Monday, September 14, 2015

Mister Retailer, Tear Down This Virtual Operator

My journey began when I’d ordered a specialized audio cable from an online retailer.  Of course, the part was out of stock and required a back-order from the factory in Outer Mongolia.  After it finally arrived at my front door—two months later—I happily installed it only to discover that it was dead on arrival ... Stiff City ... nonfunctional ... kaput … pronounce it, doctor.

After slogging through fourteen pages of fine print—we’re not talking magnifying glass here; we’re talking microscope--in 116 languages, I finally located the retailer’s English-language return policy:

“...We will happily accept returned merchandise under the following conditions: that it has not been opened; that it has not been used; that it has not been connected to electricity; that it has not been connected to any devices; that it has not been touched by human hands; that it has not been exposed to light of any kind; that it has not been exposed to air of any kind; that it has not been looked upon by human eyes; that all parts, accessories, and component parts are included and have been exactly repackaged in their original wrapping; that the outermost container has been shrink-wrapped—at the customer’s expense--to new condition; and that the original order was placed on February 31st of the current calendar year...”
Sounds pretty liberal compared to some policies I’ve seen.

However, the next line of sub-molecular print sent a chill through me: “Please call our automated Customer Support Line to obtain return authorization.”

 Oh no!

 Automated Customer Support Line?  To paraphrase that mournful 1960’s folk song, where have all the people gone?  Has humanity been outsourced to a sterile universe inhabited by databases, servers, routers, electronically-reproduced voices, and decision trees, and governed by cost-cutting, spreadsheets, and efficiency studies?  Computers don’t care about mistreated consumers.  Computers don’t concern themselves with customers dying of old age while waiting for some other computer on the other side of the cosmos to issue return authorizations.  Computers rarely visit that e-mausoleum packed with virtual customer corpses who were entombed while still clutching purchase receipts and begging for return authorizations.

I would prefer visiting a DMV Facility, applying for a bank loan, submitting to a job interview, enduring a root canal, or listening to 24 consecutive hours of paid political announcements rather than attempting to navigate a phone tree. 

Lord, please deliver me from the day when I’ll be forced to explain myself to a computer.

But, the Almighty apparently pays no heed to the pleadings of indie authors and customers needing to return merchandise.

So, I dialed the phone and began an odyssey that would all too quickly degenerate into a sadistic virtual pinball game running amok.  I knew I was in trouble when I was greeted with:

“Hello.  Your call is important to us.  In order to serve you more efficiently, we have recently installed a voice-command-recognition system.  When our Virtual Operator greets you, simply speak slowly and distinctly, and we will happily assist you.”

Oh no again!  I’d been consigned to voice-command-recognition hellI knew instantly that I was destined for a nightmare far worse than the DMV visit, the bank loan, the job interview, the root canal, and the paid political announcements combined. 

This was the absolute bottom of the Heaven / Purgatory / Hell / Voice-Command-Recognition-Hell hierarchy of the afterlife.  In the vastness of the firmament, there is no punishment more universally dreaded and feared.

Lord, what did I do to deserve this?  You wouldnt’ve allowed this to happen to me if I’d written a best-seller.  You wouldn’t force Grisham, Turow, Roberts, Rowling, or Patterson to converse with some voice-command-recognition android, would you?

Of course not; a slot on the best-seller list does have its privileges.

After 15 minutes of listening to some truly crummy music on the phone, I felt the first pain stick (Trekkers will know what that means) being jabbed deeply into my ribs:

“Hello.  I’m your Virtual Operator and I’ll be happy to assist you.  Your call is important to us.  Please choose from the following options.  To place an order, say “out of stock.”  To join our mailing list, say “spam.”  To receive our hot specials flyers, say “more spam.”  To open a new account, say “no privacy.”  To cancel an order, say “no way...”

What I really WANTED to say was apparently not an option.  I must’ve briefly dozed off because the next thing I heard was:

“....  To check the status of a repair, say “whenever.”  To check the status of your shipment, say “lost.”  To order a CD of our really awful background music, say “noise.”  To hear about employment opportunities with us, say “indentured servitude.”  To hear a generic personalized message from our company president, say “advertisement.”  For the weather forecast for Antarctica, say “brrrrr.”  To hear testimonials from some of our employees, say “coerced…”

I indulged in another quick snooze.  When I woke up:

“...For warranty information, say “not covered.”  To hear about our super clearance items, say “unsold junk.”  To apply for our credit card, say “rejected.”  To hear what I look like naked, say “pervert.”  To purchase our gift card, say “worthless.”  To hear about my favorite sexual position, say “doing it.”  For help with a gambling problem, say “I’ll bet.”  To hear me talk dirty to you, say “yeah baby....”


“To return a purchase, say “forget it.”

Eureka!  An upward movement on the evil phone tree ... or was it?  Encouraged by my foolish optimism, I quickly repeated the magic words only to be answered with:

“Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  Please tell me what item you’d like to return so that I may route your call to the proper department.”

I already had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It wouldn’t take long for it to travel further south.  Enough said.

Since I was returning an audio cable, I replied, “Audio cable.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Not to the Virtual Operator.

“You’re returning a kitchen table?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Furniture Department.”

“No, no, no,” I countered.  “I’m returning a—“

“You’re returning a garden gnome?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Lawn and Garden Department.”

“I’m returning an audio cable,” I insisted.  “An audio cable.”

“You’re returning a patio table?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Outdoor Furniture Department.”

“DAMN!” I growled into the phone.

“You’re returning a fan?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Hardware Department.”

“I’m returning an au-di-o ca-ble!” I shouted, emphasizing each of the 5 syllables.

“You’re returning an auto radio?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Automotive Department.”

At this point, my frustration was mounting quickly; but I wasn’t yet ready to surrender to this synthesized simpleton.

AU-DI-O CA-BLE,” I repeated through clenched teeth.  “AU-DI-O CA-BLE.”

“You’re returning a baby cradle?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Nursery Furnishings Department.”

I give up.  I Surrender.  Wave the white flag.  Cut me, Mick.  Throw in the towel and stop the fight.  I’d been stopped dead in my tracks by a digital dingbat who had defeated me with artificial intelligence, an artificial voice, and an artificial personality.  I’d been outmaneuvered by an artificial e-being capable of nothing more than climbing up and down an artificial decision tree.

To quote Curley Howard, everybody’s favorite Stooge: “I was a victim of coicumstance.”  

It’s finally happened, I seethed.  Mankind has become ‘a victim of coicumstance.’  Technology has finally taken over the world.  Machines have at last triumphed over man.  WE are now serving THEM; not the other way around.  WE must now conduct our daily business by THEIR parameters.  We’ve finally been assimilated by the Borg; returning something is futile; humanity is irrelevant.

It was a sad day in this author’s world.

In a near-whisper, I mumbled to myself, “What do I have to do to return a stinkin’ audio cable?”

“You’re returning an audio cable?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Electronics Department.”

Wha?  Maybe there was still some glimmer of hope!

“Yes, I’m returning an audio cable!” I rejoiced.  “YES!  PLEASE!  THANK YOU!!”  In my elation, I neglected to consider the insanity of being polite to a collection of circuits, chips, and software.

After waiting 20 more minutes on hold and enduring the mind-numbing drone of truly nauseating music, I heard a connection being made to yet another machine menace that welcomed me with all the warmth and sincerity of an LCD display.  “Thank you for contacting the Electronics Returns Department.  Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  The estimated wait time to speak to a representative is currently 36 hours.  Would you like to hold?”

My blood pressure clocked in 450/300 and rising fast.  “No, I wouldn’t like to hold, you miserable piece of—“

“I’m sorry.  I do not understand your response.  Your call is important to us.  To serve you more efficiently, I’ll transfer you to the Virtual Operator so that—“

 Another series of clicks warned me that the gates of cyber-hell were about to open a little wider, enticing me to draw closer to the flames.  I was then greeted by a soft female voice so tiny and distant that it was nearly inaudible.  Her voice sounded as though it were emanating from the farthest reaches of the Delta Quadrant.  “This is the Electronics Department.  How may I assist you?”

What?  Had I finally lost it?  Had senility finally set in?  Or had my plaintive cry for help been mercifully answered by—of all things—an actual live human being complete with human vital signs, a human brain, and perhaps a scintilla of human compassion for another human being hopelessly ensnared in the diabolical web of automated Customer Support.

And they said the age of miracles was over.

To paraphrase Captain Montgomery Scott’s immortal line from that Star Trek movie, “There be HUMANS here!”  The Customer Support Universe is not yet the exclusive domain of computers, decision trees, synthesized voices, and truly crappy music.  Raise the flag and salute a small victory for mankind; the people are still in charge.  Perhaps the Virtual Operator should cook up some FIREHOUSE-HOT jalapeño dip and eat its own chips.  I hope it gets a case of heartburn that fries its logic circuits and sends its decision tree up in flames.

My inner celebration completed, I recovered quickly and answered the human person to whom I was speaking.  “Yes, I’d like to return an audio cable.  Could you help me with that, please?”

“I’m sorry,” she answered, “I’m not authorized to accept returns.  But your call is important to us.  I’ll transfer you back to the Virtual Operator so you can be properly routed.  Please hold.”

Properly routed?  Perhaps properly REAMED would’ve been more appropriate.

“No, please wait--” I pleaded weakly.  Too late.  I’d already been held, subjected to truly awful music, transferred, routed, mis-routed, re-routed, re-re-routed, through-routed, connected, disconnected, and re-connected; now I was being dragged screaming and kicking back to Square One to again face the synthesized stupidity of the Virtual Operator.

The next twenty minutes were devoted to listening to yet more truly wretched music and waiting for the Sword of Damocles to come crashing down on my skull.

“Your call is important to us.  We’re here to serve you.  Please speak slowly and distinctly, and tell me what item you’d like to return so that I may route your call to the proper department.”

Blood pressure: 800/600 and climbing.


“You’re returning a shovel?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with our Hardware Department.”

That did it.  I decided it was time for us humans to stand proudly and mount one final act of defiance and honor before submitting forever to the machines.  If I and my fellow humans were destined to be subservient to technology, I, for one, was going down with my fists flying.

I wonder if Custer felt this way enroute to Little Big Horn. 

Behold … Homo sapiens’ last stand.


Expecting something—although I had no idea what—in the way of decision-tree-based retaliation, I heard an extended series of clicks as though I were being pinballed around the world several times.  Finally, the connection went silent, but my curiosity compelled me to hang on for a few more moments.

“You’re returning an (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) and (expletive) (expletive)?  Your call is important to us.  I’ll be happy to connect you with the (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) and (expletive) (expletive) Department.”

I was officially the vanquished owner of a thoroughly useless audio cable.

But this entire exercise wasn’t a total loss.  Before I hung up, my writer’s thirst for knowledge drove me to investigate those options tantalizingly represented by “pervert,” “doing it,” and “yeah baby.”

As a result of that vital scientific research, the Virtual Operator has just become a principal character in my next book.

The novel’s working title?

The Thing That Ate Virtual Operators.

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