Jim Rockford: This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you.
Computer Recording: Hi There! If you're interested in selling your product by a computerized telephone sale, stay on the line and one of our representatives will speak to you.
—The Rockford Files, "Forced Retirement" (12/9/77)
This afternoon I got a telemarketing phone call from the good folks at HSBC, where I have a credit-card account. The perky young voice on the other end identified herself as Tina or whatever and asked how I'm doing today.
"Um…OK?" I responded, wondering what was up.
There was a little bit of a pause, and then she said, "So you're hanging in there, too?" She laughed briefly. Then she told me that the call might be recorded for quality purposes, and asked me to confirm what the computer had in its database as my name. For a second, it switched over and a recorded male voice spat out my name. It sounded just a little bit more natural than that voice emulation gizmo that Stephen Hawking uses to communicate, but it was correct, so I said "Yes." Tina asked me again, "Is that your name?" and I repeated yes. I figured she hadn't come back quickly enough to hear me the first time around, so I didn't think anything of it.
From this point, she launched into a pitch for one of those credit insurance programs that offers forgiveness on your credit card debt if you have a family emergency or whatever, and how the program costs only pennies on the dollar, and how if you have no balance then you pay absolutely nothing, so if it's all right with me then we can get me signed up in just a couple of minutes. I'm sure you've heard about it a million times before. However…
The thing that was weird about this particular pitch, however, was the background noise. Sometimes you talk to people in call centers and you hear murmuring of people in nearby cubicles. In this particular case, the background was white noise. But it wasn't just white noise. It was white noise that audibly changed in quality every few seconds, and between her sentences. Something wasn't quite right, here, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. So when Tina got to the end of the paragraph, I used my usual polite lie to brush her off: "No thanks, I already have an insurance policy that covers this." This isn't precisely true; I don't have a credit insurance policy but I do have life insurance and it's much more than enough to cover my debts.
As if she didn't hear me (and she didn't), Tina moved into the next paragraph in the script, the one that the flow chart tells you to use when they say "no". At this point I was actively listening to the background rather than the pitch, so I couldn't tell you what she said, but I did note that the white noise would change in pitch and loudness between each of her sentences. It was pretty clear at this point that I was in a conversation with a recording. At the end of this paragraph I said "no" again and The Amazing Tina 3000 Unit now provided me with an 800 number if I should desire more information, then thanked me for my time and disconnected.
This is a bit of technology that you could have seen coming; after all, when you call Verizon it asks for your number and can interpret your voice; when it asks you to make a choice and you respond, it will reply after a pause, "Okay," and move into the next section. But it was always clear that you were talking to what was essentially a voicemail system. And if it could help you, then great and if it couldn't, there's usually a means to get to a human being. I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with an automated system giving me the sales pitch for a product, especially one in which I wasn't especially interested in the first place. And I certainly don't need that system trying to be casual and chatty with me as a means of trying to fake me into thinking that it's not an automaton. This may be an audio version of the Uncanny Valley theory, but I'm not sure.
Have you ever dealt with something like this? How did you react?