Haunted by voice-mail gridlock

October 13, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- We are at lunch when my friend leans over the table to share his latest encounter with telephone technology.

It all began with a voice-mail message, which wasn't in itself so startling. But my friend was at his desk when the phone didn't ring. A colleague, it seems, had learned how to dial directly into voice mail -- avoiding the middleman, or middle ear, entirely.

Was my friend, a man who parses moral dilemmas for a living, insulted that this caller didn't want to speak to the real, live and available him? Were either of us aghast at some new techno-wrinkle of rudeness?

No, we were delighted, curious, envious. How on earth did he do that?

I am old enough to remember black rotary phones, the model-T of this technology. I remember when the telephone was a beloved instrument of conversation. Furthermore, I was raised to believe in courtesy as one of the cardinal virtues.

But we are in the middle of a communications revolution that feels increasingly like guerrilla warfare. Everywhere you turn in this revolution, machines are pointed at you. Today, anyone near a phone can end up feeling like the target of snipers.

Half a dozen years ago when I read that Martha Stewart had something like six or seven voice mail numbers, I was bug-eyed in astonishment. Now I have three voice mails, three e-mails, three fax machines all collecting messages in assorted buildings that are not nearly as well-decorated as Martha's -- but you get the point.

To understand how the world has changed, think back to the warm and fuzzy telephone ads that once encouraged us to reach out and touch someone. Compare that with my favorite telephone ad of this season. It features Paul Revere in his full midnight ride regalia trying to reach John Adams, who is of course screening his calls: "John, John, this is Paul. Pick up. It's important."

In this revolutionary atmosphere, it isn't a new communications weapon that is lusted over by patriots seeking their personal freedom. It's an anti-communications weapon.

We want technology that enhances our ability to not talk to people. We want a personal Star Wars defense system to screen and shoot down, avert and disarm the incoming missives.

This has created a whole new etiquette called "etiquette be damned." The dirty little secret of corporate America is the number of people for whom phone tag is actually dodgeball. All over the various midtowns of our country, people wait to return calls until they are pretty sure the other person is at lunch.

Of course, the invasion of the dinner snatchers has created an additional wrinkle. People who know the words to "Solidarity Forever" and are generally sympathetic to the plight of the new working class greet marketing callers by snarling, "Why don't you give me your home number since you have mine?"

This is now leading to a high-tech arms race, a kind of mutually assured destruction. First you pay to put a phone in your house/office/car. Now you can also pay to keep the calls out.

Just last month, Ameritech announced a service to let customers reject the sort of unwanted telephone calls that come from telemarketers. "Customers are screaming for this," said the chief executive officer.

We are also "screaming" for what I would call in oxymoronic fashion, one-way conversations. The linguistic types call this asynchronous talk. In that sense the phone is becoming more and more like e-mail. One person leaves a message for the other who leaves a message. It's like playing virtual tennis.

But such is the reality of modern life. All the advances have ratcheted up the number of "exchanges" we're expected to make until our own circuits are overloaded. Efficiency trumps courtesy. We don't just talk, we use the phone as a drop-off center.

Remember Alexander Graham Bell's first words over the newfangled phone? "Watson, come here! I want you." What would he say today? "Watson old boy, when you get a minute, have your voice mail call my voice mail."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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