When I was a kid, Mad Magazine (favorite reading) ran one of its pictorial “gotcha” features. It showed a typical automobile of the day, the 1960s, a sleek, wide, low, muscular machine. And it illustrated the picture with various callouts, indicating what people really wanted in a car. “Higher, for better visibility,” said one callout. “Running boards,” said another. “Better ground clearance,” said yet another.
You turned the page and discovered that what consumers really wanted was the Model A. Forty years on, we have our modern Model A, the SUV.
Forty, sixty, or eighty years on, we have lots of things. Computers. The human genome project. 401(k)s. IRAs. Mutual funds. Drugs that keep us out of hospitals. Cars that manufacturers really can afford to warranty for 100,000 miles. Lots of better things, lots of things better.
But some things worse, too. Quite a lot worse.
Telephones, for example. Back in the days when a phone came from the phone company, when it was a heavy bakelite instrument suitable for a home defense weapon, telephones fulfilled their two basic functions. They connected flawlessly, and they sounded good. Not for nothing did guitarist and electronics pioneer Les Paul copy the phone company’s low impedance technology.
Today? “Can you hear me now?” says it all about connectivity. And how many messages have you received on your embedded home voice mail that were so buried in fuzz that you simply could not understand them?
How much do you pay for your various forms of telephony today? Used to be, the phone bill was about $9.00, with long distance calls added on. If we’ve had a month lately when we paid less than $125 for our various phone connections, I haven’t seen it. Most people pay a lot more. Those offers the cell companies make for 5,000 “free night-time minutes” don’t mean a thing to people like us. We have kids. We never call anybody after 9:00 p.m. If we do get a call after that hour, it scares us. We assume somebody’s died. In this, we look exactly like our parents in the 1950s, whose generation used to barter with one another over whose turn it was to call whom long distance.
What about all those ancillary services, like call waiting and call forwarding and conference calling? My friend Robert said some years ago, “I’ve got call waiting. It’s called ‘a busy signal.'” Right. That’s the one we have, too. And can you even buy a regular tape-based answering machine any more? Years ago, I discovered a wonderful model that used standard cassettes, and that allowed me to tape-record telephone interviews of up to half an hour, with or without a warning beep for my interviewee. That model disappeared quickly, and I scoured the stores to find an extra. No voice mail system has ever been that versatile.
Do we really need to walk and drive around talking on the telephone? Oh, sure, there’s a commercial case to be made. I wrote a story for Trucker’s Digest years ago about truck drivers switching from CBs to cell phones, and for them it made a lot of sense. My wife insists that I carry one. It has a knack of going off at the most godawful times, like when a phlebotomist is sticking a needle in my arm, or when I’m just negotiating one of Boston’s ridiculous six-way intersections. I have a knack of dropping it. And when I answered it the other day, somebody asked for Ray, and I had the devil’s own time convincing the caller that this was not Ray’s number, and never would be anymore. That’s an especially hard case to make if you have a jumpy connection, which we almost always do in our house — we’re situated in a kind of hollow. “THIS ISN’T RAY’S PHONE ANYMORE!” I bellow. “Ray — that you?” comes the reply. Heaven knows what the caller hears.
Worst of all, however, are what my wife and I call “hands-never touch” telephone answering systems at companies. Here, I’ll actually point a finger. Trying calling AOL some time. Settle down with a book while the various menu choices get offered to you by an institutionally chirpy voice. In about ten minutes, you might get to talk to a human being, if you don’t happen to dead-end and have to start over. (Let me also mention that modern phones with buttons on the handset — they don’t belong there — quite often make you miss the instructions from those automated voices. Like whether you’re supposed to press the star key or the pound key after entering a number.)
I get my prescriptions refilled via such a system. I have a lot of prescriptions. Thankfully, the system lets me interrupt the automatic voice from the drug store chain. The chain has apparently been convinced by some ad agency or other that its automated voice ought to sound friendly. That means its automated voice talks a lot. I don’t want to hear a lot of talk from an automated voice. I want to get done.
In one respect, however, modern telephones represent an improvement over the old bakelite Ma Bells. With all their useless, too-easy-to-push buttons (especially by accident), with all their fussy extraneous features, with their 1920s audio fidelity, they have one thing the old phones didn’t have. An on-off switch. You can guess which position I favor.