I'm in the mood for voicemail

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

Researchers at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (who apparently have a lot of time on their hands) have come up with a software that will prioritize your voicemail 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.

Critics say this 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 voicemail, 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 voicemail message that begins, "The results of your medical tests are in," that might be a top priority.

--Will heavy breathing count as pauses?

--Does "formal" language make it a priority message? I'd be much less interested in a formal message about a picayune legal matter than 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.

--Does a "sad" message automatically become a low priority? Seems to me that 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 issue: If you get so many voicemail 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 much voicemail can give you the willies.

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