Ed Quillen: Hey mister, just have your robot call my robot | AspenTimes.com

Ed Quillen: Hey mister, just have your robot call my robot

In 1890, Mark Twain wrote that he hoped all of humanity would eventually “be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.”

We may need to add other inventors to this list of the damned, since improvements in communication often come with infernal developments.

We can start with the devolution of the telephone. For every call that comes from a friend wanting some assistance in the noble task of reducing Colorado’s beer inventory, there are at least a dozen that start with “Hello, this is Rachel at CitiGreed Group, and we can consolidate your debts at just 29 percent APR,” or “The warranty on your 20-year-old vehicle is about to expire.”

Years ago, these vermin were human beings, and you could respond: “How do you explain to your children what you do for a living?”

But now the voices are automated and can’t hear your threat to rip their lungs out. The way to respond to a robot’s call now is to have your own robot answer. Thus you’re likely to get a machine even when you call a friend. And even when you call a business that should encourage telephone use, like Qwest, you can waste a lot of time either pushing keys or trying to get the corporate robot to understand your voice.

Telephones started as convenient person-to-person communication, but have become a contest between robots.

With all their features, cell phones seemed like an improvement. We have one because one of our daughters cut her landline, and it was cheaper for her to put us on a $10-a-month “friends and family” package than to call our landline from her cell or vice versa.

But I’ve yet to find the three or four free days it would take me to work through the manual to learn all those nifty features. I doubt I’d be able to remember the button sequences anyway. And besides, this model will doubtless become obsolete soon and be replaced by a new version with different sequences.

Then there’s the personal computer. I’ve been using some version of e-mail for nearly 25 years, starting with CompuServe and a 300-bps modem on an Osborne.

It was wonderful at first, but the genius of global enterprise has since trashed it. Despite spam filters, at least 90 percent of my e-mail is junk.

Of the stuff I might want to read, often it starts with something like, “This is an HTML formatted message. You must update your e-mail client.”

Hey, if you want me to read it, plain text works. And isn’t it presumptuous for a stranger to tell me what e-mail client to use, or what settings to employ?

Or the message comes in an attachment; many recent ones are in Microsoft Word’s new “docx” format, and nothing I have will read it. Besides, who’d load a Word file from a stranger, when such files can contain malicious viruses?

Or I respond to a human’s e-mail, and get an automated reply directing me to a spot where I must recognize some twisted letters among splattered dots to prove that I’m human to get on the sender’s white list.

So the telephone has evolved into a system of dueling robots, while the computer has become a system that tries to detect robots. Both get more inconvenient every day. I’m beginning to think we’d be more productive if we returned to stamps and envelopes, and met one another face-to-face every now and again. And overall, it might be cheaper, too.

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