To Hear This Message Again, Press 10


"This is your local police department. If you wish to report a defective traffic signal, press one. If you are in imminent danger from a homicidal maniac, press two. If you are not calling from a push-button telephone, please wait. Our service operators are currently occupied and will respond to your call in order."

No, the interactive-telephone mania hasn't yet come to that, as far as I know. But as one of the fastest-spreading contrivances in the electronic abyss, it is a monument to technology gone amok in the guise of convenience and economy. Before this telephone system spreads further, some high authority should be empaneled to examine the toll that it is exacting on the American psyche. Public benefit is cited as the rationale for switching from human telephone attendants to recorded electronic herdsmen. But if anyone is better off for the change, it is surely not the callers.

The competition for the most baffling and frustrating interactive message is intense. But it's hard to beat what you hear when you phone the Superintendent of Documents at the U.S. Government Printing Office, the government's own bookstore, to order a pamphlet or book. First of all, business must be good, because the busy signals are frequent. But when a call gets past that barrier, word for word you get the following:

"Thank you for calling the Superintendent of Documents. To place an order or to make an inquiry, please begin by dialing one." Once that's done, the message goes on: "If you are calling to place an order for a subscription service, press one now for operator assistance. If you are calling to place an order for a book, pamphlet or poster, press six for operator assistance. For a listing of recent publications, please press three now. If you would like to place an order for pickup at a government bookstore in the metropolitan Washington area, please press four now. If you have a question about a previous order, please press five now. If you need additional assistance, please press six now."

Upon pressing any of the offered numbers, the following message is heard: "Please hold while we transfer you to an operator. A busy signal will indicate that our lines and the holding queue are full. Please call again. There will be a slight delay while we transfer your call. Please be patient."

When the lines and the holding queue are full, as they often are, an instant disconnect ensues. Upon re- establishing mental equilibrium, a caller is at liberty to undertake another attempt to communicate with the Superintendent of Documents. As before, the initial challenge is to outwait the busy signal. Success triggers a chilling announcement: "Thank you for calling the Superintendent of Documents."

Economists report that productivity -- the amount produced per working hour -- went down nearly one percent last year. The decline is puzzling, they say, given the great labor-saving powers credited to the electronics revolution in offices and factories. The reality, however, is that these high-tech systems are often so out of harmony with human sensitivities and rhythms that they're a drag on human performance. They are so perplexing that the obfuscating term "user friendly" has been contrived to mask the difficulties of using them.

But no matter how it's presented, there's no gain in substituting complexity for simplicity. Thus, keeping a checkbook or recipe file on a computer is akin to using an Indy 500 racer to run errands. The conversational interruptions caused by "call waiting" are not a benefit to human communication.

The techno-tyrants who increasingly impinge on society are so enchanted by their wares that they can't understand that button pressing is no substitute for the flexibility of human conversation. The argument that it's cheaper invites a question: cheaper for whom? Maybe for the Superintendent of Documents. For the rest of us, though, it's an electronic scam.

If the system spreads further, one button should be reserved by law to convey something like "Nuts to you."

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes of Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

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