Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Voices In The Machines

It's the machines calling me up that have pushed my mind to this place. The sales calls were at least from people---though in recent years they are from people assisted by machines. You pick up the phone, you hear nothing. Maybe some chatter in the background. You know to hang up if you say "hello" and there is a pause before you get a response. If you stay on the line, someone will mispronounce your name, and try to sell you something.

If you don't want it, they will insist, and keep talking loudly.

So you just hang up the phone during that moment of silence.

But, one more time, it's a reminder that your phone line is not your own. People can call you out of the blue. The phone ringing may not be a signal that someone you care about is trying to reach you. Instead, it means someone has your number, and wants something that you probably don't have--money.

So the ring of the phone brings an uhnappy reaction. I don't want any--I think. I can't take it right now--telling someone no thanks. I just can't go there.

Email was great at first. I remember the first email I got was spam. When I fired up in the 90's, the first thing in my box had a header consisting of mysterious symbols. "I got an email!" I announced to the helpful person at earthlink, who was setting up the account. "Oh, nevermind," I said. "It's not from anyone."

The spam filters help, but they don't keep out all the noise. And you still have to look in your spam box just to make sure you're not missing something important. So you see all the spams anyway. And that's not including the flood of email you get from anyone you've given your address to in a foolish or consumer-oriented moment.

The machines are calling me now. They're just machines. The first time one called, I hung up on it in a panic. The message said, "This message is for (my name, garbled by the computer). If you are not (my name, garbled), please hang up now."

I hung up even though it sounded enough like my name. I don't know what I'm signing up for, by listening to this message, I thought. I thought of a registered letter coming to my best friend, from an unknown sender, which informed him he had to pay a traffic ticket issued by a private corporation, for rolling through a stop sign in a deserted state park area. He had to sign for the letter, and did so even though he felt apprehensive. What happens if I listen to this message? Does it legally obligate me to something I don't want to do?

So I hung up.

The machine called again soon after. This time, it left a message on my machine. Since it was a recorded message, I didn't hang up this time. The computerized voice told me to call CMRE Financial Services to talk about a bill they wanted to collect on behalf of UCLA Medical Center.

It gave a number. At no time did a live voice come on the line.

So they couldn't even be bothered to have a live person call me to work out what they said I owed. Their machine just called me, instructing me to make the call myself and navigate through their phone tree.

The machines are on their side, and they are everywhere. They are not people--they are companies. And the people at the companies don't care. They have a script. They are programmed, as surely as if they were bots. They don't respond when you ask logical questions, they don't laugh when you throw up your hands in frustration, they won't ever see you, ever know you, or ever have to talk to you again. "No, we can't lower your APR from thirty per cent." "Our records say you still owe this amount." "I'm sorry, but there is no supervisor you can speak to."

The worst ones are the ones who lecture you for your bookkeeping errors or carelessness. I admit I have become careless. I am traumatized by numbers and machines. I need the machine to talk to anyone. And the talk comes in text on a screen, not in human inflections. My bosses don't even want to call me anymore to tell me things. They would just as soon not be bothered. Why shouldn't I keep my machine on waiting for emails? That's what everyone does these days. I should do it too.

And why should I be weirded out by all the people walking around talking to their pockets these days? People on the street, or in the waiting room at the doctors, or at the supermarket, don't look at you anymore. They are looking at hand-held mechanical devices used for communication. They are always communicating with someone who is not there. Their presence is diluted by their absence of attention--they are halfway there, or hardly there at all. On the road, they smash into each other because communicating with someone who is not there is more important than carefully tracking one's trajectory in the physical space occupied by the vehicle. A train engineer was the first of 25 people to die last year, texting a friend as he blew through a signal light burning bright red for him to stop.

Our stream through life is handled by machines every step of the way. We have to find each other through the machines, and just when we think we have made human contact, we discover that the machines have taken away yet more of our ability to connect on a human level. We can get any question answered by typing into a box, but what to do with the answers? And what about all the different answers out there? The people alone on the other ends of the machines (because each of us is alone with our keyboard, that's how it's set up) disagree on what's real. And without seeing each other face to face to explain it, we marinate in our fury at our ineffectualness. We drink and type, we mutter with our friends about how the world is going to hell, and we are so conditioned by the machines, so constrained by them and by our need to satisfy all the entities that want a piece of our earnings, that fighting seems distasteful. It's unchoreographed. It's unpredictable. The machines are unpredictable, too, just when we think we've figured them out.

For one thing, the machines that brought us music changed, and kept changing and changing. CDs were so much better than records (even though you now have to squint to see the art on the covers). And then there were the hours and hours spent transferring all those CD's to Mp3 format. What next? Every camera, every device for capturing that which is human----it all becomes obsolete in the blink of an eye. Browsers are phased out, and the new ones have bugs. Computers download and install things you don't know about or want. The machines do things to us that we don't even know about. Do cell phones cause cancer? There's a significant body of research saying they just might. But you won't hear about it on the machines that dictate popular opinion, the television and radio machines, because those machines are owned by companies that have an interest in you not knowing anything that might threaten the revenue streams of the powers that be. And they all own each other now. They are very powerful in dictating opinion. Even intelligent people often believe that if a news story were potentially very important, television news will cover it, and cover it with some degree of accuracy. They have faith in television which is far too trusting.

And, so, anything that might threaten the flow of money to the war machines, that, too, is silenced. The television keeps reality from our minds as effectively as any hypnosis. The people in the machines help make this happen. This is because they work for the machines, not the other way around. A popular newscaster must not say anything too controversial, because he'll lose his job--even though news is controversy by its very nature. Controversy grabs people, though: and that's why it's one of the main products of television and radio. Just as long as it's controversy that favors those in charge. If an opinion targets those in charge, it's few and far between, and often presented in the form of a weak-appearing or otherwise unsympathetic type of person, surrounded by those who argue forcefully for the other side.

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