Automated phone answering systems are universally loathed, but can they be uninvented?

There is a principle of evolution that Richard Dawkins explains using a comparison with climbing a mountain. Once you have chosen a ridge heading towards the summit, you are stuck with it. Evolution can't change its mind, go back down the mountain, move across and attempt the same objective by a different route.

The classic example is the panda's thumb, as described by Dawkins' arch-enemy, Stephen Jay Gould. The ancestor of the panda needed something to grip bamboo shoots, but it had already evolved beyond the state where one of its "fingers" could become a separate, opposed thumb. So a bone at the base of its wrist extended: the panda has a thumb and five fingers. (Gould actually uses this example as a stick with which to beat Dawkins: if you want to understand the psychological basis of the religious conflict in Northern Ireland, you could do worse than to examine the running feud between Gould and Dawkins in their books. The two men believe almost the same thing about evolution yet have been battling for a quarter of a century.)

Human engineers, and humans generally have the potential to go back, choose a better route and start again. But they rarely do it. When you move into your new home and shove things into kitchen cupboards with the assumption that you will sort them out later, do you? Or are those things in the same cupboards eight years later when you move out?

The classic example is the qwerty keyboard, invented not for convenience but to slow typists down, to stop the keys of mechanical typewriters from jamming. I am a rational person and a pretty fast ten-finger typist. I know there is a new keyboard out there that would increase my typing speed by about a quarter. But I'm not going to buy it, because a) it would take a couple of weeks' retraining to master it, and I have more urgent things to do, and b) I don't need to write faster. Or, rather, I do need to write faster but I will solve that not with a new keyboard but by getting down to it earlier in the morning.

Individuals have the same problem. Most of us choose our careers virtually at random in our early twenties. We have the theoretical freedom to start again, but how many people do it? Why do men find it easier to change wives than careers? Actually I know the answer to that one. In the former case, you get the good bit first (sex with someone new); in the latter, you get the hard bit first (retraining, reduced salary).

And it's true - oh, my God, it's true - with crappy innovations. By which I specifically mean automated phone answering systems. Here's a good idea for a thriller: after a series of murders of apparently unlinked women, it finally emerges that they were all women who had recorded the cheery voices for automatic phone answering systems. An enraged customer is tracking them down and killing them, one by one. These systems were clearly a dreadful idea, loathed by everybody, but can they be uninvented?

I rang up the Britannia mail-order record company in order to rage at them for their incompetence. I went through a whole series of options until I got to the one that said, "If you want to speak to an operator, please press '5'."

I pressed "5", and a perky voice announced: "There are no operators available at present. Please call later." And the line went dead. Always. Whenever I called. I don't believe that there any operators there at all.

The worst of all automated systems is the one operated by British Telecom. Our phone line was damaged in a storm over a week ago. The phone won't work, but anybody who tries to phone us hears a normal ring. To report the fault, you tap your number into an automatic system. If you ring later to find out what's happening, you are told that there is no need to check if the fault has been reported. After a week, I phoned different numbers until I reached a human being. They had decided not to send an engineer. But it was all right, the person said brightly, "we phoned you to let you know".

"But our phone isn't working," I gasped.

The person looked at his screen: "We can send an engineer on 25 August," he said.

I read in the paper that Sir Peter Bonfield, the chief executive of BT, has just received a pay rise of 130 per cent, taking his salary to £2.5 million.

I'm going to ring him up and tell him what I think of him. On 26 August.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?