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It's not my voice, and it's not my mail

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

It's not my voice, and it's not my mail, but guess what they call it?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

I've just lost another battle with the latest gadget at the paragraph factory.

It's new. It's modern. It's a time-saver. And it's driving me crazy.

It's voice mail.

The companies that sell it say it's like an answering machine with a brain. But that's only partly true. The truth is, it's like an answering machine in a coma.

It could be smart, but in use it's terribly dumb. And it's making my life miserable. Life is complicated enough without dim-bulb gadgets like this one.

Most people who battle with voice mail fight it from the other side—from the caller's angle. You even run into a voice-mail wall when you call the telephone repair service these days. But I've been struggling with it from the inside out. And it's even worse than it seems from the outside.

The idea behind voice mail is reasonable enough. It came out of the need for a better answering machine—one that would be able to handle calls for everybody in an entire office, without having to go out to lunch or leave messages on little slips of paper.

The voice-mail computer does its own recording just like a digital audio recorder. Digital audio, after all, is not much more than computerized sound waves. The sound quality that comes out of the voice-mail computer is great.

But things go downhill from there.

For example, Even a $49 K mart answering machine has more sense. than the Paragraph Factory's voice-mail system. Let me explain. With normal answering machines, if people call and then hang up as soon as they hear the "beep'' tone, the answering machine resets itself and ignores that call. Makes sense, right? Why should the answering machine tell you there's a message waiting when there's nothing but a click?

Tell that to the demons inside the voice-mail contraption. On a busy day last week I had seven no-shows on my phone.

It would be a comedy—if only it were funny.

"You have seven messages,'' the lady with the Orwellian voice says from inside the computer. "First message.'' And then there is nothing.

"Second message.'' Nothing.

"Third message.'' Nada. Zip.

This went on all morning. Finally I got a recording of a human voice. It was my friend Peter trying to transfer a call to my phone. The sound came through sharp and clear.

"I'm sorry,'' he was telling the caller. "I don't think this voice mail is working right.''

Another problem is that the voice-mail system has turned my phone into some sort of remote control device. But unlike the one that came with my VCR, this one has no labels on the keys. Each time I want to hear my messages, I have to take a course in memory management.

I think I'm supposed to press "2'' to hear the first message. Does that mean I should hit "3'' for the second message? How come I can't just press "1'' for the first message?

The digitized lady tries to set me straight when I press the wrong keys.

"Press the asterisk for help,'' she says.

That's nice. But why the asterisk? Why not the "H'' on the dial? Better yet, why doesn't my telephone come with a "HELP'' button and some special keys for handling these voice-mail calls—and maybe even a little computer screen that will show me the phone numbers and even the names of the people who are trying to reach me?

In other words, why isn't my phone a computer instead of a phone? Ah, some day.

In the meantime, stuck with a phone that's not a computer and a computer that thinks it's a phone, I am caught between two worlds. The new technology has come too far for me to ignore it, but not far enough for me to use it to any advantage.

Even the lady in the computer seems to think so. The last time she told me I had a message that wasn't there, I pressed all the buttons on my phone at once.

"Ha!'' I shouted into the phone.

She started to hand me that line again. My fingers danced on the keys.

"Gotcha!'' I said.

"You have . . .'' she said. Then she stopped and the line went dead. Maybe it was a computer hiccup. But maybe, just maybe, she was agreeing with me.

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