Dial 9 after the beep to go barking mad …

The Warrior Queen – and this is the truth – was once caught bending over a freezer in Food-o-rama saying; ‘Hello little peas … do I need you?’ She didn’t know I was behind her and heard – and to this day, doesn’t actually believe she did it. But the fun is being taken out of fronting up at grocery stores – and indeed, with enjoying a bit of tele-biffo when trying to get something organised over the phone.

Like me, The WQ isn’t a fan of making phone calls. Not so long ago, she had to contact an insurance company for some information on renewing a policy. They had one of those phone systems whereby you can talk to the handpiece but the handpiece ain’t listening – because they’ve sacked the roomful of happy telephonists they used to employ. Instead, they have a recorded voice to do the business for them. It makes them feel good a bit of money is being saved on all those girlies sitting around dunking digestives in milky tea and applying their nail varnish in between calls. Couldn’t have that, because it might reek of customer service.

Anyway, the WQ’s particular machine told her to press 3 after the beep if she wanted to talk about insurance. Which she did. If she’d wanted to talk about hiring a gigolo she would have phoned BadLads-R-Us. There followed an indeterminable wait, in which awful music was played. The WQ sat back patiently and fondly remembered riding in elevators in the fifties.

After what seemed like forever but was probably only about an hour or two, an electronic voice butted in to thank her for waiting patiently.

‘You’re welcome,’ said the WQ. So they played some advertisements, advertising themselves.  And their fast, competent, personalised telephone service. By the time the voice came back, the WQ was feeling a little peeved.

‘I’m starving,’ she told it. It didn’t seem to care. Instead, she was treated to another series of numbers, from which she was invited to make a choice, depending on the make of car she was interested in attempting to insure. The next time the voice came back, she said, ‘I’ll be a skeleton by the time anyone answers.’ The music at the other end was turned up louder. ‘I need to have something to eat soon,’ the WQ said crossly. ‘If I’m dead, I won’t need the car insured, will I?’

A Barry Manilow song came on. It was the last straw. ‘Sod you, then,’ the WQ said, hanging up and calling it a day for the year.

Which begs the question – how much business is being lost by these companies because the great unwashed won’t deal with machines? You never actually get to find out whether the service is going to be any good or not. There’s never anything human on the other end of the line to tell you.

What price have we paid for our autoteller machines? At least if you walk into a bank, the girl behind the counter doesn’t chew your card up the third time you forget your number. Sure, she might chew gum and you might have a long wait in the queue – but when you finally get there, that girl’s not just another unemployment statistic.

They try to justify unemployment by saying the technological age has spawned a whole new range of jobs. Jobs we hadn’t even heard of 50 years ago. Like being the person who records the electronic voice on answering machines. Or the person who unlocks autotellers and retrieves the sad little pile of chewed up cards left inside (most of them my son’s). And what happens when finally we all turn on our computers to do our grocery shopping electronically? No more fun trips to the mall. No more trolleys with uncoordinated castors. No more waiting in the 8-items-or-die queue behind the thick arser with two months’ supply of goodies for the Australian Army’s next bivouac. You won’t be able to feel the packet to check the biscuits aren’t broken. Or check the use-by date of anything. Or be dragged, screaming, 50 metres across the car park in front of an oncoming bus with your knickers showing when your rogue trolley hits an unexpected speedhump on the way back to your car.

Saddest of all, the WQ will no longer be able to converse with icebound vegetables or assure them of their necessity to her wellbeing and happiness. All the excitement will have gone from life. Those little daily adventures in which we interact with other living things – including moribund broccoli florets – will have been wrested savagely from our sorry lives in the interest of progress.

Was it worth it, we will ask ourselves, as we are reduced to gibbering idiots reaching for the phone to call Lifeline.

‘Dial 1 after the beep,’ it will sonorously intone, ‘if you’re just mildly pissed off. Dial 9 if you’re totally, barking mad …’

.oOo.

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