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Phone Technology Sure to Inspire New Hang-Ups

June 27, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

There are a million telephone numbers in the naked city, and . . . No.

That's not true.

Actually, there are about 3.4 million telephone numbers in the naked city--well, in the naked county of L.A., to be precise--and this is the story of how things have changed for some of them.

Telephoning used to be such an easy thing. You picked up the receiver, you put your finger into a small hole and dialed in a circular motion the seven randomly assigned digits that stood, loosely, for Grandma or Best Friend or Love Object or Dentist. If the person you were calling wasn't home or the business was closed, that was it. You tried later.

Then came the answering machine.

A mixed blessing at best, the answering machine ushered in the era of electronic head games.

It became a stand-in for your self-esteem: You either felt loved when you walked in the door and saw the red lights blinking-- someone cares!-- or you felt invisible because no one-- not even a bill collector! --bothered to call.

The answering machine became a barometer of friendship: I call you and leave a message. You call me and leave a message. Eventually, everyone stops trying because, what the hell, we're already sick of each other's voices.

Some people get stuck in an era. They're still wearing puka shells or beehive hairdos, even though everyone else has moved on to Rolexes and blunt cuts. Personally, I am stuck in the answering machine era. It is the extent of my phone sophistication; it is where I stopped growing.

One of my younger single friends, however, is a state-of-the-art telephone consumer. I think she actually snorted the other day when I mentioned that I've not yet been able to figure out how to call home for messages. To her, this is the equivalent of making it through graduate school without learning how to tie your laces.

She can not only call home for messages but also can tell whether her friends have called home for messages.

Let's say, for instance, that she has left a message on a pal's answering machine. If the friend's machine kicks on after only one ring, this indicates to my friend that her friend's machine has messages that are piling up.

However, if she calls back later and notes that the friend's machine kicks on after four or five rings, she knows that the friend has either called home for her messages or has arrived home and listened to them in person. The fewer messages on someone's tape, the longer it takes for the answering machine to start.

In either case, she is free to take umbrage over the fact that the friend has not yet returned her call. The excuse, "But I've been away all day!" doesn't wash.

"You called in for your messages," my friend will reply. "You're busted! "

Busting people, in fact, seems to be where all the new phone technology is heading.

In March, Pacific Bell introduced a whole new range of customized services for consumers, and was stunned when half a million customers--more than three times the projected number--signed up. I'm sure Pacific Bell did not mean to complicate our lives any more than necessary, but the interpersonal ramifications of these services is stunning.

Dating, I dare say, will never be the same.

Call Screening allows you to reject calls from pre-selected telephone numbers. Had a fight with your boyfriend? When he calls from home, he'll hear, "We're sorry, the party you are calling is not accepting this call." So far, the phone company has no plans to allow consumers to personalize the rejection. My friend thinks it would be so much more effective if the caller heard, "Sorry, but the party you are calling is not talking to you because you gave her an annoying infection last week."

Call Return enables you to return the last call you received, even if you didn't pick up the telephone. Do you know what this means for people who like to anonymously check up on ex-lovers in the middle of the night? All the ex-lover has to do is dial a few numbers and his or her phone will automatically dial the number of whomever had the nerve to try to call at that hour.

Priority Ringing assigns a different ring to incoming calls from pre-selected numbers. Say you don't want to block calls from the jerk who jilted you. Say, instead, you want a more personal interaction. Priority Ringing allows you to pick up the phone and say, "I hate you," and hang up before the creep can utter a word.

It's not just local phone companies that are mucking around with issues better dealt with in psychotherapy.

MCI's "Friends & Family" service, which lowers the long-distance rates for frequently called numbers, nearly blew a whole relationship for another friend.

When she moved recently, an MCI representative called to make sure her "Friends & Family" list was current.

"We notice you've been calling a number on the East Coast kind of frequently," said the customer service guy. "Would you like us to contact this person to see if they would like to sign up for MCI, too, so you can add them to your list?"

"Are you kidding?" screamed my friend. "If he thought I liked him that much, he'd freak! "

But that was last month, and the romance has cooled. This month, she has Call Screening. And she's just dying for him to call.

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