Bryson's America: Why Can't You Dial Me By Name: 1-800-BILL?

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THE OTHER day I called my computer helpline, because I needed to be made to feel ignorant by someone much younger than me, and the boyish- sounding person who answered told me he required the serial number on my computer before he could deal with me. "And where do I find that?" I asked warily. "It's on the bottom of the CPU functional disequilibrium unit," he said, or words of a similarly confounding nature.

This, you see, is why I don't call my computer helpline very often. We haven't been talking four seconds and already I can feel a riptide of ignorance and shame pulling me out into the icy depths of Humiliation Bay. Any minute now, I know with a sense of doom, he's going to ask me how much RAM I have.

"Is that anywhere near the TV-screen thingy?" I ask helplessly.

"Depends. Is your model the Z-40LX Multimedia HPii or the ZX46/2Y Chromium B-BOP?"

And so it goes. The upshot is that the serial number for my computer is engraved on a little metal plate on the bottom of the main control box - the one with the CD drawer that is kind of fun to open and shut. Now call me an idealistic fool, but if I were going to put an identifying number on every computer I sold, and then require people to regurgitate that number each time they wanted to communicate with me, I don't believe I would put it in a place that required the user to move furniture and get the help of a neighbour each time he wished to consult it.

However, that is not my point. My model number was something like CQ124765900- 03312- DiP/22/4. So here is my point: why? Why does my computer need a number of such breathtaking complexity? If every neutrino in the universe, every particle between here and the furthest wisp of receding Big Bang gas, somehow acquired a computer from this company, there would still be plenty of spare numbers under such a system.

Intrigued, I began to look at all the numbers in my life, and nearly every one of them was absurdly excessive. My Barclaycard number, for instance, has 13 digits. That's enough for almost two trillion potential customers. Who are they trying to kid? My Budget Rent-a-Car card has no fewer than 17 digits. Even my local video shop appears to have 1.999 billion customers on its rolls (which may explain why LA Confidential is always out). The most impressive by far is my Blue Cross/Blue Shield medical card - the card every American must carry if he doesn't want to be left at an accident site - which not only identifies me as No YGH475907018 00, but also as a member of Group 02368. Presumably, then, each group has a person in it with the same number as mine. You can almost imagine us having reunions.

Now all this is a long way of getting round to the main point of this discussion, which is that one of the great improvements in American life in the last 20 years is the advent of phone numbers that any fool can remember. Let me explain. For complicated historical reasons, on American telephones all the punch buttons, except 1 and 0, also come with three of the letters of the alphabet on them. Button 2 has ABC on it, button 3 has DEF, and so on.

A long time ago, people realised that you could remember numbers more easily if you relied on the letters rather than the numbers. In my hometown of Des Moines, for instance, if you wanted to call time - or the talking clock as you people so charmingly term it - the official number was 244- 5646, which of course no one could recall. But if you dialled BIG JOHN you got the same number, and everybody could remember that (except, curiously, my mother, who was a bit hazy on the Christian name part, and so generally ended up asking the time of strangers whom she had just woken, but that's another story).

Then at some point in the last 20 years, big businesses discovered that they could make everyone's life easier, and generate lots of lucrative calls for themselves, if they based their numbers on catchy letter combinations. So now, any time you make almost any call to a commercial enterprise you dial 1-800-FLY TWA, or 244-GET PIZZA, or whatever. Not many changes in the last 20 years have made life immeasurably better for simple folk like me, but this unquestionably has.

So while you, poor thing, are listening to a school-marmish voice telling you that the code for Chippenham is now 01724750, except with a four-figure number, when it is 9, I am eating pizza, booking airline tickets and feeling considerably less churlish about modern telecommunications.

Now here is my big idea. I think we should all have one number for everything. Mine, of course, would be 1-800-BILL. This number would do for everything - it would make my phone ring, it would appear on my cheques, it would adorn my passport, it would get me a video.

Of course, it would mean rewriting a lot of computer programs, but I'm sure it could be done. I intend to take it up with my own computer company, just as soon as I can get at that serial number again.

`Notes from a Big Country', (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)