Gone are the days when its ring heralded something good — and something human. The technological wonder of the 19th century has become the scourge of the 21st. A once-useful device for connecting — to “reach out and touch someone,” as the phonesters so often reminded us — has officially been high-teched past the point of no return.
I spent five hours yesterday trying to find answers to to three fairly straightforward but urgent questions. These frequently repeated calls — two to specific individuals and one for tech support — concerned issues that really did matter to me. My inquiries could have been answered easily and quickly, had I reached an actual human. In the end, though, I talked to no living, breathing hominids whatsoever. I finally gave up.
Yet I did gain something valuable from my endless interlude — climbing telephone trees, trying to decipher fuzzy instructions, pressing buttons and listening to blaring taped music in the endless purgatory that is “please hold.” It gave me plenty of time to ponder one of the great existential questions of our curious age: How could the blessings of technology turn a once-useful convenience into this darkest of curses?
Like lots of once-simple tasks that we could take for granted, using the telephone has been “improved” to the point of being virtually useless. That fits the phone to a T.
From the party lines of my childhood and the miracle of direct-dial, the technology we once took for granted has been complicated, miniaturized, set loose from its moorings and cluttered up with so many frivolous functions that, today, it’s easier to drive across town and talk face to face.
Once upon a time, calling was easy. You walked over to Alexander Graham Bell’s amazing invention — usually black and hanging on the kitchen wall — and followed a simple protocol. You effortlessly picked up the receiver, always easy to find at the end of a long, spiral cord. You used an index finger (or, if manicured, the eraser end of a pencil) to spin the rotary dial to pick out a local number starting, perhaps, with ADams or CEdar or CApital or CLinton (Jamestown’s old prefix — how prescient).
A phone rang in some unseen location. Someone answered it — “Hello?” You could hear each other just fine. You chatted for a moment, asked whatever was bugging you, thanked the other and hung up.
Then … technology struck … and has kept on striking ever since. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for our chance to hit it back.
I’m not sure which came first — cordless phones or telemarketers. Both were the harbingers of dark days to come. Cutting the cord enabled everyday Americans to lose their phones all over the house, only to find the batteries were dead when they were finally uncovered.
Telemarketing — need I say more? What a miracle! Now perfect strangers could interrupt anything you were doing at work or at home at any hour of the day or night. The phone company’s marketing phrase, “reach out and touch someone,” came only half-true. Sellers and survey-takers could tap us on the shoulder with impunity. We, however, had no reciprocal option to wring their necks.
Businesses saw other possibilities, too. Receptionists — those smart, cordial (mostly) women who answered the phones for corporations and government — could be eliminated by paying big bucks for the latest in automated answering systems.
Every single person you know, including you and me, despises them. Press 1 if you’re calling about your account. Press 2 if you’re calling about a service problem. Press 3 if you know your party’s number. Press 4 for an endless list of everyone who works for us — which will not include the one person you want to talk to. Press 5 for a scratchy, bad rendition of vaguely remembered music from the 1950s. Press 6 to endure an unnaturally loud on-hold tape of self-serving sales pitches for products you will never want in a million years. Press 7 if you recognize the futility of modern existence. Press 8 to repeat these options endlessly until an asteroid finally obliterates the earth or you throw your phone through a plate-glass window. Hold, please.
That’s how my afternoon went.
Cell phones seemed like a miracle 25 years ago. I could drive by myself across darkest North Dakota, knowing that if a tire went flat or a fuel pump died, I could summon help … or at least commiserate with someone at a distance.
But the air went out of that happy balloon in short order. When pocket-sized phones were still a novelty, it was easy to cut them some slack. Your connection faded in and out as you traveled the hills of central North Dakota? Annoying but understandable. You’ve misplaced your phone? Just call it. Perhaps it’ll ring-a-ding from under a load of laundry. And mercifully, the telemarketers couldn’t get your number.
Sadly, technology waits for no one. Those trusty little old flip phones — with their speakers stationed at ear level and microphone next to your lips — have been “improved” into fragile slabs of glass, silicon and overarching ambition. Now that they’re “smart” and even call themselves “I,” they can snap pictures, play games, show movies, throw a brilliant beacon of light, calculate math problems and send itty bitty smiley faces all over the planet.
What can’t these modern marvels do so well? Transmit a clear conversation. Our ears squint hopelessly to make out the words. Perhaps the caller is using Bluetooth, a technology designed to enable them to hear perfectly, while you can’t make out more than half of what the user is trying to say. Or maybe your connection picks up just enough background buzz from other conversations in the ether that you can’t hear your own call clearly … or make out what the anonymous pair are saying clearly enough to sate your curiosity. At least eavesdropping on party lines was loud and clear.
Meanwhile, the wizards of dialing for dollars were busy perfecting the single worst high-tech scourge in human history: robocalls. They’re everywhere — on the land lines that linger in businesses and some homes, and now on the smartphone in your pocket whose number you’ve guarded so jealously. The sales genius who long to sell long-distance have figured out how much we hate live telemarketers … and how caller ID enables us to ignore unfamiliar numbers and funky area codes.
So instead of placing them from call centers full of desperate humans, some of whom even speak passable English, they’ve replaced them with … more technology! Automated robocalling enables them to pitch their Google optimization and shady loans without having to listen to their victims’ response.
The phone rings — or buzzes, or barks, or sounds out the first bars of the latest Justin Bieber sonata. When you answer, you hear that hollow, soulless blast of the silence of deep space. Then the prerecorded blather begins to roll. Hang up quickly! That’ll keep the line open for the next sales caller.
I’ve always been a skeptic about text messaging. Why take the time for fat fingers to flit across a tiny keyboard — a mode of writing only slightly better than carving runestones — when you have an actual doggone telephone in the palm of your hand?
As society devolves, though, I’ve begun to get it. Telephones have become a sorry second-best way to talk to one another. You might as well type out whatever you have to say. To add a more human touch, don’t forget the exclamation points!!!!!
Or you could convey what you’re trying to say in smileys, frownies, cat icons and that brown heap that isn’t really chocolate Dairy Queen. True, no one will be quite sure of what you truly mean to say. But, at least, they won’t keep repeating the most pressing question of our age: Can you hear me now?