On avoiding human contact

The day I realised I preferred phoning my friends when they were out. By Richard Kelly Heft
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The Independent Culture
THE STRANGE thing is I've always thought of myself as a "people person". More and more, though, I find myself thrilled with technology that helps me avoid human contact. Truth is, it's never been a better time to be a hermit.

Just think of how many ways the late 20th century helps us to avoid each other. Take the lowly answering machine, now so ubiquitous it is a rare and strange person indeed who does not own one. Don't you get peeved when you call someone and they don't have one? For me, leaving a message is like getting a receipt when you buy something - it's proof you've been there. It was only when I became aware of my secret relief that various friends were NOT at home that I began to embrace this depersonalising technology.

There are just too many rude people out there and it seems like I've spoken to every one of them on their worst day. Companies are well aware that rude employees can cost them dearly and many go to great lengths to train their "service professionals" in telephone etiquette. It doesn't work.

Despite the best training and the threat that calls will be "monitored for quality purposes" (a refrain routinely heard when you're put on hold here in the US) unpleasant experiences seem inevitable. Me (after 20 minutes on hold): "You guys must be awfully busy, is the wait always so long?"

Voice: "No."

Hanging in mid-air, I try to remain focused on why I called in the first place, and start to wonder if I couldn't figure out how to assemble my Flex-Master all by myself.

In fact, I have built in as many technical devices between myself and other people as I can find. These days, I no longer have to call directory assistance when I need a phone listing. I bought a computer CD listing all home and business numbers in the United States - 130 million of them - instantly accessible at the push of a few buttons. I don't have to call the library to find out if the book I want is available. I simply go to their Website and type in the name of the book.

To pay my bills, check on my growing fortune or find out how much I owe on my Visa card, I do it all by computer. Without fail, the bank lets me know before I sign off that it was a pleasure to do business with me. No, the pleasure was all mine.

As for the cash machine, don't get me started. It's a dream friend. Need money? Slip in your card, follow a couple of simple instructions (it's always satisfying to have mastered them) and voila - out pops a wad of notes.

These days the cashpoint does more than dole out cash - it's becoming a tool of democracy. In New York, you can check building inspection records, print application forms for permits, licences or civil service jobs. You can even pay your property taxes with a credit card. The city has installed only 37 machines so far, but a New Jersey company has offered to set up as many as 2,000 for free, saying it can make its money back from advertising, which would appear on the cashpoint screens.

The biggest complaint of the system is that suppliers have been required to include a short video of the mayor, Rudolf Giuliani, hailing the city's experiment as well as a 22-page biography of the mayor touting his first- term achievements.

OK, so there are some bugs in the system. It's certainly better than waiting in long lines (inevitably to be told you're in the wrong one), or to face a clerk who appears to be experiencing a bad-hair life.

"It's like a New York worker who goes 24 hours a day, only it's more friendly," Gregory Davidson, 33, told the New York Times after using one of the machines. "There's no attitude."