Filler Busy Signals

Ask Not For Whom Ma Bell Toils.
By Jeff Smith

HELLO, OPERATOR, GIVE me number nine. If he does not answer, kiss me on my behind.

Smith We sophisticated habitués of the University Heights Elementary School playground set used to sing the preceding ditty to impress girls, transfers from other schools or yokels in general with our maturity and cosmopolitanism. Of course, that was better than 40 years ago.

I don't know what sort of poetry kids quote to demonstrate their savoir faire, but if anybody tried our old couplet they'd likely be greeted with blank stares.

What do you mean, "Hello operator, give me number nine?"

Kids today are not accustomed to the concept of an operator, let alone a single-digit phone number. Today, in lieu of a human being to assist you in completing a telephone connection, we have a long, bewildering and, in my considered opinion, maddening array of digital menus to punch our way through, punctuated by an ever more irritating series of musically accompanied delays, before we have any hope of communicating with another sentient being. And once a person-to-person connection finally is made--if we're lucky enough not to hit a wrong digit with our own digit somewhere in the dialing string--the being on the other end is so deeply inculcated in the new technology that he cannot truly be described as sentient, by any classic definition of the term.

Today everybody has a phone--several, in fact--and is within reach of telecommunications anywhere on the planet. If he wants to be. If he wants to be unreachable--for reasons of privacy, convenience or, more often, to create the impression of great status--then all he has to do is learn a mind-numbing variety of programmable codes to punch into his various wired, wireless or cellular phones.

At a cost that would have scared Al Bell silly, but is the delight of myriad Mother and Baby Bells today.

In fact, one of the major categories of time-spent-with-a-receiver-to-your-ear today is responding to calls from various local and long-distance phone service providers, who are trying to talk you into switching to their service. You even get it from your own provider, because they all hire solicitors, from parts unknown, who run through out-of-date lists and don't really give a rat's ass who they're bothering because, Scout's Honor, many of them are prison inmates earning pennies an hour and good time toward early parole by working for firms so smart that they can traffic in interstate commerce without having to come anywhere near paying minimum wage. God, ain't Capitalism a wonderful system!

The things you can do today with that innocent-appearing instrument on your bedside table are many and wondrous and, when you get right down to common sense, frightening.

Think, for instance, about the implications of the new Caller I.D. service. I wrote about this some months ago when the option first was offered in my rustic environs. Turned out the company jumped the gun and sent me the hardware before the software was on line, but the technical possibilities inherent in the service clearly included espionage capabilities up to and including assassination. A short scenario to illustrate my point:

Lonely wife A is married to truck driver B who is on the road I-10 for weeks at a time. She is having an affair with milkman C who calls late in the p.m. and talks S&M and B&D to a hot and bothered A. Husband B gets Caller I.D. so he can keep track of the dozens of important business messages he misses while he's out on I-10 M thru F and S&S. He comes home unexpectedly one A.M. and finds a string of calls from 886-0096 on the I.D. module. He punches *69 and gets the milkman on the line, who checks his own I.D. module before he picks up the receiver, sees the call is from his sex kitten's number, and answers the call with an invitation I am too genteel to repeat in print.

Somebody is going to come to a bad end here.

Believe thee me, I am onto the insidiousness of the entire digital arms race. Before long almost everybody will have Caller I.D. and be paying U.S. West $5.95 a month for the privilege. Next step, they'll activate the privacy block on their unit so that other folks with caller I.D. won't be able to see their identities when they call. Next the called parties with activate their own counter-measures, so blocked callers won't be able to get through and there will be a curt message instead. Ultimately we'll all be right back where we started, except that the lines will be tied up with heated exchanges of rude messages from mechanized voices, nullifying one another's disguises and counter-measures.

And the phone company will be collecting $5.95 a month from everybody involved.

If you don't want to play this game, you can not have caller I.D., and call the phone company to have your number blocked from everybody else's I.D. service. Of course, the lady from U.S. West told me, pretty soon everybody with the service will be able to automatically refuse calls from you, unless you capitulate, press *87, and call back again.

All you have to do is waste irreplaceable time out of your life and surrender the right to privacy fought, bled and died for, and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Have a nice day.

And while you're having one, give a thought to the idea of the old, black, dial telephone. If we still had them we'd still be speaking to one another when we wanted to. And not when we didn't. TW

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