HAVE YOU BEEN CALLED lately by a machine? A lot of people have, especially since something called automated sequential dialing devices came into use last year. These gadgets can automatically dial, in turn, every conceivable phone number - including unlisted ones. Whenever anybody answers, the machine will play a taped commercial spiel and then record the listener's response.
Commercial uses say that these low-cost "junk calls" bring good returns and may become a better mass-marketing method than bulk mail. But unsolicited phone calls are also much more intrusive and annoying than unsolicited mail. The new machines, dialing 100 calls per hour or more, have already gotten a lot of people up from dinner or out of the bathtub. One result has been a surge of calls for action by the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and the states.
Some proposals now pending would bar robot calls entirely. Others would curb some of their habits, such as staying on the line if you hang up before the tape has run its course. Aiming new rules at one particular device, though, strikes us as about as illogical as outlawing computer-generated commercial letters but letting hand-addressed bulk mail go through.
We think people who don't want to be bothered should be able to hold off all unsolicited business calls. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Wendell Anderson (D-Minn.) are sponsoring bills under which anyone could ask his local telephone company to put his number on a no-call list that phone solicitors - except charities, political groups and polltakers - would have to respect. Similar plans are being used by some bulk mailers and seem to work well.
The mailers' initiatives have had one interesting result. Despite all the complaints about "junk mail," relatively few people register not to get it - and a substantial number, if given the chance, sign up to go on mailing lists for catalogs, magazines and the like. Regarding phone calls, we suspect that the proportions would be different. But if any of you have strong feelings about machines and companies that have your number and use it indiscriminately, we'd be interested in hearing then - by letter. If public sentiment is emphatic enough, perhaps the solicitors will get the message and hang up.