For Another Thing to Get You Upset, Press ``1''


One of the nice things about progress is that it supplies us with a never-ending supply of things to get upset at. Without progress, we'd have to continually revise our thinking and start finding fault with things we had accepted.

The alternatives are to keep being unsuccessfully upset at the same things, which can lead to extreme frustration and even mental problems, or having nothing to be upset about, which detracts from a well-balanced life.

But there's always progress to supply some new affront after you've worn out your efforts at being upset about push-here-to-open boxes that won't let you push here, cable television providers that always know just at what exact, most exciting moment to have the system go out, drivers whose pace indicates they can't tell the difference between a lane of traffic and a parking lot, and others of their ilk. (Whatever an ilk is.)

One of the newer forms of progress is the automatic telephone system, the kind that answers your call with a computer instead of a person.

Now, 24 hours a day, our call can be handled. No longer need we be limited by the work hours of the operator, minus her lunch hour and other necessary absences from her duties.

Instead, the call is handled by a pleasant taped voice that gives you options and switches you to message takers if your callee isn't in, and all sorts of other gadgets.

It's a wonderful system, unless you have to use it.

Now, instead of calling a number and asking for a specific person or an extension, you have to sit through a long recording giving you a long list of options available if only you will press the desired button. But if you don't know the extension, you have to sit and endure the whole spiel as it goes on and on. By the time you finally get connected, you could have completed your business and gone on to other adventures.

The other day I had to call an out-of-town number, a direct-dial extension. After no one answered the call, a machine cut in and told me I had some options. One was that I could leave a message; the other was that I could connect with the telephone system. I left a message. But no one ever called back, so the next day, when I tried again, and again got no answer, I tried the other option, connecting with the phone system.

I pushed 0, but of course I didn't get an operator. Instead I got another tape. This one gave me two more options, I could push one button and then enter another extension, or push something else and enter a person's name. Unfortunately, I already had tried the name and not gotten the answer and didn't know another extension. All I wanted was an operator to tell me what other number I could try to talk to someone. So I had to give up.

Another time I wanted to talk to someone who worked at a newspaper. I had no particular name in mind, but that should be no problem. I would call, explain what I wanted, and I would be helped. But I hadn't counted on the automatic operator. Instead of a real person who could help, I got a tape that seemed programmed not to help. It gave me a list of options, dribbling them out one at a time.

Finally it said if I wanted to talk to a reporter, to press a specified button. Thankfully, I pressed. There was a brief pause, and then the system told me there were no reporters available. I could try something else or try again later or leave a message or all of the above. By this time I had run out of time, so I gave up.

Later, I did get in touch with someone who worked there and was told how fine the system was, the way it automatically took messages, etc., etc. The only problem is for people from the outside trying to call in and needing help.

I also tried to call another newspaper, about a circulation problem. I had to make four choices and push four buttons, each one giving me another recording and another choice, before I finally was able to talk to someone who could listen to my problem. A real operator would have taken a fraction of the time.

Businesses weren't the first to go to mechanical operators, of course. It was the telephone company. Not only do you now have to pay for calling the information operator, which is bad enough, but you don't even get a real person to give you the number. It probably saves microseconds and dollars and therefore is considered good. But if there is a problem with the number given, you have no one to tell the problem to. Instead you have to call back and go through the whole routine again.

Worse still, it helps breed a lack of courtesy. When a real operator gives you a number, you say, "Thank you." Why say "Thank you" to a machine that neither hears nor cares. And if you get in the habit of not saying "Thank you" and of cutting off voices in mid-sentence because you don't need to hear any more, this is likely to carry over into other conversations, and there goes civility.

This is the greatest idea since the self-turning-off headlights. How many times did you tell a driver he had forgotten to turn off his headlights after one or two laughed at your technological ignorance and told you he didn't forget, and they would turn themselves off when they were good and ready.

He was spared the drudgery of having to turn off his headlights, but how many other drivers have gone back to their cars and found dead batteries because observers didn't tell them their lights were still on and they didn't have the wonder gizmo.

Thank you.

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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