My father’s mother was a country woman, much of whose life was spent on an isolated hardscrabble farm and whose principal contact with the wider world was the occasional visit by a traveling salesman or a hungry tramp.
To speak with a neighbor or a friend in the nearest town, she had a wall-mounted wooden telephone with a crank on the side. Turning that would connect her with the operator, and she could ask by name for the person she wanted to speak to.
It would seem, on reflection, to have been a rather primitive system. But I’m not sure that’s the case.
Yes, telephone service has gotten digitized and much more automated. But more convenient? That’s an open question.
Many of the organizations and companies with which we’re obliged to do business on a regular basis have dispensed altogether with a live person to answer inquiries.
“We’re experiencing an unusual volume of calls,” says a recorded voice. “Please hold and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.”
And when will that be? In an hour? Tomorrow? Next week? There’s no hint how long the wait might be.
Eventually, with luck, a voice comes on the line. And it’s a human voice. I perfectly understand every individual’s need and right to be employed. Regrettably, however, the speaker is attempting to communicate in a language with which you are unfamiliar or is so heavily accented that no sense of it can be made.
Or the speaker might not be a living person at all.
It could be a robocall — a message programmed to dial your number and repeat its solicitation every few hours or minutes until you have been propelled into lunacy and torn the phone line from the wall.
If that’s progress, its benefits have been greatly oversold.