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14 February 2024

I crave human contact, mainly with someone in Sky’s technical department

With its awful hold music and bot-driven customer service, no one could have predicted the Rise of the Machines would be so boring.

By Nicholas Lezard

As I type these words, I am listening to a selection of “easy listening classics” while waiting to get through to the customer services  department of Sky Broadband. I have been trying to get through to a human being for about a week now. I thought “easy listening classics” might mean half an hour of Pachelbel’s “Canon” but instead I’m getting lots of slushy ballads. “You’re my downfall, you’re my muse,” croons someone I can’t look up on my laptop because it has decided not to connect to the internet any more. Which is my problem. “You’re crazy and I’m out of my mind,” he sings. This is a more or less accurate summary of my feelings.

Last year I wrote about my travails with Virgin. The reason I got fed up with them was because it was almost completely impossible to get through to a human being. “Go to Sky,” said Ben, “their customer service is really good.” And it was: I got through to a person very quickly. Since then, though, they have changed their contact procedures and it has taken me several threatening tweets, encounters with communication bots called “Natalie”, endless closed loops of pre-recorded voices, and stabbing uselessly at the keypad on the phone only to be hung up on (“Thank you for calling Sky. Goodbye”) to finally get to the point where I might – might – get through to explain my predicament, which is quite simple, really, to someone who was of woman born. Meanwhile, I am in my 21st minute of suffering the kind of music I hate most on Earth and I do not know if I will be able to get through this without having a seizure.

I do not doubt that you have been through similar experiences. This kind of thing is, increasingly, the default customer experience when having to deal with crucial administration. I gather HMRC’s interface is now human-free, and I need to speak to them and I am now looking forward to that even less than I usually do.

People throw around terms such as “late-stage capitalism” when discussing the dehumanising insults ordinary people are subjected to by corporations, but I’m not seeing capitalism in any death throes; in fact it’s this kind of thing that’s keeping it in rude health. Last week the CEO of a company – I forget which; it’s not important – expressed some surprise that his (it was a he) employees were not motivated by the importance of shareholders’ increased dividends, and this, to me, is like someone expressing surprise that a person will go “Ow” if you poke them in the eye. It rarely, if ever, occurs to the CEOs that perhaps this means they shouldn’t be poking people in the eye in the first place. I think the key word here is “dehumanisation”: if only there weren’t any of those tiresome humans around to place speed bumps between our desire to make money and the money.

It’s getting worse, and another thickening wedge is the rise of AI, which has been asked to do its utmost to render the human mind redundant or surplus to requirements. People have been anxious about this ever since Ned Ludd – so that’s over 200 years – but at least people have got used to weaving machinery, and as for later iterations of this fear, at least the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was kind of sexy, and Arnie’s Terminator needed a human being’s clothes and motorbike, and became a goodie in the second film. I am not sure whether people foresaw that the Rise of the Machines would be quite so boring and frustrating.

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As it happens, I am suffering another technological frustration: someone has decided to play around with my bank account without my permission or knowledge. I bet you’ve had this too. I have, apparently, been staying at Travelodges, ordering Domino’s pizzas and gallivanting around Jersey, and so my debit card has been blocked and I am waiting for a new one. Until that arrives I am in a strictly cash economy, and getting the cash in the first place involves finding a branch of one’s bank, and good luck with that. But I have enough cash in my pocket to buy a bottle of cheap Scotch, drink it, and then run amok with the empty. It will not solve my problems, and will almost certainly create new ones, but at least any consequences will involve actual human beings, even if they are in uniform. And I’ll probably get a cup of tea while I’m banged up.

Update: I did manage to get through to Sky, but only by calling their sales department – they’re perfectly happy to speak to you if you want to throw money at them – and then placing myself at their mercy and begging to be put through to the right number. I was, and after a long, long conversation with a human being who did the best they could, I now have a direct line to their technical desk – it was what I requested when I was asked if there was anything else they could help me with – and I will pass on the number to the first reader who wants it in exchange for cash. I was going to add “or sexual favours”, but after two hours on the phone, half an hour of which was spent listening to rotten music, my libido is no longer what it was and I don’t think I’d be any good.

[See also: The internet man is coming and I am anxious]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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