A step forward would be a guy in charge of backward progress

ROGER SIMON

April 28, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

When I take over the United States -- and the way things are going, this probably will be sooner rather than later -- I am going establish a new Cabinet position.

The position will be the Secretary of Backward Progress.

The job will entail examining all new products and services and deciding which ones are truly necessary and progressive and which are merely silly or a step backward.

Think we don't need this?

Well, think about the new service C&P Telephone has just introduced. It is called "Connect Request," and when you call 411, instead of writing down the number the operator gives you, you just hit a button on your phone and you are automatically connected with the number you want (assuming the 411 operator can find it.)

This service costs 30 cents above the cost of the call itself.

What is the purpose of this thing?

Well, that's an excellent question. And if you actually asked yourself this question, you might be in line to be my Secretary of Backward Progress.

The phone company, I read, "is touting the new service as a boon for callers who frequently find themselves without a pen that works when they call for directory assistance."

"We feel customers will appreciate how hassle-free this new service is," Al Burman, a C&P spokesman said.

Now, you get a dozen free 411 calls per month. So if you used Connect Request for all of them, it would cost you an extra $3.60 per month or $43.20 a year.

And do you wonder how many working pens you can buy for that? (My Secretary of Backward Progress would.)

Well, you can buy a dozen Bic Round Stic pens for 99 cents. That is just over 8 cents per pen, or less than a third of the monthly cost of Connect Request.

And for the $43.20 a year that a modest use of Connect Request would cost you, you could buy more than 520 pens.

I'm sure you can buy even cheaper pens than Bic Round Stics, but they are pretty good pens that last a long time. So you could always have a working pen around your house or business for very little money.

And since all Connect Request does is replace a working pen, why do we really need it?

There is currently nobody in the United States empowered to ask such a question. When I am running the joint, there will be.

Don't get the wrong idea. I am not anti-technology. When computers -- which I like a lot -- first were introduced into newsrooms, some reporters complained. An older staff member came by my office on the day the computers were being installed.

"Computers," he grumbled. "Godless, soulless machines. They are ruining this business."

But, gee, I said, that's what reporters must have said when typewriters replaced quill pens.

"Typewriters," he grumbled. "Godless, soulless machines . . ."

But I am not against sensible, progressive machines. Take answering machines. I own an old one. I bought it when I was looking for a job, and when you are looking for a job, you feel if you miss just one phone call, your life may be ruined.

My old answering machine is large and ungainly and it has but two buttons. One is marked IN and the other is marked OUT.

The buttons are very large and easy to hit. When you go out, you hit OUT. When you come in, you hit IN.

There is one other feature on the machine: a large red light that blinks when you have a message.

Because I recently moved and needed another phone, I decided to get one of those snazzy new phones with an answering machine built in.

This machine did everything. When I was away from home, I could call it and it would act like a microphone listening in to what was happening in my house. I could, at the touch of a button, record my phone conversations (which might be illegal, but, hey, the machine doesn't care.)

The machine could tell me the time and date of my messages i a robotic voice, and I could program the machine to forward my messages to another phone number.

Yes. The machine could actually track me down, ring me up and give me my messages.

There was only one trouble with the new machine. With my old machine, I could come in the house, look across the room and see if the large red light was blinking.

On the new machine, the blinking light was so tiny, I had to stand directly over it to see if I had messages. And the button to turn on the message machine was so tiny, I had to grab the whole machine and hold it steady to do it.

So I returned my new answering machine and got my money back. "What's wrong with it?" the guy at the store asked.

The message light is too small, I said.

"Yeah," he said. "That's what everybody says."

See? That's what I mean. We don't really need this new machine. It represents a step backward, not forward.

And take my new VCR. I'm not even going to tell you about that. My 10-year-old VCR was easy to program. My new on-screen, menu-driven one is a monster that I can barely make function.

So under my administration, my Secretary of Backward Progress is going to ask three questions about all new products:

"Is it better than what it replaces?"

"Do we really need it?"

"Can even a newspaper columnist understand it?"

And unless we get a yes answer to all three, we are going to do without it.

Next week, tune in for: Crushed Ice in the Refrigerator Door -- Now That's What I Call Progress.

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