"New tech support bots will be frighteningly lifelike," said the headline on the internet the other day. It's not an exact quote, but you get the idea: You won't know you're talking to a machine. That's not frightening at all, unless they mean the robots will be as bored and confusing as the real thing. Here's a conversation I had recently:
Hello my name is Biff Sebastian. What is of the problem?
"My printer won't."
I will be of the happy to assist to you on the problem. What is the model of the printer that you are to having?
"FFS-03.14 DeskMate EZ-Print Express PersonalScan Fax. It whines like a broken dog, and it spits out blank pages. There's an error code, 666."
OK, thank you. I am sorry it is like a dog. The error code means it is not connected to the internet.
"Well, neither is my toaster, but it handles bread without any problem. I don't want to connect my printer to the internet."
I understand, sir, and I am sorry you do not want the things, but in order to work the printer has to multi-task the firewall to hack the protocols, OK?
"You're just stringing internet words together, aren't you?"
The only reason I was having this conversation was because the online instructions were so useless. The printer's selling point was simple: You never run out of ink. It knows when you're low, and automatically orders more. You pay three bucks a month. That's $36 a year.
We've all stood in the printer ink aisle, looking at ink prices, clenching our fists, thinking: These prices would be acceptable if the ink were made of whale glands and moon rocks, but c'mon. What do they say at the annual Kinko's board meeting? "Our gross revenue was $34 billion, but unfortunately our ink costs were $33.9 billion. Man, that stuff's expensive. We have to find an alternative to using beaver tears, it's just too much to collect and store."
I realize that this is not the most novel observation in 2017. Printer ink, it's expensive, am I right? And those TV remotes? So many buttons! And these kids with their snapchats and tweeters! Do you remember Perry Mason? Now there was a show!
Anyway, here's the new twist: As I said, the printer phoned home to order ink. But it also wanted to create its own network for wireless printing from my phone. Password: 1234567. You're just asking for Russian hackers to gain control and print off the entire works of Tolstoy, which would cost about $42,392 in ink.
So I called the help line to figure out how to disable all the helpful features while permitting the printer to order ink on its own, and Sebastian — whose voice answered the question "what would a man who drank a bottle of NyQuil in the parking lot before work sound like?" — helped me kill this helpful feature.
I clicked "accept" on all the Terms and Conditions, because if you want to print your child's school paper you have to agree to the innumerable clauses and codicils of a legal document longer than the one that formed the legal basis for the conclusion of World War I.
Then, to my horror, I realized that at some point I had clicked without disabling the box that allowed the printer and its corporate parent (hereafter, "Beelzebub, Master of the Flies") to send me text messages.
Do you want to disable that? asked Sebastian.
"I would rather saw off my hand with a butter knife than get text messages from my printer," I told him.
He said I needed to print out a code to enter online, but I told him I couldn't do that. "Sorry, I've run out of ink," I explained. "That's why I called. To sign up for ink." He had me press and hold two buttons. A sheet of codes came out of the printer, the same printer that had spat out 10 blank pages when I'd tried to print the previous night. Because it has secret reserves of ink that mere mortals can't access.
You may ask: How can you ever trust it again?
Simple. It's a printer. I never trusted it in the first place.
Oh, one more thing: They say the tech support chatbots will be able to read your emotions, and detect if you're angry.
As opposed to all the happy people who call.