Despite Technology, Telephone Gadgets Still Have Hang-Ups

THE HARTFORD COURANT

Aman I know was arguing with his car phone the other day. Considering the chaos that can ensue from even a minor malfunction in our technology-dependent lives, this was not so unusual.

What was incredible was the way the telephone was arguing back.

"Digit," it kept commanding in a firm, female voice.

"End!" the man kept yelling.

"Digit," it insisted.

"No! End! End!" he retorted.

And so on. . . .

I've always found a car to be an excellent venue for an argument. There's something about the hum of the engine and the closeness of the environment that heightens one's combativeness while trivializing one's issues. Add traffic or an elusive destination to the mix and it's amazing how quickly you find yourself threatening divorce over the placement of a wad of gum in the ashtray.

In some ways, today's voice-activated phones are not unlike the more common car-based sparring partners, spouses in particular. They misinterpret things. They don't listen. They go charging off on their own little tangents, whence it is virtually impossible to retrieve them.

The one big difference is that when you start the ignition, the phone says "hello" in a vaguely pleasant voice.

My friend's car phone has been known to take erroneous cues from the radio, the tape deck, passing tractor-trailer trucks, toll collectors and the like.

A blast of Madonna, say, and the thing announces it's "Ready." An ambulance sounds its siren and suddenly the office is on the line. A dog barks and the phone is hungry for another "Digit."

I don't know what set it off the other day. Perhaps it was the way I was guffawing at the absurdity of a grown man getting into his car and exchanging verbal greetings with a little blinking box. When the two of them started their bizarre bickering, I suppose my shrieking didn't help any.

I happen to have a grudge against phone gadgetry, thanks to the new cordless phone in my kitchen, the one that rings here whenever my neighbor's rings there, and vice versa.

At first I thought it was a godsend of ease, convenience and freedom. I could chase the kids around the house, change a diaper, take a walk on the front lawn, lock myself in a closet and never stop yakking.

Now I am hounded, incessantly hounded by electronic wizardry gone haywire. In addition to its relentless ringing, the darned thing frequently cuts out in mid-conversation, overwhelmed by static whenever a nursery monitor is switched on in the near vicinity.

It also often brings in uninvited parties and disrupts my routine repartee. The other day, in the middle of a business call, I suddenly heard my neighbor telling someone about a "massage" that "relieves tension." My ears burned; my conscience made me hang up.

I will say one thing in defense of my cordless: It doesn't talk back.

My sister recently answered her phone and heard a strange, computerized voice announcing that someone was calling collect. The voice paused to allow the caller to fill in his name, then asked my sister if she'd accept the charges. Since her hysterical laughter was neither a "yes" nor a "no," the voice became confused. Its revenge was to begin its script all over again, demanding--and ultimately getting--conformity.

I suppose none of this is quite as frigidly high-tech as a machine calling a machine, a now commonplace point of contact between computerized telemarketing and home message recorders.

But could there be a more potent symbol of modern alienation--of the miscommunications, bad cues, scripted conversations that plague us all--than this new verbal give-and-take between human and microchip?

It seems to me we're having enough trouble communicating with each other as it is.

The man with the talking car phone says he's grown rather attached to his little box, especially when he's driving too fast, which he often is. Instead of taking his hands off the steering wheel, he says it's a lot safer to simply put the pedal to the metal and yell, "Dial!"

If he's lucky--and the radio isn't too loud--his phone won't argue.

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