Nowhere is safe

Russell Baker

November 14, 1990|By Russell Baker

NEW YORK — THE COMPANY is putting in a new phone system. It's so complicated everybody has to take lessons in how to use it.

Nobody knows what happens to people who flunk. This is why I've been putting it off.

It would be humiliating, having to go to summer school to make up a failure in Telephone.

Here's another illustration why it's so hard to love the modern world, as we call it when all we really mean is "technology and all that."

To begin with, nobody wants to abolish technology and all that, because what would life be without a constant supply of new gadgets?

Besides, deploring technology's triumphant progress is for human antiques.

"Can't keep up with the times," people whisper. "Can't adapt to change." And so on. Nobody wants to be an antique. Certainly not me.

What is life, I always say, if not adapting to change? Truth is, I really love adapting to change.

When you're adapting to change seven days a week, eight hours a day, you feel vital, or "with it," as the phrase had it last time I adapted to change in contemporary slang.

My idea of a good time, in fact, is getting the whole family together and having all of us adapt to the latest change simultaneously.

It looks a little like those Chinese army calisthenics, only more modern.

Mind you, yes, I am embarrassed about the family's size when assembled for group adaptations. It must seem antiquatedly big to people who have adapted to the latest change in family dimensions.

But we can't really ask any of the children to do something ingenious to help the family adapt to this particular change, can we?

Maybe technology will soon come up with something new and exciting that wouldn't leave the rest of us sad and devastated after the sort of adapting required by a family of our particular size.

Something new, something exciting: That's what technology is giving our company in its new phone system. Or so I hear.

They say that after passing the course, people can go anywhere on earth without missing a single phone call being made to their number back home, no matter how trivial that call may be.

I yearn with all my heart to adapt to this marvelous change so I can feel modern and well adapted, and yet I hate it.

While having a midnight supper in Paris, I do not want to be interrupted by a college fund-raiser phoning me at Chez la Fenetre de Ma Tante under the impression that I am in the second martini at my New York residence and, therefore, softened up for easy fleecing.

Whether in Paris or Hong Kong, in Milwaukee or Galveston, at the Delaware Water Gap or on top of Old Smoky, I hate being rung up by people who think I am sitting at home dying for telephone chatter.

I go to places like Milwaukee and the Delaware Water Gap because the kind of people who use the telephone rarely know how to call me there.

With new phone systems, however, I'm told that pests no longer have to think at all. They call you at the place where you are normally a sitting duck, and the call automatically slides right on through to Hong Kong.

"Hi there, fellow alumnus, this is Rich Richtofferson, phoning from dear old Alma Mater to cadge 50 simoleons for the freshman sing-along-and-potluck fund which . . ."

(A parenthetical point here: A few paragraphs back, reference was made to being "in the second martini." To forestall floods of contemptuous mail noting that all up-to-date imbibers adapted to change 10 years ago by giving up martinis, let me state that I too have adapted to that change and these days survive on a thin trickle of watered Almaden. The mention of martinis was just a Freudian slip probably betraying a certain suppressed unhappiness resulting from having to make that particular adaptation.)

As for telephones: Am I actually just a mossback in quick-adapter's clothing? One of those old crocks who thinks it's been all downhill since Alexander Graham Bell ended the age of letter writing?

To the contrary. The telephone was a swell idea. It reached perfection when, by keeping a small book of numbers handy, you could push 15 or 20 buttons and talk to friends, family or lovers anywhere in the world, if they were in.

Now it hunts them down in places they try to hide. It brings us the monstrous "voice mail." It sells itself to computers which activate machines that harangue us. It charges us money to talk to other machines.

It is another bleak example of the horrors created when engineers refuse to leave well enough alone.

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