Whacking my way through the thickets of my end-of-summer To Do list, I came to the task of getting a new Marriott Rewards membership card. This is the magic card that lets me convert my credit-card points into stays at Marriott hotels. My current Rewards card had expired months ago, and either I had not been issued a new one, or I had accidentally diverted it into the torrent of charitable requests and political propaganda that constitutes 93% of our delivered mail and is diverted straight into Recycling.
I called Marriott’s 800 number and was routed through the phone-tree menu by a computer generated voice—male—that inquired, in sunny non-regional Americanese, how he might assist me. “I can understand full sentences,” the voice assured me. “How can I help you?”
I paused. How many years has it been since we routinely began talking with machines? Fifteen? More? I still can’t shake the weirdness of having to attempt conversation with a non-human. It gives me the willies. It also raises my hackles.
“I need a new card,” I said, bluntly.
“OK!” the voice said, brightly. “Let me look into that!”
What followed was not the expected Muzak, but the sound of a keyboard clacking away, as if an industrious service representative were eagerly pursuing my request. “Bear with me a moment,” the voice said. “I’m working on it.”
It felt rude to say nothing—but what was the option? It annoyed me to be stuck with the choice between feeling rude or talking to a computer, and I sighed. More faux keyboard clacking. I noticed that the sound was no dumbly repeating pattern, like the primitive visual backgrounds (cactus-cloud-cactus-cloud) once used in TV cartoons when characters were skedaddling away, but rather a variegated aural brocade, slyly designed with pauses, space bar clonks, and backspacing noises to suggest actual, realistic typing. This annoyed me, too.
“I’m sorry this is taking a bit of time,” Marriott Man said. “Please stick with me.” Clack, clonk, clatter. “This will just take a moment longer, please hang on.” And so it continued, variations on the “please bear with me” refrain alternating with bursts of manic keyboarding. I began to seethe, muttering under my breath.
The faux typing suddenly ceased. “Did you say something?” Marriott Man asked. “You’ll need to speak up if you want me to hear you. How can I help you?”
Was I being scolded? By a computer-generated humanoid? I gritted my teeth. “I need a new Marriott Rewards card,” I said.
Marriott Man held his cards close to his vest. No more clacking now, just silence. What was he doing? My annoyance rose to minor furor. “I need—to talk—to a HUMAN BEING,” I said, biting off the words.
And then...he hung up on me. Clack gave way to click, followed by the beeping drone of a dial tone.
I sat there agape. Dissed by an algorithm! Somehow it felt like a benchmark moment. Yes, I know, we live in an age of relentless technological innovation, and if a computer can figure out how to drive a car, or beat the world’s best chess players, why shouldn’t it master the much simpler skill of being rude to customers?
Minutes later, I called back. This time I opened with a brusque demand—“Talk to a representative!”—which I reiterated three times as Marriott Man parried with various questions and commands. At last I found myself connected to a service rep named Mandy. “How can I help you?” she asked—unnervingly, since that was Marriott Man’s opening gambit, too.
“You’re a real live human being, right?” I asked.
She laughed. “Last time I checked, yes.”
“That’s a relief,” I said. “I called before, and your automated colleague hung up on me.”
“Well, I apologize for that,” Mandy said. “Now what can I do for you?”
Within thirty seconds she had taken care of my problem. And she didn’t even use her keyboard—at least, not that I could hear.