Off The Hook

All this connectivity and it's harder than ever to make contact

Written January 18, 1997
Published by Websight Magazine in April, 1997

"How do you say 'I'm lonely' to an answering machine?"

When Paul Westerberg of the Replacements wrote that - jeeze, nearly a decade and ahalf ago -- he wasn't railing against a specific bit of technology as much as he was bemoaning the irony that a gadget designed to enhance communication actually stifled it. Just one of the 8 bizillion reasons that became my favorite song, as well as an irony I've been digging ever since . . .

Occasionally, I'll fall a bit - ahem - behind on one of my credit card payments, and the company to whom I owe the payment will decide to remind me with a phone call. No big deal, this happens to everyone, right? Anyways, recently I've been noticing a disturbing trend - rather than a human being making the call, a computer makes the call. I'll answer the phone, and a computerized voice will say "PLEASE HOLD FOR A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE." The first couple of times, this caught me by surprise, but now I can recognize it instantly, and before it's done, hang up. And until recently, this would anger me no end.

For some reason, while I don't mind dealing with computers when I make a call - in fact, I prefer it in some cases, like the computerized system the San Francisco Newspaper Agency has in place to deal with yet another missed SF Chronicle - it absolutely infuriates me when a computer calls me in the place of an actual human. For the longest time, I had no reason why, I just know that it made me mad - hanging up mad. It could be the President calling to discuss the McDonald's web site with me; Pope John Paul II pleading with me to reconsider my forever lapsed Catholicism, or even Ed McMahon telling me that I won the Sweepstakes, and I'd never even know. I'm gone, hung up, forget it.

Of course, some might say that the reason this pisses me off so is that I find it ludicrious that a multi-billion dollar corporation wants to save a few more pennies by sparing their $5.75 per hour employee a few more frayed vocal cords by having the computer do the dialing when they dun me for the $150 I owe them. Especially since it also seems like they're trying to trick me into waiting on the line, like the old answering machine joke: "Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Ha! Fooled you, this is just my answering machine. Leave a message." Which was more tiresome than anything, because it took almost no time at all for people to distinguish a live person from an answering machine, once they understood the concept. So, yeah, it is bonehead stupid, but that's only part of it. Nah, when I finally figured out what upset me, it was pretty simple, actually: if someone wants to use a computer to get in touch with me, have them send me email. That's one of the major reasons I have a computer. Duh.

But when I really started thinking about it, I realized I was missing the bigger picture. Because the truth is that while everybody talks about the convergence of the Web and TV, the real important convergence is between the computer and the phone - at least in terms of how people talk to each other.

And truth be told, I'm contributing to it as much as anybody. After all, when I use the phone to dial up the SF Newspaper agency, I'm using the phone like a computer: I'm punching in keystrokes - my zip code, and phone number -- to get a desired result: my newspaper! In this case, I don't wanna talk to a human, and I'm glad that I don't have to. Yuk!

That's partially because I don't need to in order to achieve the desired results, and partially because for me, right now, the phone still beats everything besides face-to-face as a method for person-to-person communication. It may not seem like that, since with answering machines, caller ID, personal voicemail, and myriad other screening techniques, I can pretty much isolate myself from the entire world. Which is exactly the point. I can, but I don't. Nowadays, if I take a live phone call at home, it's because I want to, not because it's the only outside two-way communication I have. In a way, I've kind of turned it into email - I only answer the messages I wish to. When I wish to.

Of course, at the same time, email has replaced the phone as the source of most of my unwanted communications. Formerly useful mailing lists that ignore my pleas of UNSUBSCRIBE; spammers ("How to Make Money While Overthrowing the Government!") whose "reply-to" addresses bounce my witty "fuck-off, you assholes" responses, etc; even certain magazines desperately trying to get me to meet my deadline.

This convergence has caused a shift in by basic thinking. The Net has turned my personal rhythms for dealing with the world upside down. I now have so many distinct points of contact -- two different street addresses, three different phone numbers, five different email addresses - that I can pick and choose the important ones. I have to, as a matter of fact. The upshot is that while I used to always answer the phone when it rang, I now no longer feel guilty about screening calls. So if I owe you money, don't bother to call me. With a computer or a live human being.

It's a given, of course, that all of this connectivity hasn't improved my overall ability to communicate with the world even a teensy tiny bit.

And "Answering Machine" is still my all-time favorite song.

At the time, I was pretty behind on a lot of my bills, and not doing a lot of answering of my phone, or lying and saying it wasn't me.

And that was pretty much it -- Websight went out of business in June, a victim of market glut more than anything else.

Too bad, since I totally enjoyed the experience, especially when I had something to say.

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This page HTMLized on 6 October 1997
I was listening to Spiritualized -- Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space