"Watson! Come quickly! I need you!"
"The party you are trying to reach -- Thomas Watson -- is unavailable at this time. To leave a message, please wait for the beep. When you are finished with the message, press the pound sign. To review your message, press 7. To change your message after reviewing it, press 4. To add to your message, press 5. To reach another party, press the star sign and enter the four-digit extension. To listen to Muzak, press 23. To transfer out of phone mail in what I promise you will be a futile effort to reach a human, press 0 -- because we treat you like one."
Who hasn't made a perfectly innocent phone call to an organization only to be ensnared in a hideous Roach Motel of a "voice-mail" system? No matter if you call a Fortune 500 behemoth or the local mall, the odds are increasing that you will listen to a machine before you talk with a human.
In 1985, barely a thousand corporate voice-mail systems were sold in the United States. By the end of this year, the industry expects to sell more than 30,000 systems. Depending upon their designs, you might never talk with a human -- no matter how desperately you'd like to. So ask not for whom the voice-mail networks, it networks for thee.
"Based on my personal experience, 5 percent of these systems are superbly designed, 20 percent are poorly to abysmally designed and the rest fall somewhere in between," says sociologist James E. Katz, who studies the human impact of telecommunications systems for Bellcore, the research arm of the regional Bell operating companies.
What superb voice-mail design means, of course, is in the ear of the beholder. Some people would rather chat with a machine that won't interrupt than with a human who almost certainly will. Some people would rather dictate their thoughts; others want the comfort and courtesy of a voice that's not prerecorded.
But that's not the real question. Far more interesting is what these systems say about the organizations that use them.
Just as the design of the office or a tacit employee dress code speaks volumes about an organization's culture, so do the telecommunications networks it offers to the outside world. The well-designed system conveys a pleasant blend of efficiency and warmth. The technobnoxious network reveals the mix of self-importance and incompetence that permeates too many companies.
The new technology rewrites telephone etiquette even as it generates new frontiers of rudeness. You might believe that the secretary lost the message; you're skeptical if they say the voice-mail system crashed. The network becomes as much a crutch as a communications tool. Come on! Are you really always in meetings, or are you using voice mail as a shield to deflect the unexpected call?
Voice mail creates new classes of interaction in the professional world. (It also creates the ominous specter of voice-mail hackers -- telephone intruders who break into systems to eavesdrop on messages or surreptitiously plant them.) While many of these new classes are a boon to organizational effectiveness, they can also signal a subtle but insulting contempt of outsiders.
The irony here is that voice mail is one of those rare technologies that made the reverse migration from the home to the office. For all their initial awkwardness, answering machines were designed to make life easier for all parties concerned. They were personal tools of convenience. With voice mail, the answering machine has been transformed into an organizational tool of efficiency. The overwhelming reason most companies buy voice mail systems isn't to make life better for people calling in, but rather to make intra-company communications more efficient at a lower cost.
"What we're seeing is the hollowing of the organizational social system," says Rensselaer Polytechnic's Langdon Winner, author of "Autonomous Technology," an influential critique of technological innovation. "Instead of complementing the way people communicate in organizations, the technology is designed to replace it."
That, says Winner, creates a very different kind of social system -- one where people would rather transfer you to the technology than deal with you themselves. Why? Because that is the value that the organization is trying to reinforce.
"I think it's regrettable that so many organizations fail to adequately consider the needs of the customers when they install these systems," says Bellcore's Katz. "They mainly consider the internal needs of the company so outsiders get turned off to the whole experience when they call in and try to talk to someone."
While becoming "lean and mean" is a touchstone of American management these days, I'm not certain that all this leanness and meanness was supposed to be inflicted on the organization's customers. Indeed, voice mail illustrates one of the seeming paradoxes of business practice: How do you become more cost-effective and at the same time offer customers greater value and better service?
Sure, technology is supposed to give you both -- but only if it is designed and implemented with care and thought. The nasty implicit message embedded in most voice-mail systems is: "We're too busy to talk with you. In fact, we're too busy to have anyone talk with you. Let us treat you like a data entry device, and don't forget to press the pound key after you shut up. If we have the time, we may even get back to you."
I don't think there's much question that most voice-mail systems do an excellent job of coordinating internal communications and boosting group productivity. But does it come at the price of alienating potential customers?
Professionally, I like the ease and versatility that voice-mail offers -- when I'm using it. Personally, I'm sick and tired of playing telephone tag with machines instead of people. Just as it's annoying to call someone up at home and be forced to listen to an obnoxious answering machine message, it's even more infuriating to call up a Fortune 500 company long distance and be turned into a telephonic pinball that's disconnected at the tap of a wrong key.
The quality of so many voice-mail systems underscores one of the most painful truths of technology: We would rather use these new media to make life easier for ourselves than to make it easier for others. In the short run, that may make us more "productive." In the longer run, what we'll discover is that people would rather not call us any more.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.