Changes in the texture of everyday life have a way of creeping up on you. At the start of 1994, if you rang up a company you could confidently expect to talk to a real person. By the end of 1994, more and more of us were dialling with the fear of being sent to Voice Mail Jail.

If you don't know what that is, yet, try ringing up the American Embassy in London to ask - oooh - if an Australian needs a visa to visit the US. First you get a one-minute message inviting you to press buttons on your telephone, depending on what you want. This then diverts you to another message giving you another number to ring, which gives you another message, inviting you to say "yes" to one of a number of things you might want to know. "Yes" produces an alphabetical list of all nationalities (22 of them) which don't require a visa (no matter that Australia begins with A and isn't one). You have to listen to the whole list, then to a vast range of possible visa dilemmas, before you get some more chances to say "yes" - which tell you that the call is costing 49p a minute, you're going to have to make an appointment and they're about to put you through to a real person. By this time you've been on the phone for seven minutes. "Putting you through now", a voice says, then the r e is a click and thennothing.

Britain always lags five or ten years behind America in the communications field. It's said that in the US now, you have only a 30 per cent chance of ever reaching a real person when you pick up the phone. Voice messaging systems , introduced there in the early 1980s, have all but saturated their market. Now 88 per cent of the top 500 US companies use voice messaging in one form or another.

Voice mail, in fact, is a layman's umbrella term used to cover various kinds of telephone messaging. The more annoying sort, where you are greeted with a recording which invites you to start pressing buttons or saying - embarrassingly - "yes" after vari o us beeps, is officially known as "Automated Attendance". "Press 1 to feel slightly hurt that no one wants to talk to you. Press 2 to listen to a long list of options, none of which match what you need. Press 0 to speak to an operator - and get another me ssage saying press 0 to speak to an operator. Press 97 if you are now having a breakdown of some kind." It's rather like playing with a child holding up a folded-paper game on its fingers, asking you to choose a number, then another, then yet another,fi nally, triumphantly, to open a flap saying "You are Bonkers".

The type of system which is officially called voice mail is a slightly different thing, a glorified answerphone which is a combination of a telephone and a computer system, recording voices digitally on chips instead of tapes. This allows a touch-tone phone to be used as a "voice-mail box". Through it, by pressing a combination of buttons, users can record outgoing and incoming messages, ring in to listen to them, integrate them with cellular phone systems, edit them, and pass them on to several other voice-mail boxes simultaneously. In fact, voice mail behaves in much the same way as the computer messaging system E-mail, but with voices instead of text. It brings with it the same potential for office gaffes - wrong buttons pressed, and erotic chit-chat, or rabid slaggings-off of the boss, broadcast to all mailboxes.

Now the system has finally bitten in the UK, we can expect inundation. It's described in the trade press, in worryingly Nazi-esque terms, as "a total solution". According to the communications analyst Dataquest, the UK market grew by 65 per cent in 1994.It has a current annual value of $96m (£61.5m).

Rob Walters, author of an entire book on the subject, Voice Information Systems, says: "In 1989 there were less than 200 systems here. The early Nineties saw the big curve, but it's only within the last year that voice messaging has entered public perception." The communications company Octel estimates that 38 per cent of British companies now have such systems.

But why? What is the point in companies persecuting their valued customers in this way?

Time and money, for one thing. Voice messaging can save huge numbers of man-hours, The communications analysts Mitel have studied the effects. (It took a while for Mitel's Joan Robinson to get hold of the information, though. "Everyone's out, I keep get t ing voice mail.") Octel, for example, reckoned that 32 minutes per day was saved by each individual using voice mail. A company of field service engineers saved £7,300 per day on mobile phone bills. An aircraft company somehow worked out that voice mail annually saved it three man-years.

But what about the people on the other end? Andy Finn was formerly the product manager for AT&T, broadly the US equivalent of British Telecom, and is now at the Kentucky School of Telecommunications. "The greatest resistance is to automated attendance," he says "Customers feel that companies are saving money by making them do all the work. As far as voice mail proper goes, our office surveys suggest a perception that people are hiding behind it, and that calls disappear into a black hole. In fact we didn't find evidence that that was actually happening.

"Some research suggests that 60 to 70 per cent of company time spent talking on the phone is wasted time," he says. "Voice mail allows you to streamline communication, and be sure that messages are accurate. Sometimes you do need to block calls. In my f o rmer job I was getting 40 messages a day. There was no way I could deal with them and do my job. And sometimes companies literally cannot cope with the volume of calls overall."

How things come full circle. Whoever would have thought the telephone would come to be used to stop people talking to each other?

"The telephone has become too uncontrollable," says Guy Fielding, communications specialist at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. "In the past we had a system where the caller had the power. Now the balance is shifting towards the callee: look at the domestic answerphone. Initially it was used to increase communication - so people wouldn't miss calls - then to reschedule it .Now it's being used to cut down on it."

Andy Finn in Kentucky has recently researched this area. "There are people who feel they're on communication overload. One baseball addict said on his machine that he would not respond to any message unless it contained an explanation of the in-field flyrule, a piece of obscure baseball know-how. Another couple left a greeting message saying "We don't like the telephone much. If you do leave a message, please give us a good reason why you think we should call you back."

Many US companies now employ voice mail police, to check up that people are answering all their messsages promptly and changing their greetings regularly. Employees who are caught out have their voice mail taken away and have to - the shame! - answer th e ir calls in person. The Americans , too, have come up with some imaginative uses: Voice-mail boxes, for example, are given to the homeless in Seattle, which lets them beat the unemployment trap of having no phone number or address.

As more and more of everyday life - work, love, friendship, community - is conducted over the phone , it is reassuring to see the communications system adapting and regulating its power. But alongside that, the obvious benefits of telephonic living, - savings on taxi fares, hairdos and contraception, for example - is the problem that technology advances so quickly that etiquette cannot catch up. Large parts of our lives are conducted in an area where the rules of good manners are unclear - exactly how rude is it to screen calls, ignore answerphone messages, chuck someone via voice mail?

Chris Ellis, marketing manager for GPT Communications Systems, says: "We don't quite go into that sort of detail, but people need to be trained in more than the simple mechanics. The golden rule is always to give a caller the option to escape the system.If it says dial 0 for an operator, there must be an operator on the end. The telephone is always best answered in the first instance by a person."

Dr Fielding at Edinburgh finds many problems arise simply because systems are devised by engineers, not communications experts. He advises companies on how much information a caller can digest, how many options are too many and what sort of voice works best. "They have to remember that some clients might be calling the same number 20 times in a week - they don't want to have to listen to a long, annoying message every time. And always bear in mind that even the most sophisticated computer is thicker than the thickest person."

Rousingly, some companies, such as the bank First Direct, have already rejected voice messaging. I called First Direct for a comment, left a message with a real person and was called back promptly by the chief executive - telephone heaven.

"What people tell you they want is often not what they turn out to need," the chief executive, Kevin Newman, said. "A computer can't work that out. Our business is all about two-way communication, and by definition voice mail is only one-way. When custo m ers ring up they want to speak to a person. What, after all's said and done, is the problem with that?"

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