One of my favorite movies of mid-century American life is Vincente Minnelli’s Bells Are Ringing (1960), a romantic comedy-musical film starring Judy Holliday, Dean Martin and Jean Stapleton. Holliday plays the role of Ella Peterson who works in the basement office of Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service, and the comedy revolves around the problems that arise when Ella becomes engrossed in the private lives of others. She unwittingly gets involved in off-track betting and then is assumed by the police to be running an escort service.
Such antics, typical of American comedies of the forties and fifties, commemorate an era where live voice interactions are not only prized, but the human voice is the theatrical vehicle for the misunderstandings, the falling in love, and the human connections so prized by the characters we witness. Since this film was made, new technology ushered forth the eventual eclipse of these services with the first answering machine being put onto the American market in 1960. Although Kazuo Hashimoto’s Ansafone did not reach many American households, it set the bar for the future of home answering machines the 1971 launch of PhoneMate’s answering machine. Hashimoto would later return to the telephony scene in 1983 having patented digital answering machine architecture.
The answering machine was a part of many of childhoods as it became that device that was used during meals to preserve “family time” where nobody was allowed to answer the phone. It was even used to screen cold callers and later it became part of the culture of screening calls where people could decide if and when they wanted to speak to the caller. Technology saved us from many inconveniences of looking for notepaper or even mistakingly writing down an incorrect message. In the technological age, we could invariably blame the cassette if a message was unclear indicating that it was time to pop in a fresh tape. Our culture was indelibly marked by the answering machine as was the answering services that predated it. Yet, each era that grew up with different devices would different demands of privacy, speed, information and even security.
Over the past several decades, we have witnessed a shift from answering services to the answering machine and more recently to SMS. Text message is a far faster technology that does not involve entering any numbers or waiting for an entire message to play through only to find out that Tony will be 15 minutes late. In three seconds we can skim a text message that reads, “Running 15 min late.” Today, however, certain sectors of our societies are not settling into the SMS mode of communication.
Paradoxically, the brevity of the SMS replicates the brevity of the answering services that served people for the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Where an answering machine message would inspire even the most silent of types to leave overly detailed and lengthy messages, derails and idle thoughts, the message transcribed by answering services also gets to the heart of the message: “Appointment canceled, call to reschedule” or “Car broke down, will be an hour late.” No more hearing drunk messages about a friend’s breakup that end abruptly.
In this era where RCS messaging was supposed to mean the demise of SMS, we are not seeing any evidence that text message is going away. To the contrary, are beginning to see the return to answering services as an increasing percentage of the workforce is freelance, and one thing that businesses tend not to like is voicemail. Not only is voicemail considered bad for business, but we are starting to get a glimpse of old world technologies making a “comeback” as a competitive marketplace demands human answers over form email responses. The return to the human voice is a move that many are making today to tend to their businesses after hours in the absence of staff, time or office space. For many freelancers and small businesses, human relations have returned to the forefront of marketing where live voice communications are integral to the continuation of many types of businesses. Yet, for the private individual, it’s often enough to know if one’s friend is coming along for after-work drinks in a quick text message.
Where technology meets the more traditional values of business and trust as conferred through real-life or voice-communicated messages, we are seeing yet another shift in human communications today where “good customer service” is now being assumed within the framework of personal contact. AnswerFirst Communications is one of many services that has seen a boost in business in recent months as more and more small businesses and entrepreneurs are reaching out to answering services in order to replace the impersonal tone of emails and text messages.
Even with the recent expansion of AI technology that replicates the human voice, what is becoming clear is that more tech users are attracted to human voice communications. Real voice commands are even crucial for the moderation of our everyday lives, including smart home device activation and voice searches on mobile phones. From businesses which are encouraged to optimize their content for voice searches, to the extensive use of voice technology in Apple’s iOS 13, and the ever-expanding market of voice-controlled smart technology, we are discovering that even with AI’s custom voice technology and all the emoji syntax in the world, what might seem to be gold does not, in fact, glitter.
Like the trademark image for His Master’s Voice, the terrier named Nipper iconically portrayed in Francis Barraud’s painting listening to his master’s recorded voice, some things will simply not replace the tonal qualities of the real human voice.