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Computer says wait – just shut up and listen to the music

October 31, 2021

One of the givens of my life is that when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy, my wife is patient and I’m not. So it’s just as well that she deals with banking, insurance and other activities normally associated with nameless, faceless officialdom, but more often than not with computers.

I know we must make allowances. These are not normal times. But it does say something when our doctor’s surgery runs an answering system that pleads with you not to be abusive to staff, among numerous messages about COVID. Chance would be a fine thing, though, because more often or not, especially when you select an option, it hangs up on you. The only way to get through to a person, usually after a half-hour wait, is by selecting no option.

I’m not so stupid as to lose my cool with staff who are struggling to answer all the calls. But what does get to me is the music. Answering systems are destroying our love for perfectly decent pieces of music by repeating the same stuff incessantly, month in, month out. Would it be beyond the operators to rotate different pieces?

Which reminds me of a day at EuroDisney, years before mobile phones, when my wife and I split up, so that she could take our eldest daughter on one of the “big kid” rides – Thunder Mountain or suchlike. My job was to watch the younger one as she spun around on the teacups. We had agreed to meet up in twenty minutes. An hour later, no sign of the two of them, and no means to communicate and ask where the hell they were. Also no point going looking for them because we’d agreed to meet by the teacups, so the chances were that as soon as we went looking they would show up and find us not there.

The upshot was that Nicky and I were stranded, with “It’s a Small, Small World” on endless repeat. That was probably the reason why a little later she threw up on Minnie Mouse’s foot. Ever since then, when I hear that accursed tune, I suffer from flashbacks. My mind goes back to that day as the bloody teacups swirled around and I went slowly demented.

That’s not all. Whenever that ridiculously twee Delibes ditty that British Airways has appropriated for the past decade wails away as my wife tries to speak to a human in their call centre, I close my eyes and imagine myself curled up in a strait-jacket as a BA stewardess leans over and force-feeds me peanuts.

Then there are the government websites, like the infernal NHS app that doesn’t even give you the option of listening to endless renditions of Ode to Joy. Instead, it chooses to keep you amused by asking you to log in with every successive step, as if it thinks that some mugger might grab your phone while you’re in the middle of downloading the latest version of the COVID pass. You get there in the end, but not before your sausage fingers develop repetitive strain injury.

I applied to renew my passport six weeks ago. The whole process is done online, but ground to a halt when I tried to take a photo of myself that complied with regulations. You know the drill. No glasses, no smiling, only grimacing mugshots allowed. I tried six times to get it right, and each time the computer said no. Too shadowy, wrong background and so forth. Eventually I thought I’d got it right after posing in front of a white sheet, much as Osama used to do in his famous videos. No room for the AK-47 though. That one seemed to pass muster. Or at least the computer said maybe, which was good enough for me.

The weeks passed and our date of departure drew close, and then ping! A text arrived informing me that Her Majesty had rejected my photo. So I galloped off to my local Timpsons, where a nice chap took an HMG-compliant pic, which I duly uploaded on to the website. All the while, I was thinking “WHY DID YOU WAIT FOR SIX WEEKS TO TELL ME THE PICTURE WAS CRAP?”

If there had been a hotline, I would have called to ask whether I’d been sent back to the end of the line, in which case our travel plans would have been toast. But it’s impossible to speak to a human, let alone request an express service (which pre-COVID you could do for an extra fee). And anyway, it would probably have told me “please wait, we are dealing with an exceptionally large number of calls”, played The Ride of the Valkyries twenty-seven times and then hung up on me.

Fortunately, I wasn’t dispatched to the back of the virtual queue. A few days later a text arrived telling me that my shiny new passport was on its way, and would I make sure I sign it with a black ballpoint pen. I marvelled at our meticulous post-Brexit civil service – EU blue would not suffice, it seems.

The only upside was that for the next ten years my public face will be that of an ancient curmudgeon, as opposed to the football hooligan who stared blankly from the previous passport.

Until some AI genius figures out how to have the computer chat merrily away about the weather, or perhaps entertain us with a quiz about endangered species, or even regale us with the entire canon of Shakespeare’s sonnets before allowing us to proceed, our fate, it seems, is to spend much of our allotted span waiting, and waiting, and waiting, without even the shipping forecast for company.

When the end finally comes, my most fervent hope is that St Peter, or the celestial computer acting in his name, doesn’t require me to fill out nine forms – one for each of Dante’s Circles of Hell – before determining me fit to enter the Pearly Gates. That would be truly infernal.

From → Business, Music, Social, Travel, UK

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