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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > So, where is all this heading?

There was time when specialists in time-and-motion would take great pride in shaving five minutes off a production line in a factory. Time was money and time saved was money saved.

Clearly, these time-saver experts would not have any idea of what to do about the billions of hours Americans have to waste every year just trying to get through to someone on the phone for a two-way conversation.

Let’s call the people receiving calls the “callees” and the people making the calls the “callers.” Depending on the call you can be either. There is little doubt that the “callees” have the advantage over the “callers.” They have technology on their side. They can refuse to take the call and let you resort to voice mail or e-mail. Not quite the same.

About a dozen years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a survey that said it took an average of six business calls to get one returned. It has to be much worse now. Last month I asked my assistant to make a call to Matt Groening, the main creator of The Simpsons television show. No human being answered at their main telephone line — only voice mail. This went on for call after call, at all times of the day. Then I asked him to call anyone — other producers, clerical workers, anyone. No answer. Also no answer from anyone who was left a voice mail.

Now it could be said that no one wanted to call back. Not likely. I am a Simpsons’ fan, within limits, and gave out Simpson calendars last year.

The success of the callees’ strategy is sometimes enhanced by not even giving out a phone number, like a business magazine I know. Then there are callers who pay a monthly fee to block the callees from seeing their phone number. Now callees are fighting back with an automatic messagethat informs such callers that their call cannot be taken as a result.

And so the game goes on to obstruct great telecommunications technology with technological blockers, diverters or suspended messages. All this back and forth over and over again reminds me of the pre-rotary telephone days when one would pick up the phone and the operator would come on and ask “what number, please?” One would give the number, the phone would ring and, unless the line was busy, the person would answer if the person was at home or at work.

Today, automation allows immensely more calls to be made with fewer workers, but can you get through?

Now, there are newspaper reporters who have voice-mail on all day! There are businesses who keep you pressing layers of one, or two, or three, or four, until, either your finger slips and you have to try again, or you’re often put on a diet of music or advertisers while you wait.

Certainly, their practice is not inevitable nor courteous. Try calling Southwest Airlines or Federal Express and a real human being answers after just one, two or three rings. If they can do it and make good profits, why can’t other companies whose staffers are required to attend customer satisfaction training sessions? How about just answering the phone satisfactorily?

There is an information overload that most people feel getting worse. Callers do need to be more considerate in the frequency of their calling. With cell phones, pedestrians seem to be saturated walkie-talkies. Before cell phones I rarely saw lines of people in front of pay-phones.

The callees are hardening their position by ignoring phone calls altogether and using e-mail for peers and subordinates. One of my former co-authors, now an editor of a successful business magazine, ignores the telephone calls. So it is nearly not possible to have an extended conversationwith him from time to time, other than via e-mail. Which, again, is not the same thing.

If you’ve had such an enduring experience with friends of colleagues like that, there is more than a loss of time involved. There is a loss of content and motivation which comes from person-to-person conversation.

Where is all this heading? Readers, please write me if you think you know. (P. O. Box 19367, Washington, DC, 20036). As for my continuing attempt to reach Matt Groening at The Simpsons. I finally used the Post Office and sent him a letter — airmail.