I was in no way justified in the blistering rage I felt towards the man on the other side of the computer screen – Avery, the hybrid chatbot-human. I was aware that my frustration was the result of a very first-world problem, the inconvenience I’d felt over the last three weeks paled in comparison to the real issues of the world, ones that millions of people dealt with every day. Perhaps Avery was one of them. It was simply his misfortune that he was the last in a long line of chatbots who’d had me crawling up the walls for the better part of a month.
“The wait time for a callback is ten business days.”
“Ten business days for a callback? That’s ridiculous. I just want a phone. I ordered this thing three weeks ago, it was supposed to come in three days.”
“The phone is waiting for collection.”
“In the wrong state! I don’t live there.”
“We will send the phone to you within five business days, once it has been returned to our warehouse.”
I changed my mind. Avery was an agent of evil.
“You have phones in your warehouse. Just send me one of those!”
“My hands are tied. Perhaps you could go buy a prepaid phone in the meantime?”
“Just cancel my order, and my account, please.”
“We can cancel your order, but we can’t cancel your account until the package is back in our warehouse.”
“You can’t make me accountable for a package you sent to the wrong address!”
This was the umpteenth time I’d had this conversation. I’d spent the last three weeks squaring off against a faceless corporation who had come to embody all the frustrations of my metropolitan existence, forced to deal with an army of foot soldiers who had a perfect, practical defense of plausible deniability. They met my rage with phrases like “my hands are tied” or “I am on your side”.
I remember reading once that when people make up fake names, they’re most likely to come up with something that starts with the letter ‘A’. It was anecdotal evidence, but it rang painfully true. I was quite sure I’d also spoken with an Angela, and an Andy, and for the sake of variety, a Nichelle.
“Hi, you’re speaking with Arwin, and I will be your guide to the Underworld.”
I can’t say with certainty if this was Supervisor Arwin’s opening line, but it was much to that effect.
“Hello Arwin, I would like a phone please.”
“Certainly sir, you will have it within ten business days, once it has been returned to our warehouse.”
“Avery said it would be five.”
“I’m afraid that is unlikely.”
“Nichelle guaranteed me delivery in 24 hours, five days ago.”
“So, she lied?”
“Angela said it would be 24–48 hours, three days ago.”
“I’d like to cancel my account please.”
“We can cancel the order, but we cannot cancel your account until the package has been returned to our warehouse.”
What followed was another strangely spherical conversation that left my heart palpitating and my temperature feverish. His use of the phrase “my hands are tied” was matched only by his rapid-fire barrage of mystery acronyms. At the end, I found myself hanging up the phone, uncertain exactly what Arwin’s job had been.
I walked through the streets looking for a phone store that wasn’t emblazoned with the noxious green and yellow branding I’d now come to associate with mental poison. Only, it seemed there were no other stores left in the world. This massive telecom giant, the one with empty warehouses and an inability to process postcodes, had bought out every shopfront, kiosk, shopping center and bus stop. All those other chains – the red and white, the purple and blue, the off-brand one with the toucan thing – they were mirages.
I was well and truly in the seventh circle now.
I think at the beginning I had imbued all of this frustration with a greater meaning. I saw it as the manifestation of some greater psychic tension – coming to grips with my new life as an adult in the big city, trying to find a balance between my desire to be artistic and the bureaucracy of life admin. Because what was this experience if not farcical? I suddenly had a fulltime relationship with a chorus of semi-sentient chatbots who spoke in circles and were somehow capable of typing with their hands tied!
There was no greater meaning here. Just me, Arwin, an absent phone, and a ticking clock.
I waited for 48 hours.
I waited for 72 hours.
I waited 96 hours.
“Hi, you’re speaking with Antony.”
“Hi Antony, I’m waiting for a call back from Arwin. He said it would be 48 hours, I should have heard from him two days ago.”
“The time for a call back is 48 business hours.”
I hung up.
This piece originally appeared in Farrago Magazine, 2018