March 30 - April 5, 1995


Death Calling...

By Jeff Smith

THE SKY IS falling. Perhaps you've already heard.

Skeptics persist in regarding the preceding fact as alarmist ravings from the Chicken Little school of reactionary sociology, but the skeptics are given the lie by the sheer weight of change.

It's no longer an exaggeration to say that fully 50 percent of the discreet events in the march of science and technology have taken place since you had your last bowel movement. The world of tomorrow has no time for the anal retentive.

Where will it all end? Nowhere this side of the grave. And it's a mass grave, my friends, a yawning chasm capacious enough for all of humankind. The sky, indeed, is falling. Like the killer cooties in the current film Outbreak, technology itself has accelerated past the ability of people to keep pace.

It is the cultural implications of mutating, cancerous technology that really chill your shit. A case in point:

Most Americans--even those who own just one television set and rarely watch that--have given in to the answering machine. The machine, as it's known, has revolutionized personal communications. How? By depersonalizing it. What first seemed like a great idea--get this little gidgie that'll answer and record all those calls you'd otherwise have missed, so you'll know that your best friend Betty called to chat while you were hanging out the wash, and you can get right back to her and plan to play Mah-jong that afternoon--has transmogrified into a perverse, double-blind kind of escape from the sound of human conversation. It used to be that only arrogant executives could say, "My girl will talk to your girl and set a meeting." Now everybody from the scullery maid to the gardener has the machine, and anybody who wants to talk to the maid or the manure spreader has to go through that infernal mechanism.

Which the party called will answer at his or her own convenience and, at his or her convenience, decide whether to honor the calling party with a return call, which, if the original caller is favored and fortunate, will be attempted by the party originally called, which inevitably will be answered by the original caller's machine.

It's called "phone tag" and it's what substitutes for person-to-person conversation in this increasingly depersonalized and alienated age of man. Most of us are quick to admit, so habituated to the machine have we become, that we prefer to return machine messages when we know we'll get the other person's machine, so we can save the time and emotional energy of having to speak with an actual living organism. Time is money, and money rules.

So clearly the machine has turned out to be a somewhat alloyed blessing. Where do we turn for remedy? To technology, of course. Enter caller identification.

Since the existence of answering machines has inclined many callers away from even making calls, and discouraged far more phone users from waiting through long and tedious answering messages and instructions they've heard a thousand times before, and since a stubborn minority still refuse to talk to a machine under any circumstance...and since technology automatically assumes human software wants all the technology and data that can possibly be provided...

...the phone folks have come up with this insidious little devil of a device that can tell us who's calling and what his phone number is, and what time of day he's calling, and how many times before he's already called, even if he hung up and didn't leave a message...up to 90-some completed or aborted calls, so you not only don't have to answer your own phone anymore--which you haven't really had to do since you got your machine and learned to use it to screen your calls--you don't even have to play back the tape on your machine. What a great leap forward in communication!

Voiceless voice-mail.

I got a call the other day from a telemarketing firm peddling caller ID. I thought they represented the phone

company, since they said the service was available in my area, and I let them talk me into it. Five bucks a month: what could it hurt? I bought in because I'm an old-fashioned romantic. I have a machine, but it still drives me nuts when it rings four times, my message plays, and then I hear a click. She hung up. It's always she who hung up, and I worry and wonder who she might have been. Was she witty? Was she pretty? Did she love me? Might she have been the one?

But she was shy. Or was she being coy?

With caller ID I would have her name and number displayed next to my telephone after the first ring. And if I missed it, there would be a record. I could solve all those other mysteries. I would have knowledge. And knowledge is power.

The machine arrived a week later and I hooked it up. It didn't work. So I read the instructions. My blood ran cold.

"The 'block' button blocks blocked calls, with a message that tells the caller placing an incoming blocked call that the party called does not accept blocked calls," the booklet said, approximately.


I pondered this a moment and then an entire perplex of horrific implications crawled off the pages of the caller ID manual, as if escaping from Pandora's Box. Let me get this straight:

I've got a machine that tells me who is calling, as soon as my phone rings. Right. Which means that everybody who calls me forfeits his right to privacy. Right. But empowers me to ignore all further calls from MCI, trying to sell me their Friends and Family scam. Praise God, RIGHT.

But a caller can buy the power to block my caller ID, so my machine won't register his name or number. Right. Then I can assume anyone buying that privilege is probably a telemarketer, right? Right. So I can activate this button on my caller ID machine that tells callers who refuse to stand naked and identified before me and my new toy that we don't take no shit, and for damn sure no phone calls from sneaky bastards.

So both incommunicado parties have paid an additional monthly fee for service, plus a monthly lease fee for the machine, to cancel one another out and set communications back to the point where neither can get through to the other, even in an emergency.

Because it might not be MCI on the other end of the line. It might be Dialing For Dollars. It might be Julia Roberts.

Or it might be your lover. And it might be that your lover doesn't have caller ID blocking, and that you don't have caller ID blocking blocked, and it might be that your spouse happens to answer the phone when your lover expected you to be home alone, so your lover hangs up...

...but her name and number are right there on the display. And recorded by date, time, number and name and how many times she called, in the memory of that murderous sonofabitch of a machine.

So she calls from a phone booth...and your wife wants to know why you're suddenly getting all these calls from pay phones... you scroll through the log of incoming calls and delete all those from your lover...and your wife wants to know why there are so many gaps in the record.

Face it: You're going to get caught and you're going to get murdered in your sleep, all because of the telephone company and caller identification.

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March 30 - April 5, 1995

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