Interfacing Without Faces

AT 7:30 on a Saturday morning, a suburbanite arrives at an automated teller machine, eager for cash and an early start on the day. But a sign covering the screen delivers bad news: "This machine is temporarily out of service."

The customer sighs. The bank won't open for another hour, so the only choice is to drive to another ATM or return to this one later. Yet who knows how long "temporarily" will be? And who wants to waste time retracing steps on a day filled with errands?

As inconveniences go, this is not a world-shaking event. But as Americans become more and more dependent on technology, it illustrates the ripple effect a high-tech failure can produce.

Two weeks ago, when the roof of a computer center in Clifton, N.J., collapsed under the weight of heavy snow, it brought down 5,000 teller machines serving a million customers. Bankers are still calculating the cost of lost business, though no one can put a price tag on customers' inconvenience and annoyance during the weeklong breakdown, the nation's largest ever.

In simpler, low-tech times, when banking required a face-to-face encounter with a live teller, backup systems were predictable. If one teller took a break, a sign, "Next window, please," directed customers to someone else. Now, even though tellers have been given a new, user-friendly title - customer service representative - many depositers rarely set foot inside the bank, preferring to do business with a faceless, voiceless screen at odd hours.

Still, that preference for machines has its limits. Increasingly, the old telephone-company phrase, "Let your fingers do the walking," is being updated with another suggestion that could read, "Let your voice mail do the talking." Business callers accustomed to talking to an operator or a receptionist hear a disembodied voice offering a "menu" and instructing them to "Press 1" - or 2 or 3 or 4 - for the appropriate department.

Not everyone sees this as progress. In rebellion, one exasperated telephone user, Sidney Werlin of Belmont, Mass., has just persuaded his state senator to file a bill that would require Massachusetts companies with more than 25 employees to "provide direct access to a live human operator through its main listed number."

The bill begins, "Whereas, voice mail is aggravating, frustrating and dehumanizing, and whereas, the menu provided by voice mail often is not responsive to the purposes of the call being made, and whereas, voice mail is an unwarranted burden to the many people who have rotary phones...." Where it will end is an open question, though some legislators have already pointed out that under the free-enterprise system, businesses may generally operate as they please.

Inventions like these have their invaluable uses - who can imagine life in the '90s without them? But as machines replace almost any function humans can perform, questions arise: How much "interfacing" with technology will it take before any supposed "dehumanizing" becomes a reality? And what does it mean, ultimately, if everyone has more contact with machines than with people? However ingenious a machine might be, there are still things only humans can do, such as talk in response.

Perhaps that's why computer buffs have devised a series of hieroglyphics to convey emotions in computer messages, or electronic mail. Called "emoticons" or, more informally, "smileys," these symbols attempt to humanize the words marching across a screen. Users can simply tip their head to the left to see that :-) means "just kidding" and :-( means "I'm sad."

In attempting to compensate for the impersonal nature of computers, the smileys may hint at the future direction of technology. Is a kind of microchip folksiness in the offing - ye olde electronic village? Alas, the hunger for the real world, with real voices, real faces, and fingerprints all over it, cannot be satisfied by virtual reality.

The other day a "personal" letter arrived in a form that once was taken for granted: handwritten script. The event seems so novel as to be noteworthy to the writer of the letter, who added a wry postscript: "You are holding a rare piece in that I can't remember HAND writing a letter in the last 10 years."

In the not-so-distant future - who knows? - such quaint throwbacks may become a collector's item.

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