call waiting trauma
Monday, January 12 2004
On some fundamental level, my personality and neural wiring is perfectly-suited to a world filled with technology. For me, ther is little mystery in the operations of gadgets or the interactions of materials. It's all intuitive, and I have no difficulty figuring out ways to make them interact. My biggest problems with technology aren't with the machines themselves; they grow out of what they allow other people to do. For example, though the technology is already over 100 years old, I've always been uncomfortable with the social responsibilities engendered by the telephone. These devices allow us to be interrupted at any time by anyone. And with cellphones, we can be interrupted at any time and in any place by anyone. Unlike email (a social-technologic innovation I love), the mechanisms for delayed, considered response to a phone call are poorly developed. A phone call is push-technology interruption, the calm-disturbing equivalent of a web pop-up. The assumption inherent in the technology is that a human being can instantly change the state of his mind to successfully interact with anyone at any time. When you think about it, that's a pretty tall order, particularly when you consider the state of human interaction before the invention of the telephone. In the 19th Century, for example, random interruption was rare because it was nearly impossible. You had to travel several days by ox cart to get to your brother-in-law's house, so by the time you arrived all your ersatz conviviality was well-rehearsed.
Call waiting is a technology that raises the interruptive power of the telephone by an order of magnitude. You've already made the emotional adjustment necessary to handle one phone call, and then you're interrupted and pulled into yet another totally different world and have to somehow deal with it in a socially-acceptable manner. Once that is dealt with, you have to return to the state you were in with the earlier caller, a state that might be entirely different from the background state you carry with you through the day. That's three different mental states, all carried out extemporaneously. For a trained actor it might not be a big deal, but I'm no trained actor. I have all sorts of social hangups. One of the most crippling of these is that I feel sickened by insincerity whenever I'm called upon to lie in the interest of social protocol. I'd much prefer to live in a world where such lies are unnecessary. I can usually struggle through the social lies for a limited period of time. "Your pan pipe performance was marvelous!" "The potato and beet stir fry was delicious!" "Oh, what a cute newborn!" "Have you lost weight?" "No, I never even noticed that deformed Siamese twin dangling from your forehead!" But I've drawn the line on the sort of social acrobatics demanded by call waiting. I've always boycotted that second call, no matter how insistent its little "beep" intrusions have been.
But then some weeks ago Gretchen got mad at me because we missed a call that had come during a prolonged session of my of call-waiting ignoring. I'd been so resistant to the technology that I hadn't even bothered to learn how to answer that second call. That's when Gretchen taught me about the existence of the Flash button.
This morning I experienced the first test of my new call-waiting-answering ways. And it was a doozy. I was talking long-distance to one of my computer repair clients who was out in San Francisco trying to figure out why her laptop wasn't dialing in to the local Road Runner network (it turns out that there's no point-of-presence there). The Road Runner website was being anything but helpful, refusing to yield up its tech support numbers. In the middle of my frustrated searching came an ominous call waiting beep. "Can you hold on a minute?" I asked. Then I hit the Flash button. It was Gretchen's brother Brian calling from Pittsburgh to talk to us about his son Micah - his first child - who had been born during the night. The appropriate emotional outfit to wear when answering such a call is one of overjoyed congratulations and mazel tovim. But I was incapable of snapping so quickly out of the frustration of the tech support call. So I said "Hey Brian, can you call back in like ten minutes?" I had presence of mind to congratulate him on the baby, but I'm sure the tone of my voice was completely gauche. And I could tell by the pause in his reaction that he didn't think my reaction was appropriate. By the time the call (and the tech support call it had interrupted) were over, I was traumatized. It's precisely the sort of phone trauma that a person like me doesn't need - it confirms all my subconscious hangups about the social dangers of using the technology.
Yesterday Gretchen had contacted a bunch of news services to tell them about the animal hoarder case up in Fulton County and about the burdens it had placed on the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Today I went out to the sanctuary and took pictures for the website so I could better showcase the neglect and plead for emergency donations. When I arrived, a reporter from the Channel 6 television station was there videotaping the chickens as they frolicked (later I had to extract a cat from the reporter's driver's seat). Kathy (the sanctuary director) took me around and showed me all the Fulton County critters, many of whom looked to be surprisingly healthy. The serious hard-luck cases were all in the barn: an emaciated horse, another that had foundered, and a miniature horses with hooves that had grown out so long that they looked like wooden shoes. Nearly all of the healthy females had bellies distended from pregnancy. If nothing else, the hermetic worlds of animal hoarders provide test cases for further nuancing Malthusian theory.
This evening I made a special web page for the Catskill Animal Sanctuary website pleading for emergency donations.
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