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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Press 2 for authenticity...

The American (HBO) TV series "Six Feet Under" is coming to an end in a couple of weeks, although in an odd twist (perhaps not so odd for this bizarre series) the main character (Nate Fisher) has already died and been "put to rest" (so to speak). The most recent episode was devoted to Nate's funeral/burial and all the reactions to it -- and it was unique enough to draw the comments and analysis of a New York Times writer (Virginia Heffernan) who used the opportunity to reflect on the relevance of Lionel Trilling's distinction and tension between "sincerity" and "authenticity" in American culture.

A colleague and I got around to discussing this point this morning as it relates to the growing number of automated voice response systems we confront in our lives. This may seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me....

As one who appreciates and leans more toward "authenticity," I am driven a bit mad by the tone, pace and falseness of the "sincerity" that all these systems promote. Each time I hear those syrupy scripted recorded voices, I am ready to toss my phone against the wall (good thing I am on beta blockers -- it is enough to give me another heart attack...). If I am lucky, the system provides an 'opt out' choice early in the process ("...or say 'operator' for assistance"), but more often than not I am left to circumnavigate the multiple menus for several minutes longer than would be necessary if there was a live operator on the other end to begin with.

As if it isn't bad enough that I have to contend with this computerized sincerity when I call my bank or health insurance, I now have to listen to it when I ring up colleagues. I even have a version of it in my car which has a GPS navigation system that talks you through your trip in the most sincere voice they could find for such things (from what I understand, a good deal of research went into developing the optimal voice for these systems....). Every once in awhile I would like to hear "Vona" (the name we've given to that sweet female voice -- short for 'voice navigation') say "Damn it, I told you to turn right, schmuck!"

We came up with the obvious solution to this problem, and it would be relateively costless.

Just as the current systems now offer you language options at the start of most calls ("For instructions in English, press one..."; my car's navigation system gives the option of French or Anglish when turning on the vehicle), why not install an option allowing for the caller/user to chose between sappy 'sincerity' and good old 'authenticity' for directions or instructions. If you select sincerity, you get the current pleasant, 'have a nice day' banter that can make you feel better while trying to get to someone who can (supposedly) solve your problem, answer your question, or deal with your complaint.

But if you don't want to put up with all that nice-ness and want to get right to the point, just "press 2 for authenticity...." And if doing so does not lead directly to some live operator you can yell at -- and who is not allowed to apologize, and who would be allowed to "authentically" tell you to take a flying leap -- then the recording you get should be an honest and forthright statement about how the institution you are calling really feels about being bothered by all these silly complaints and requests....

I think we might seek a patent on that....

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