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John Kelly's Washington

Progress Has Its Price

By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page C11

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any letter that begins "Dear valued customer" is a letter you're not going to like. It's the same principle that applies to any explanation including the words: "In order to better serve you . . ."

Such was the case with the missive that recently fell through the Mount Pleasant mail slot of William Alexander.

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William is 86 years old, a retired chemical engineer who during his career worked with that wonder material Bakelite.

Four years ago, the centers of his retinas began to deteriorate and William went blind. His wife, Sarajane, is able to help with a lot of things. One thing he's been able to do himself is make phone calls. That's because Verizon offers something called Voice Dialing. For about $5 a month, William and other disabled people can speak a name into the phone and have that person's number be dialed automatically.

"Dear Valued Verizon Customer" is how the letter began, and it announced that as of Feb. 19, Voice Dialing was being discontinued. Instead, customers would be able to purchase something called Vocally, a $200 box that plugs into the phone and uses voice recognition to dial up to 60 numbers.

The box is probably a wonderful thing. Having little choice, William bought one and has hired someone to program it. His complaint is that the old way -- the way he's done it for four years -- served him well. The old Voice Dialing was a simple thing that worked just great. It seemed unimprovable.

"I'm just used to doing certain things a certain way," William said. "It's just difficult to change."

My first impulse was to say, Get over it, old man. But then I thought of the many technological advances I've seen in my lifetime that turned out not to be improvements at all.

For example, you used to be able to speed through the AM or FM airwaves by rotating a knurled knob on the radio. If you were on 88.5 and you wanted to go to 102.3, you'd give the knob a big spin to get you roughly in the neighborhood. Then you would literally "fine tune" the radio, joggling the knob like a safe cracker to pull in the desired signal.

Now when I want to change the station in my car or on my boombox, I have to repeatedly press a button and creep methodically up or down the dial. I have to do the same thing to adjust the volume. And since these buttons are about the size of baby aspirins, this is an annoyingly painstaking process.

So: I'm not convinced the modern radio is better than the radio it replaced.

I'm not sure the modern alarm clock is, either. And, combining the worst of both worlds, neither is the modern clock-radio.

Then there's the world of transportation. Modern cars have all sorts of wonderful inventions, but they don't have a simple thing called a vent window, which allowed you to bask in a bit of fresh air without rolling down your window all the way.

We still have dome lights, but they've gotten altogether too smart in the last 20 years. They used to light up when a door was opened and go off when a door was closed. Now they stay on even after you've left the car, dimming slowly over the course of a few moments. But since you can't be entirely sure it's going to go out, you stand and watch it go out.

I think I know why they don't put your room number on your hotel key anymore -- something about bad guys knowing where you are -- but why did they have to replace the metal key with a credit card thing that half the time leaves you standing in the hallway trying to get that little green light to go on? Do I leave it in? Do I take it out? Do I put it in slowly or quickly?

The list goes on and on: self-checkout scanners at grocery stores (For whom do they make life easier? Not the customer.); electronic pencil sharpeners (Those old ones that you cranked with your hand were more reliable than the new ones, which chew up half your pencil in a heartbeat.); dishwashers (What's the benefit of having all the controls on a panel that you can't see when you shut the door?).

Those of us who wonder if we've really gained more than we've lost are not Luddites who are dead set against progress. We don't long for the days of ringworm and lawn darts. (Well, maybe lawn darts.) I'm glad that the angioplasty had been invented by the time I had my heart attack, preferring that to what doctors did in the old days, which was watch you die.

And yet, and yet. . . . Time marches on. It seems that if you want penicillin, you have to accept stupid radios. If you're a blind Verizon customer like William Alexander, you have to accept a $200 box that goes by the dumb name of "Vocally."

"It transfers the responsibility from Verizon to the person who puts in the box," William said. "Now it's completely up to me. If it should fall on the floor, I'm out of business."

I can understand where Verizon is coming from. A spokesman explained that the vendor that made the Voice Dialing equipment went out of business five years ago. There are no spare parts, and the system is balky.

"Total replacement of the system cannot be justified from a business point of view," Verizon's Jim Smith said in an e-mail. Only about three-tenths of 1 percent of Verizon customers used the old service. Verizon got permission from local regulators to switch to Vocally and is making it available at a discounted price.

"They're pretty coldblooded about it," William said. "They say, take it or leave it."

The future's like that: Take it or leave it.

Speaking of technological advancements, my e-mail address is kellyj@washpost.com, or if you prefer the old-fashioned way, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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