Phobia

Andrew Martin keeps hearing voices. It's Call Minder and Call Waiting, ringing to admonish: Pick up your bloody messages
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am a technophobe, anxious to resist all manifestations of the communications revolution. Not only am I not on the Internet, but I only bought a fax machine after my wife (a much more go-ahead character) got up a petition. I believe communication to be overrated and make a point of never doing it with anyone until well after breakfast.

But I am also a busy, in-demand young professional (sort of), and heavily dependent on the telephone in my work. Earlier this year, I noticed that many of my fellow young professionals retained a computerised female voice to field their calls when they were engaged. This, I discovered, was a BT service called Call Minder, and the subtext of it was all too clear: my busy, in-demand young friends were just that bit busier and more in-demand than I was.

After a lot of agonising, I decided to get Call Minder for myself. I learned the ropes surprisingly quickly. After a period of heavy telephoning, an interrupted dial tone would tell me that a message had been left. I would then dial 1571 and speak to my Call Minder, taking care to enunciate my yesses and noes clearly, as I had been told. "Message left at 5.45," Call Minder would say: "Do you wish to play that message?" I suppose there are some very blase people who, at this point, would say "Nah" and put the phone down. But I always said, very, very slowly, "Yes".

My Call Minder and I enjoyed an intense honeymoon period. I couldn't wait to dial 1571, and sensed a conspiratorial excitement in the computer's tone as it said: "You have six messages!" Gradually, though, our relationship began to go off the boil. I discovered that the messages were often of disappointing quality. "Oh God, you've got one of these..." was a common response, terminated by a click. I also realised that if I tried to call home from a phone box and somebody in the house was on the phone, then I would get Call Minder (useless in the circumstances) and my 10 pence would disappear. I began to long for the old-fashioned - and freely available - engaged tone.

As I became disillusioned with my Call Minder, I stopped taking care to enunciate my yesses and noes, leading to the following, exasperating dialogue:

Call Minder: "Play that message?"

Me: "Right... I mean, er, yeah."

Call Minder (infant schoolteacher voice): "I'm sorry, I did not understand that."

Then Call Minder started calling me and announcing in a petulant tone: "You have three messages. Please call to listen to them." My wife learned that if she heard me furiously yelling "Bugger off!" into the telephone, then it was a fair bet (although by no means an absolute certainty) that I was talking to Call Minder.

One morning, I decided that I had had enough, and I phoned BT to cancel Call Minder. "No problem - it's done," said the BT person, and I made myself a celebratory cup of coffee. Just as I was sitting down, the phone rang. It was Call Minder, announcing from beyond the grave that I had one new message. But that was the last I heard from it.

A BT spokesman explained to me that Call Minder has been available since May of last year, and is the latest addition to what BT calls its "family of select services", or possibly its "select family of services" - I can't quite remember. Anyway, it's a ghastly brood. There's Three Way Calling, for example: "Three people can all speak at once!" enthused the BT spokesman. There's Reminder Call: "Just key in a couple of digits," said the BT man - all his sentences tended to start like that - "and the phone will call you back later" (Presumably leaving a message on your Call Minder.). There's also Call Waiting, which enables you to interrupt the call that you are on in order to take another call - a transaction which, if conducted in the correct tone of voice, can make the first caller feel just under two-foot tall.

A week ago, I was a victim of another of these services. A woman phoned me and indignantly asked whether I had just called her. "Well," I said, "that depends who you are." "Sharon!," she said, bristling. I said that I hadn't called her, but she didn't believe me, leaving me to feel like a telephone stalker.

This service - press 1471 and discover the number of the person who tried to call you last - is the most sinister of the Select Family; it's the one that testifies most acutely to our growing telephone paranoia, our fear of missing something - a reflection, surely, of frustrated, insecure lives.

All these new services are possible because we now have an almost completely digitalised phone network. Don't ask me what that means, but the overall result is that everyone spends more time talking to telephones, which must be good for BT.

It is now impossible to book a cinema seat, for example, without having a long conversation with a telephone and pressing digits for 10 minutes, starting with the dreadful siren call: "To make a credit card booking, please press the number two on your telephone now..." I would like to suggest that the following option be available early on: "Press three if you've suddenly decided you'd rather go to the pub."

Voice Mail is another bugbear. I always leave a message on Voice Mail, just as I always leave a message on an answerphone. If I'd encountered an engaged tone, as one used to, I might have subsequently realised that what I had to say was not strictly necessary - or had become irrelevant, or was just simply stupid - and not bothered to call back. But the new technology eliminates such natural wastage, and we just build up a backlog of clutter, constantly returning the calls of people whose lines are busy because they're returning other people's calls who are returning other people's, in an endless vicious spiral.

So my watchword for the future, I fear, will be an inversion of EM Forster's. Only disconnect

The BT Museum, Mon-Fri 10am-5pm (not Bank Holidays), 145 Queen Victoria St, London EC4 (0171-248 7444), free

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