During a recent call I made to York County Superior Court, it took about three solid minutes to get ahold of a person ”“ an actual, honest-to-goodness human being. Three minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but for someone accustomed to hearing “Hello?” after three or four rings, it’s an eternity.

The wait was because of the court’s automated phone system, which I believe was invented by medieval torturers looking to extract murder confessions from bloodthirsty barbarians. You’ve dealt with these before. If you’ve ever called a courthouse, school, library, or law office, you’ve heard that type of message: “Thank you for calling the Office of Whoever. For a staff directory, press ”˜one.’ To spend the rest of your life on the phone and never speak to a breathing homo sapien again, press ”˜two.’”

If left unchecked, automated phone systems will slowly spread and wipe out humanity like the killer machines in “The Matrix.” Or at least they’ll make all of our phone calls profoundly annoying. They’re increasingly unavoidable, and the menu options are getting increasingly long. Any longer and they’ll be voiced by James Earl Jones and sold in bookstores.

A perfect case in point is the answering system for the Massabesic school system. I called a few months ago, trying to get ahold of a staff member at the high school, but dialing their number no longer gets you the actual school. Instead, the number connects you to a central hub, from which you can be transferred to the high school, middle school, elementary school, or the central office. Convenient if you’re a robot, irritating if you’re flesh-and-bone.

Why can’t I just speak to a receptionist and ask to be connected to someone? That’s what usually ends up happening anyway, because the options on the menu never correspond to the actual help you need. I don’t know the extension of the person I’m trying to reach, I don’t need to call my child in sick, and I don’t need to speak to somebody in food services, although, really, try a little harder on the mashed potatoes. I just want to talk to the chemistry teacher so I can ask him about beakers and stuff.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when automated phone systems started taking over the world. They are to phones what Ryan Gosling is to movies: You never really noticed them coming until they were already there.

They certainly weren’t as prevalent 10 or 20 years ago. Back then you would call a place, and a bored or polite-sounding person would gently guide you in the right direction; it was bliss, because when you’re talking to an honest-to-goodness receptionist, who communicates in human language instead of binary code, you can make your intentions understood quickly and succinctly. A person doesn’t have a list of options that you have to sift through. They have minds, and those minds are capable of assessing what you need and helping you to get there.

The only argument I’ve heard in favor of an automated answering system is that it saves receptionists time and effort. That’s all well and good, but if that’s the goal, it seems like we should at least wait until technological advances have made this less of a pain for callers ”“ maybe when all robots have the cognitive ability of that big, black computer that kicked so much butt on “Jeopardy.”

Until then, my head will remain firmly in the clouds, envisioning a pipe-dream utopia where people answer phones and robots stick to doing robot things, like making coffee or opening cans of dog food. We’re a long way off from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator.” In the time we have left before that eerie reality, let’s talk. You may not be James Earl Jones. But you’re better than the alternative.

— Jeff Lagasse is a staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune, and refuses to outsource his responsibilities to a race of machines. Email him at [email protected].



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