The Phone Company

Some years ago, I saw "The President's Analyst", with James Coburn and Godfrey Cambridge. In the best Bond-clone movie tradition, it pitted the forces of good against the sinister agents of a mysterious enemy.

In case you don't remember it, there was one part where some family from out of town was accosted by would-be robbers in the big city. This family had taken karate lessons together, and mom exclaimed "Oh boy, muggers!", and her family proceeded to sweep the streets with them.

The sinister enemy, "TPC", turned out to be "The Phone Company". Their goal was to dominate the world by implanting, at birth, into every human brain, a microchip, or "Cerebrum Communicator", that would act as a mind-operated telephone. Just think about the party you want to call and you are connected.

The paranoia that created that movie may be surpassed by technology in giving flesh to the fantasy. Imagine, if you will, phone company executives sitting around making plans. Says one, "We've got everyone using their phone almost constantly. How can we possibly increase our profits now?" Muses another, "Maybe we can get them to make two calls at the same time". "That's it! And that's not all! We can do even more than that!"

And so it came to pass that the phone company is phasing out one of the only things it ever gave away for free: the busy signal. The busy signal tells you that the party you are calling is present and that the phone is in use; you should try again later. Cost: zero. You have no obligation to call again or to be called back; no need for a message, the choice is yours. Profit to phone company: zero.

Enter "call waiting". Your conversation is interupted by a signal that indicates another caller is trying to reach you. You feel obliged to answer the new caller, because you know he isn't getting a busy signal like before. You must put your first caller on hold, and speak to your second caller. Profit to phone company: 2 simultaneous billed calls. Obligation to you; you must speak to the new caller now, or return the call later. Profit to phone company: another billed call. Never mind that you may not even want to speak to this person in the first place.

Almost as sinister is the ubiquitous answering machine. No longer can you say that you didn't get the message. Your caller has left their message on your machine, and like it or not, you may be obligated to return the call. Profit to phone company: 2 billed calls. They even have "answer call", wherein they provide the service of an answering machine with no hardware. The cost is low, but they could give it away for free and still make a profit!

The most amazing part of these new services is that the phone company has convinced us that we want these things! That we can't exist without them! Our amazing technology is exceeded only by this miracle of merchandising. I really have to hand it to them; it must be a form of mass-hypnosis.

With these innovations making it easier than ever to "reach out and touch someone", it is also harder than ever to avoid being reached. Personal space is a precious commodity. I resent intrusions upon it, however well-intentioned. There is in all of us a Pavlovian reponse to a ringing phone. It is an imperious motivator, a primal response. We may not respect ourselves later, but we will interrupt vital functions to answer a ringing phone. I resent the fact that the phone company is taking advantage of this behavior by eliminating the busy signal, thus increasing the times that a phone will, in effect, ring.

The trend that technology is taking with phones and computers makes these devices so user-friendly that they are becoming extensions of ourselves. The possibility of biological fusion, while not very likely, is not as fanciful as it once was. Keeping in mind that corporate profits are being made at the expense of personal space and time, I suggest that we all be wary, and carefully consider the effect of each new "thing" upon our quality of life.

What the hell has this got to do with cars? Nothing, really. Well...something.

All this reminds me of my all-time favorite bumper sticker:


I also see car phones as part of the overall plan whereby we can reach out and touch or be touched in a space and time that was once sacrosanct for the driver. I am not suggesting that you chuck your cellular phones, become a recluse, and get an unlisted address. I merely ask that you ask yourself if you are giving up more than you may be getting in return.

In a world where our time is our most precious commodity, we must be cynical so it is WE who decide how we will spend ours.

Please send questions or comments to: drautox@comcast.net

Last Modified December 25, 2000