The magazines and newspapers are full of the usual year-end blather: interminable recapitulations of the events of 1990, most of them eminently forgettable but too many given a few moments' reprieve in this orgy of journalistic sentimentality. That anyone could get teary-eyed over memories of Milli Vanilli or "Millie's Book" seems to me to strain credulity well past the snapping point, but the press these days is full of that and all too much more; if it's your cup of tea, then for the past several days you've been a most happy fellow.
As for me, well, in these closing moments of 1990 I seem to find myself looking not to the past but the future. This is entirely unintentional, and no doubt would never have happened had events not conspired to force me to resort to the telephone twice in the course of a single day last week. In each case it was an unsettling experience,though as anyone who uses the phone can testify, it is through this instrument that much of the worst in American life comes into being and is given nurture.
It is over the telephone, for example, that come the voices of contemporary rudeness in its most offensive form: the voices of strangers who not merely presume to address you by your first name but take personal offense when you suggest that they should do otherwise. It is the telephone that, in its new incarnation as automotive pestilence, has filled the highways with motorists whose natural incompetence is now compounded by the distraction of touch-tone dialing at 65 mph or high-voltage conversations in peak beltway traffic.
These at least are conversations conducted between human beings, or facsimiles thereof. But what is one to say of the caller who is not a creature but a machine? The phone rings, you pick it up, and what you get is not a voice but a brief pause followed by a droning computerized robot: "Hello! This is John Clark for the Credit Plus card with some exciting ..." If technocide were legal, I'd have hauled out my Uzi months ago and reduced John Clark to a few fragments of steel and plastic.
But that's a losing battle, as I was unpleasantly reminded when circumstances forced me to reverse the process: to place a couple of phone calls to machines. The first was to the Maryland State Railroad Administration, the commuter lines of which are known acronymically as MARC. These provide fairly reliable service between Baltimore and Washington but, in my experience, fairly unreliable printed schedules; so when my son expressed a desire to use MARC in the late afternoon, it seemed prudent to double-check departure times with the nice folks at 800-325-RAIL.
"Folks" indeed. A computerized lady answered and told me to press "1." This set off a chain of orders that ultimately involved a total of eight responses, the last of which produced a computerized lady who read off all the departures from Penn Station in Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, beginning at 5:20 a.m. and ending at 8:50 p.m. The whole process took about three minutes; though it would have been simpler to ask a real human being for departure times between 5 and 7 p.m., the information given was at least accurate and my son got to Washington at the hour desired.
Later in the day, though, another experience with computerized conversation was considerably less pleasant and productive. This call was placed to the offices of United Cable of Baltimore, which like every other monopoly cable operation in the country has been given a license to print money and, after the usual start-up difficulties and delays, has been doing just that. United Cable's manners leave something to be desired: In reaction to the usual consumer complaints about rude and tardy response to telephone calls, United Cable has installed a computerized answering service that, for customers lucky enough to break through the perpetual busy signal, results in a spree of button-pushing every bit as excessive as MARC's.
Call 366-2288 -- call it a few dozen times, and if you're lucky you'll finally get a ring -- and the usual computerized lady answers. She reads off the usual memo of options, including one for service difficulties; you press the right number, then punch in your own phone number, and within five minutes everything is supposed to be running smoothly. The only trouble is that this "service" has never worked for me or for anyone else of my acquaintance, so I always press the button that connects me to a real human being.
That's what I did shortly before 8 p.m., in hopes of clearing up the mess on my TV set masquerading as WETA. For half an hour, the entire duration of the program I had hoped to watch, I got a recording promoting pay-TV movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, interrupted occasionally by a voice cheerily urging me to hold on for "a few more moments." Finally at 8:30 my program, and United Cable's business hours, were over, so I hung up: Another happy customer, all aglow at the thought of shipping another fat monthly check off to United Cable in exchange for service that may or may not be what I'm paying for.
This can be taken, by those so inclined, as one disgruntled person's bad day on the telephone, but that's not the case at all. Telephone technology may be as imperfect as the human beings who devise and operate it, but business and government are rushing to put the latest developments into place and the public is paying the cost of their shortcomings, a cost measured not merely in dollars and wasted time but also in frustration and exasperation. My day on the phone was merely everybody's day in miniature, and as we march so boldly into the future it's bound to get worse.
Thus it was that several weeks ago, when I had occasion to call one of the more obscure offices of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, I found myself swimming in a telephonic Bermuda Triangle, obeying one computerized order after another, each of which sent me deeper into confusion; the office I wanted seemed not to exist, though I had dealt with it in the past and had not been informed of its demise. So at last I did what the docile citizen is not supposed to do: I looked at the MVA subdirectory in the phone book, picked an office at random, and pleaded with the woman who answered to look in her own interoffice directory and give me the number I needed. She did, I got through at last, and my business was done.
In all of these minor telephonic nightmares what in the end was most maddening wasn't the inconvenience or the delay or even the computerized impersonality, but the sense of inconsequence and indignity that they produced. Most of us probably would agree that in a crowded and busy world there's no realistic alternative to the technological systems that act as buffers between us and the institutions that ostensibly serve us, and most of us probably are willing to suffer their shortcomings in silence; few of us, for that matter, likely would swap the cheap convenience of today's phone system for the chummy inefficiency of yesterday's.
But too many of these systems convey nothing so much as the contempt of those who use them for those who are at their mercy. Dial the MVA or the cable company -- or any other institution that controls essential or desirable services without pressure of competition -- and the message behind the officious computerized voice is, "You don't matter." Any way you slice it, that doesn't spell "Happy New Year."