Why Alma slept

March 23, 1994|By Russell Baker

AS YOU know, the world is speeding toward a total communications breakdown even as the communications industry foolishly thumps its chest about the coming glories of the information superhighway.

Evidence amassed by our researchers leaves no doubt the cataclysm will occur sooner than original projections indicated. Those were based on the number of telephone callers who required police attention after encountering phone-answering machines, voice-mail systems and robotic phone instructions.

In 63 percent of these incidents property damage resulted from loss of self-control by persons unable to overcome these popular devices for rendering the telephone system almost totally useless. The damage usually involved destroying phones with which callers had failed to communicate with living human beings.

In 21 percent of these destruction-of-communications-equipment cases, handguns were used on phones that had driven their users berserk. Nine percent involved rifles, shotguns or hand grenades, and 2 percent involved mortar assaults.

Twenty-seven percent of all incidents involved physical violence, including suicide by callers unable to get around answering machines or voice mail or maddened by instructions to press buttons endlessly if they wanted a mechanical voice to tell them to drop dead.

We have asked the telephone industry for statistics on the percentage of incoming calls answered on an average day by a human being. The industry continues to stonewall, insisting it doesn't have such figures.

"Our sole obligation is to make sure that any given telephone can ring every other telephone in the world at any time of the day or night, but especially in the middle of dinner," according to an artificial voice that we reached by pressing buttons 2, 7, 9, 3, 8, 2 again, and the pound sign.

Identifying itself as a spokesmachine for the miracle-of-communications octopus, the voice said its employer had no interest in whether the ringing phone was answered by a human, a machine or, for that matter, by gunfire.

In short, we got no statistics to confirm what is obvious to every collector of anecdotal evidence; to wit, that anyone hoping to reach a fellow We have asked the telephone industry for statistics on the percentage of calls answered on an average day by a human being.

human on the telephone nowadays must be prepared to accept humiliation and, possibly, great suffering.

Recently, however, our teams in the field have begun collecting stories that show the end is closer than we suspected. Here is a typical story from a man we shall call Pearson:

After the customary series of failures associated with airline travel, Pearson's scheduled night flight from Cleveland to the Hartford area deposited him at New York's La Guardia Airport shortly after 1 a.m.

The airline chose to motor its wretched Hartford customers by bus to Bradley Field, arriving at approximately 3:30 a.m. Since Pearson would still face a 20-mile trip to get home after being deposited at Bradley, he thanked heaven for the communications miracle.

"I shall simply phone my daughter Alma and ask her to drive over to Bradley, meet the four-wheel surrogate airliner at 3:30 a.m., and drive me home," Pearson said to himself.

Fitting deed to the thought at a La Guardia public phone, Pearson used his calling card to dial his home, where Alma -- the hour being past 1 a.m. -- was sound asleep. Very sound, as it turned out.

Pearson had his own answering machine and had programmed it to stop the phone's ringing after the fourth ring and make itself available for messages. Obedient to Pearson's command, it now did so. Alma obviously hadn't heard it.

Worse: Pearson had programmed the device so that after taking its first four-ring call, it would thereafter ring only twice before falling silent again.

Stranded at La Guardia at 1:30 a.m., Pearson realized with horror that it would be impossible to get the incessant, insistent ringing out of his phone that would be necessary to rouse Alma. His devotion to the communications miracle had made him an agent of his own destruction.

Pearson was found by the Connecticut roadside, severely frostbitten, at 5 that morning, having set out to walk home from the jitney-busport, and a number of toes had to be removed. Upon release from surgery, Pearson took an ax to his answering machine and severely damaged his thigh.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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