Editor’s note: William Dunk is an international business consultant based in Chapel Hill.

“Don’t hang up (No No)
Oh don’t you do it now don’t hang up (No No)
Don’t hang up like you always do
I know you think our love is true
I’ll explain the facts to you don’t hang up
Give me a chance or our romance is through
Don’t hang up, oh don’t you do it now, don’t hang up”

Once upon a time there was a photographer out in New Jersey who ran his business out of his house. Oft as not he was away on assignment, and his answering machine picked up random calls. You rang, and a few moments later you were greeted by the Orlons, some rock and roll greats, pleading with you not to hang up. Then photographer

Bob requested that you leave a message, your name, and a number, hoping perhaps for tons of business, more often looking for a good chat.
Life, incidentally, tended to hang up on the Orlons, who were decimated by cancer, respiratory disease, gun-wielding intruders, and a crummy record company.

Cell Phone

Since that time, the cellphone has taken over our civilization, and it has transformed us far more than the personal computer, reaching into every crevice of our existence, even more so now that it is hooked up to Blackberries and email. It is the perfect metaphor as well for modern technology, since we cannot tell whether it has improved or destroyed our lives. Digital intrusions—the personal computer, Nintendo, over-gadgeted cell phones—have made robots out of many, ciphers only stimulated by random bits of information that are blowin’ in the wind.

Eger Beaver

A marvelous fellow out at San Diego State University named John Eger, who is a professor of communications and emperor of the smart communities movement and who advised Presidents Nixon and Ford, thinks phones have enabled us and made us smarter. He finds that the cell phone is a tool of democratization, because it lets all the news creep around the community and then the globe even in dictatorships, and it has given the poor in developing nations a chance to join the global marketplace. “Perhaps more important, cell phone use in even the world’s poorest nations is experiencing double-digit growth.” He, as the Economist, believes mobile phones, which eliminate the need for intricate land line networks, are remaking the world, “reducing transaction costs, broadening trade networks and reducing the need to travel.” Eger thinks the digital, wired world as exemplified by Singapore makes us global, transparent, agile, more knowledgeable, and richer.

Smarter. Maybe.

We take the view that the impact of cell phones is pretty analogous to that of TV. We can all remember Omnibus and Ed Murrow, but notice that neither high culture nor evenhanded thoughtful journalism decorate the airwaves today. And there’s no Newton Minow at the FCC to push us back uphill. TV and cell phones had the potential to make a much better world, but instead, seem to have gorged it with mediocrity. They promised to make us gods, but we managed to use them to make ourselves even more mortal. Our many readers tend to agree with this more sober view.

Please Hold.

Phones combined with companies that don’t properly answer their phones have contrived to make consumers into cynics and to extract surcharges out of poorly served customers. Bill Heavey, a pensman at Field and Stream, has chronicled the trials of a hunter in pursuit of a deer rifle:

“Ah, Recorded Lady, you have returned after a short interval of toothless smooth jazz. You explain that my long hold time is due to “an unusually heavy volume of calls.” And yet this is the only kind of volume of calls your company experiences. You assure me that, even now, an army of customer-service representatives is engaged in hand-to-hand combat over the privilege of serving me. Meanwhile, exciting news! Did I know that I can register for a chance to win $10,000 just by signing up for DSL service? Actually, Recorded Lady, I do my lottery playing at 7-Eleven, just like everybody else.

“You underestimate me, Recorded Lady. I do not choose to try my call later, when hold times may be reduced. I am a Heavey, of Irish extraction, eldest son of my father, and cheap to the bone. Notice that I do not say “thrifty,” Recorded Lady. Thrifty is for dabblers and dilettantes. Among my people, cheapness is not a hobby but a vocation.”

As Heavey’s wit makes clear, phone systems and cell phones have often become an impediment to commerce. Lazy companies do not answer their phones, and ‘customer service’ becomes the dominant oxymoron of our new service economy.