Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Too many voice mails can give you the willies
by Steve Brewer
Scripps Howard News Service


March 12, 2005

Anybody who has voice mail knows you can waste entire minutes every day, sorting through messages, erasing, saving and prioritizing.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (who apparently have a lot of time on their hands) have come up with new software that will prioritize your voice mail on the basis of the callers' moods.

Emotive Alert software measures the volume and pitch of the voice and the ratio of words to pauses in each message, then compares them to eight "acoustical fingerprints" representing different emotional states: happy, sad, excited, calm, urgent, not urgent, formal and informal.

As reported in the magazines New Scientist and The Week, this developing technology could have a downside. Telemarketers likely will figure out how to leave messages that score highly for "urgency," so they'll go to the top of the list. Every time you check your voice mail, all the most urgent messages will be "spam." Just like your e-mail is now.

Telemarketing is only the most obvious hitch with emotion-recognition software, however. I can think of lots of other problems:

How will the software analyze those prerecorded messages used by doctor's offices, where everything is a robotic drone except the time and date of your next appointment, which is filled in by the chirpy receptionist? Will the resulting pauses and tone changes move the call to the bottom of the list? If you've got a voice-mail message that begins, "The results of your medical tests are in," that might be a top priority.

Will heavy breathing count as pauses?

Will "formal" language make it a priority message? I'd be much less interested in a formal message about a picayune legal matter than I would in the informal language used by a redneck threatening to "come over to yore house right now and stomp a mudhole in ya."

"Excited" rarely means a top-flight message. It usually just means the caller himself is excited, often for no good reason. My dog could leave an "excited" message.

Will a "sad" message automatically become a low priority? Seems to me news of Aunt Ruth's demise, while sad, might be the most important message of the day.

Why should "happy" messages go to the top? Are we so shallow that we always want the good news first?

Isn't such software biased against plodders? Just because there are pauses doesn't mean the message is unimportant. If the caller is distracted while leaving the message, does that push him to the bottom of the list? What if the distraction is, say, a standoff with the police?

Doesn't this put a lot of pressure on the person leaving the message? It's already hard enough to create a brief message while remembering to leave a phone number, a good time to be reached, etc. If you knew your mood was being measured, too, couldn't the result be panic? And why isn't "panic" on that list of emotions? I would think that would be a top priority.

For that matter, why stop there?

If you're going to sort your messages by emotion, how about "anger"? Angry messages might be the ones you want first (see "mudhole" above). Other emotional states that should be measured: love, hate, rancor, loneliness, fear, envy, arousal, pity, "bad vibes," consternation, guilt, gratitude, euphoria, shyness, delirium, impatience, depression, sympathy, playfulness, boredom, "just friends," drunkenness, exaggeration, stupidity, regret, resentment, menace, misery and "the willies."

Finally, and most importantly, there's this: If you get so many voice-mail messages every day that you need to prioritize them by mood, then you're getting too many messages. You need to slow down. Take yourself out of circulation. Get an unlisted number.

Too many voice mails can give you the willies.


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Boost."
Contact him at ABQBrewer(at)

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska