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LAce Posted Monday, July 21st, 2003
Dead Ends
Jocelyn Johnson

More and more often, I find myself at the dead end of a phone tree, fifteen frustrating minutes in with no answers and no prospects. I’m not talking about the kind of phone tree that branches out, two by two, used by private school employees or church committee members, but the corporate kind that closes inward on itself. If it’s medical, for malignancy press seven. I press, I wait. But this waiting is futile and by now I know it;. I am unworthy, it seems, of a human voice, presumably with a natural rhythm and cadence, that can answer a question that is vital, or at least pertinent to me.

Gone are the days when the receptionist was in the same office (she might even recognize your voice) or at least in the same building. More often, she doesn’t even share the same country with the caller. American companies are outsourcing operators to Canada or India so that they can pay less for more, and we can pay more for less. Does this mean the world is a closer place?

More troubling than the computers we get when we dial up Blue Cross/Blue Shield, are the ones we choose for ourselves. My brother, for example, selected a computerized voice for his home answering machine. “Please leave-a- message” it drones with a strange uneven high note at the end, as if daring me to. This compels me to stammer out an apology “If this is the right place, then could you please call me, if not, sorry. Sorry.”
A good friend selected the very same anonymous voice for his message. He swears it keeps all but the most diligent from reaching him. Meanwhile, he asks me shyly to set him up, to put him in touch with someone special, someone with whom he can talk.

I am the same: jarred by all but the most familiar human contact, tongue-tied at the sound of a human voice on the phone when I am expecting the machine. I confess that sometimes I call friends when I know they aren’t at home to pick up, when they are working to pay off their Dell, or DSL, just to leave a message to say I am thinking about them.

And I am.

How can I be sure friends even get these messages? Maybe they, like my husband, have grown phobic of the blinking light on the answering machine. Maybe they feel that not hearing the needs on the other end of the line makes the needs themselves unreal. This might be the thinking behind corporate phone trees in the first place. I imagine some slippery executive bragging that complaints are down 87% percent. We customers may squirm and grumble on the line, livid, listening to a directory of options that do not exactly apply to us, but unable to reach anyone to whom to complain. So we frown at our spouses and scrub down the kitchen counters.

Maybe the strangest thing of all is that the machines are becoming wary of engaging us. On weekdays businesses call, anonymous on the caller id, in order to leave messages about trips we’ve “won” or services we’re sure to want. More and more often, if I pick up, there is a pause and then the mechanized caller hangs up on me. It is programmed, I presume, only to leave a recording on my answering machine. Or else the computers themselves shun human contact, preferring to consort with their own brethren. Maybe, soon, we’ll be at war with them, like in the Matrix Reloaded, or Terminator II.

We are busy, but too busy for words? We are full and empty at the same time, like a Zen koan. We are ambivalent. We want to be near people and at the same time, we separate ourselves with wires and lines and currents. How do we use the time we save by having computers communicate for us?

We crave feedback, but not criticism. We want to find love, but not at the risk of heartache, and so we find ourselves stuck. Maybe it’s because of all the messages left and missed, the internet flirting and the nights at home with cable on that we find ourselves at the dead end tree of possibilities with no one on the other end of the line.

Related Links:

  • Do Not Call Registry

    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Monday, July 21st, 2003 at 9:50 AM
    Now, if we all just went to CHURCH more... Just kidding, that's ridiculous.

    Posted by Lela Schneidman on Monday, July 28th, 2003 at 10:58 PM
    I'm telling you, man, once you try out Friendster, you'll really see how the Internet tree de-personalizes everything. But what a great networking opportunity! You're rad, by the way.



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