Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm sorry Jason, I cannot do that.

Even if you haven't had the patience to see the classic 1968 movie: 2001, A Space Odyssey, you will recall the famous line, "Open the pod bay doors HAL"

This line is a plea to a computer named HAL from an astronaut who is locked outside his space ship. HAL decides that it is in the best interest of it's mission to over-rule the request of the mission commander and responds in it's eerie voice "I am sorry Dave, I cannot do that."

The year is now 2008, and while computers generally have not spoken to us in monotone voices since they changed the announcement in the trains at the Atlanta airport, I am astonished that the end result is the same, if not worse. Today, Humans have now surrendered to the will of their computers.

Do you think I am being too dramatic? Twice in the last week I spoke with managers from two major companies, Comcast and Continental Airlines, who have tried to accomplish relatively simple tasks, only to give up as their computer won't let them.

With Comcast, I am trying to use a cable modem on their system that I purchased, rather than the one they rent to me. With Continental Airlines, I am trying to redeem frequent flier rewards for seats that that are repeatedly shown as available on their web site.

In both situations, I spent over an hour on the phone with someone who claimed to be a manager or a supervisor. Each time the human agreed to my request, but the computer did not. Both calls ended in a stalemate as I pleaded with them to find a person in their company who can override their computers. In the case of Comcast, they agreed to research the problem and get back with me. In the case of Continental Airlines, I was told that an "internal report" would be filed regarding the error, but I should NOT expect anyone to resolve the problem. The supervisor at Continental actually told me "They won't let me" book the flight, for March 2009, that the web site showed as available. When I asked who she was referring to as "they," she told me that "they" are the computers!

While it does scare me to consider that computers have now enslaved the human race (would you like to play global thermonuclear war?), there are three other possibilities:

1. The humans are merely blaming the computers because it is company policy to lie to their customers.

2. The humans are too lazy to find someone to fix the problem, therefore they just blame it on the computer and tell their customers that there is nothing more that they can do.

3. The humans actually believe the computers are in charge, either because their management has told them it is so or they are just idiots.

With Comcast, I will give them a couple weeks to try to solve this, especially since they offered to credit me for the modem rental fee. With Continental, I have already launched the EECB, CC'd to several travel and consumer web sites. Why people have to threaten a company with adverse publicity in order to get basic customer service will be the subject of a future post.

In the movie 2001, Dave ultimately overrides the computer and gains access to his ship manually, although he almost dies doing so. Let's hope that Comcast and Continental can force their computers to comply with their commands without threatening anyone's life.

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