Push-Button Age

Press a button.

To record a message, press 2 after the beep. To speak to an operator, press 3 now. For more options, wait for the beep, then press 7.

Press a button!

If you wish to order the complete set I of America's Favorite Songbird commemorative-plates, punch your creditcard number into your telephone now. An operator will come on the line to take your order.

If you are a single man seeking intimate chats with lovely coeds, press 2 If you are a woman who wants to make a special female friend, press 3. If you are a gay or bisexual man seeking some Latin spice in your life, press 4. If you are. . .

Press a button, and at the speed of light all of life's necessities are at your command: sports results, erotic fantasies, weight-loss advice ("Diet by Phone! Dial 540-TRIM") and pizza with your choice of topping (at the speed of light or less, depending on traffic). It happens more than 1.7 billion times on an average day, a button is pushed (or, less and less often, a dial is spun) and suddenly distance is erased, time collapses and the evolutionary miracle of speech is compounded by the technological leap that makes it possible for someone getting drunk in San Francisco to call up an old girlfriend in any time zone in the country. Already in some places, she can glance at the phone, see who's calling and without picking up the receiver know that nothing good is going to come of it.

Press a button, and you have chosen sides in the central sociological struggle of our time, the war between the callers and the called. The former, by definition, want something from the latter--a date, a credit-card number, the solace of the human voice--while the latter, inevitably, are doing something else at the time, even if just talking on the other line. For a century the two sides were in rough equilibrium, until the answering machine put the awesome power of call screening into the hands of the secretaryless masses. The battle is taking place at the forefront of technology, where new devices are proliferating to make the telephone as inescapable as time itself, and others promise to defend against its awesome power and ubiquity. Picture telephones, that staple of 1930s science fiction, are making slow inroads; the wild proliferation of the fax machine has made the telephone a machine for transmitting data as well as speech. Last week Motorola Inc., the world's leading maker of portable telephones, disclosed plans for a network of 77 satellites that would put the entire globe within range of a wireless phone. Thus in the future it may be possible to have intimate chats with lovely coeds from, say, a research station in Antarctica, where such a thing might actually be desirable.

Press a button.

Hi it's me. . . Is it raining there?. . . I'm on the thruway and it's coming down so hard I had to put my lights on, so I thought if it was raining there you should close the windows . . . OK, so it's not. OK I got the . . . damn! I got the dry cleaning and put it on the back seat but Gloria must have left the window open a crack and it's all . . . Look, I've got to pull over. I'll call you right back, OK?

Not since the car radio has a technology so altered the nature of the driving experience as the cellular telephone (disregarding citizens" band radio, which proved to be a fairly insubstantial fad). Since they were introduced in 1983, mobile cellular phones have been on a steep exponential growth curve, with more than 4 million in use, according to an industry group. Their original market--when they cost $3,000 or so--was high-powered movers and dialers who couldn't wait until they got to the office to start making money. A whole subculture has grown up of executives who can wheel and deal at the same time, like Winnipeg publisher Kerry Swartz, who admits that on occasion he has actually steered his car with one knee holding his phone with one hand and shuffling papers with the other. (For the record, a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman says there are no statistics on accidents caused by drivers using mobile phones, and no reason to believe they are a safety problem.)

Now that the cost is down to around $500 (and an average of 25 cents to 45 cents a minute while in use), the cellular phone is increasingly likely to be found in the hands of salespeople, plumbers and deliverytruck drivers, and its uses are becoming less exotic. Tom Watson, a Chicago-based salesman for Amoco Oil Co., talks to 20 to 30 people a day on his car phone and between calls will sometimes dial the recorded time message to check his wristwatch. Bob Lucky, a senior executive at AT&T's Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, suspects that a lot of car-phone use reflects the fact that human nature abhors a dial tone. Give a person a phone and he will find someone to call. "When I listen to [a call-in sports show] on the radio, half the calls are from car phones."

On the other hand, some uses are ingenious. Doug Dusenberg, a Houston businessman, dialed his Jeep Cherokee when he discovered it missing from a parking lot and talked the two young joyriders into returning it; he let them keep the $20 in the glove compartment.

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"Your call cannot be completed. The number you are calling has activated call screening, indicating they do not want to receive your call at this time. "

A phone number is power; if someone can call you, he can force you down from a ladder or out of bed, and he knows at least one crucial fact about you: you are (or aren't) at home. Hence the growth of services to provide what might be called electronic rejection. While artificial intelligence is still a dream, the telephone industry has achieved the even more complex feat of artificial emotion. Can't think of an excuse to avoid seeing someone? Afraid you'll weaken and buy something you don't want? Push a few buttons and you can automatically block calls from designated phone numbers, in a new call-screening service available from Atlanta-based Southern Bell and under consideration by phone companies in other cities. Alternatively, you may want to ignore all calls except those coming from certain numbers, or prepare yourself with the right tone of voice (outraged? alluring? phony German accent?). The phone company can accommodate that, too, by giving calls from specified numbers a distinctive ring.

The state of the art in this technology is Caller ID, a small box that attaches to a telephone and displays the number of the person calling. Bell Atlantic, which serves New Jersey and six nearby states, is marketing it in part as a weapon against breathers and nuisance callers; the sinister stranger in the TV commercial loses his power over the woman as soon as she reveals that she has his number.

That is a pretty powerful appeal--the company claims that more than 100,000 customers have ordered the $70 boxes and are paying the $6.25 monthly charge for the service. (Other phone companies are testing it in limited areas.) But what about the caller's right to privacy? Should people who call drug hot lines, or women calling home from shelters for abused wives, run the risk of disclosing their phone numbers? "New technologies pose new risks to traditional civil liberties," warns Jan Goldman, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. The answer, though, seems to lie in yet more technology. The ACLU supports a bill by Sen. Herbert Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would require companies offering Caller ID also to make it possible for callers to conceal their numbers. The recipient would see a special code on his box and could choose not to answer those calls . . . although human nature being what it is, there's a good chance that curiosity would win out.

In fact, Goldman charges, phone companies have a hidden agenda for Caller ID--accumulating data on the buying and calling habits of their customers, which could in turn be sold to insurance companies, stock brokers and people selling Arizona real estate over the phone. Mail-order and credit-card companies with 800 numbers have had a version of Caller ID for several years. It gives them a head start on viewing customers' files; computers match incoming calls to the phone numbers customers gave on their credit applications, and the records automatically appear on the operator's screen. American Express reportedly once tried having operators greet callers by name, but the Orwellian implications made customers uneasy, and so it gave the practice up.

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So, umm, so umm, whaddya look like, Debby?

I'm around 5-foot-2. . .

Ummm, that's nice.

Brown hair, brown eyes . . .

That's nice. . . [much louder] . . . OK, Marty, your office, 2:30, I'll be there. [click. silence.]

Hello? Hello? Hey, what was that all about?

[Pause. Third voice.] His wife just came home, sweetheart.

Voices in the night, or for that matter the middle of the afternoon; the unbearably banal chitchat of people avoiding the point. The back pages of local newspapers are filled with phone numbers to call to alleviate loneliness. Sometimes the loneliness is generic; more often it is for a voice that will fill a jarringly specific hunger. They are known, optimistically, as party lines. For as little as a dime a minute, you are hurled anonymously into a chattering mob of others who share your obsession--or, perchance, a staticky electronic void in which one other voice is calling, faintly, "Hello." The anonymity is not accidental; few of these people ever really meet. They are fulfilling the true and highest purpose of the telephone, the real reason why we press those buttons: to reach out and touch no one, to be alone with our numbers in the night.