passÈ. There must be something we can do to get through to the party of the first part. The problem is that even if we could somehow screw up the flow of options or slow down the process, we would still be no closer to speaking to anyone! Perhaps more than one bell ringing at the same time might help confuse matters. While the bells are ringing for me, my gal, you and the automated attendant, whose voice is activated by such, maybe we can slip through a weak link in the system and actually reach the person we were trying to call in the first place! Isnít that an innovative idea!

The automated attendant never goes to the bathroom or on vacation or takes any sick or personal leave. To those who claim that this adds to efficiency because it eliminates busy signals, I have a bone to pick that gets bigger and bigger every time I try to call someone. Everything is relative, isnít it? (Except for dear Sara who really wasnít married to my cousin, Ralph after all.) If I am the caller and I canít get through to my party because someone else insists on presenting me with options one, two and three, how much more frustrating could a busy signal be?

To those who argue that the darling automaton means well and allows callers to quickly route themselves to the appropriate extension or recorded message, I say, "let them eat phones!" I have to make so many choices and get so confused that by the time I reach someoneís voice mail, I donít even remember who I called in the first place. So, is this helpful? Maybe while Iím in the asylum, but never when Iím on the outside! (The system is enough to put away any sane person!) For the argument that voice mail conveys information completely and clearly, maybe there is a point there (somewhere). But the problem is itís TOO MUCH INFORMATION. If I want to talk to Mr. Smith of Smith, Smith, Smith and Smith, and reach the front desk, why canít someone simply say when I ask for Mr. Smith:
"Heís away."
"Okay, can I talk to Mr. Smith then?"
"Heís in conference."
"Well, how about Mr. Smith?"
Heís on vacation."
And Mr. Smith?"
"Heís out sick."
"Well, why not Mr. Smith?"
"Hang on, please."
Thatís a path I donít mind taking because at least I can talk to someone who can answer me somewhere along the circuitous way.

All kidding aside, we must do something. Finding a way to disturb Mr. Matthews peace seems the fairest solution. Wherever heís buried, there should be some way to hook up to him. Iím sure if he were living that heíd figure something out. But it has to be an annoying solution. He who lives by annoying his fellow men and women should rest in eternity by being annoyed. If you agree with me, please give me a call. One moment please. Leave a message at the tone after options two, three, four and seven and donít forget to press the pound key!

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Copyright 2002