Only connect

January 20, 1996

A couple of years ago I was invited to lecture in the US. To arrange for a work visa, I rang the US embassy in London. Thus began my first relationship with voice-mail.

Within a couple of rings I was whisked into the embassy's "automated attendant and information system." Somewhat bossily, a female voice told me to "listen carefully to the following options." Before I knew it, I was "dialoguing" with an automated receptionist. I was eventually told to ring another number, and soon I was "dialoguing" with yet another automated receptionist.

This time, after the usual introductions and instructions, a cheery male voice announced that the call was costing me 39 pence per minute. The expense didn't mean better service. Rather, the new call kept presenting me with more options. None seemed to match what I thought I wanted. I was starting to get very angry.

Worse was to come. After a heroic trek through options and instructions, I posted my passport to the address given. This was a mistake. Weeks and weeks later-lectures prepared, bags nearly packed-there was still no sign of my passport. Post-modernity had let me down. I needed something simple-to talk to one (real) person who might release my impounded document. But instead I was endlessly directed through one set of options after another. Void after void. It gradually dawned on me that the US embassy in London was a mere fa?ade for endless rows of automated receptionists-voice-mail gone crazy.

Diplomats, I thought, should reflect on what voice-mail is doing to the "special relationship." The automated barricade may be serving US immigration policy, but my own feelings of warmth towards the US were cooling.

I eventually obtained my visa after a contact gave me the embassy's fax number. I deluged their London offices with faxes and threats.

Now, back in Oxford, I have my own voice-mail. Like other colleagues, I joined Oxford's pilot voice-mail system in the hope that the new technology would bring quiet and tranquillity to my office. I imagined myself sitting, gazing out across the quadrangle, happily pondering the state of international relations, interrupted only by the rustling of essays being pushed under my door. But I was wrong.

As with the advent of most new technologies-from subway trains to cellular telephones-voice-mail has already become regulated by that most telling of social institutions: etiquette.

Thus, under the prominent heading "voice-mail etiquette," Oxford university's instruction manual warns users that voice-mail is not designed "to allow you to hide behind a quiet telephone." This is an instruction which greatly reduces its appeal to busy academics.

Furthermore, I am instructed that my messages should be "topical" and up-to-date: for instance, "I will be away all morning but I will reply to you this afternoon." This seems a bit strict. Wouldn't it be more fun to leave messages such as "I'm stressed out and trying to find some decent Belgian chocolates" or "My guinea-pig is sick and I can't possibly work today." In fact, a more permissive use of voice-mail might even be a step towards more personally revealing communication in these buttoned-up times. On this point, however, I'm rather pessimistic. Social contact is not voice-mail's strongest point.

By way of introduction to the new technology, the manual goes on to explain that "it takes two to dialogue, and increasingly one or the other is away from the office." This reminds me of why I still haven't learnt Latin American dancing-"for increasingly, either myself or my partner is out of the country." Not surprisingly, voice-mail doesn't solve either problem. It manages but doesn't resolve absence. This is rather obscured by the new verb "to dialogue"-used liberally throughout voice-mail instructions. Yet in the post post-modern world of voice-mail there are no interjections, interruptions or clarifications. Voice-mail is not a forum for two or more parties to converse, to adapt, or to learn from one another. As I discovered from my experience with the US embassy, a caller can express nothing more than a telephonic stab at an answer in a multi-choice quiz that opens up yet more options.

Voice-mail is a modern technology with post-modern problems. It was introduced to tackle the plague of over-active telephones. Streets ahead of the old-fashioned answering machine, it offers the caller a range of options, making the common answering machine look like a shabby note-pad stuck to the door.

For the jet-setting modern professional, it is without doubt a convenient way to direct and redirect calls. As with an answering machine, you can access your messages from anywhere. But better than an answering machine, voice-mail can alert you anywhere in the world that it has received a message for you. True, it may not be a comforting thought to realise that while I'm conferencing in Mexico or Colorado, my hotel telephone will alert me to the fact that yet another student has rung my Oxford number to leave a feeble excuse for not writing an essay. But then again, it might well be telling me that I've finally managed to book a samba lesson for two-and in arranging such things, it certainly does take two to dialogue. n

Ngaire Woods