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Rest Stop on the Information Superhighway

October 20, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to the Times Orange County Edition. (T. Jefferson Parker is on vacation; his column will resume in this spot Nov. 3.)

Doesn't the perpetually "just-around the corner" information superhighway strike you as being as lost in the distant future as the Santa Ana Freeway completion? I got so tired of waiting that I finally concluded that, if I lower my expectations sufficiently, the highway is already here.

The vaunted superhighway is supposed to use our telephone lines to bring us a broad array of interactive learning, entertainment and shopping experiences. My phone already has that. They call it telemarketing.

Like anyone smarter than a toaster oven, I used to really resent these intrusions on my privacy. When I'm in my little castle I want to settle down in front of the TV and watch commercials and movies with shameless product placements, not listen to sales pitches on the phone.

As far as I can tell, these people calling must have gills, because they never stop to breathe as you and I must:

"Good evening Mister Washburn how are you tonight the reason I'm calling is to let you and a select few number of persons in your community namely everyone except chinchillas know about a limited offer to subscribe to Putsch the Germanic humor magazine which if you subscribe now comes with a free musical beer stein and a portion of your subscription goes to help chilly cheerleaders into their sweaters can we count on your continued support?"

I'd typically respond: "Excuse me. Could you repeat all that? I had a tongue in my ear."

Years ago I made a tape of my voice I'd play into the mouthpiece when these people called. I made it with anticipated pauses and responses to try to give the telemarketer the impression he or she was actually talking to someone.

As might be expected, there would be uncomfortable gaps, interruptions and non-sequiturial responses aplenty. It was appalling to hear just how much some people were willing to compensate to avoid realizing they were talking to a machine. It was still more appalling to sometimes hear my prerecorded voice inadvertently agree to buy whatever snake knives they were hawking.

These days, with the right attitude, I find it's not a chore but a challenge to interact with my new telephone buddies. Some moments lately have made it worthwhile. For example, a Pacific Bell representative recently called to try to sell me on some of its extra services.

"I see you already have our Call Waiting feature," she began, as if we're supposed to be delighted that the phone company turns our records over to sales-commission commandos. "I'd like to mention some of the other services we offer such as blah blah and blah."


"And are you aware of the advantages of our Call Screening feature?"

"Well I know that if I had it I wouldn't be talking to you right now."

In the sparring of telemarketing phone chess, that evidently counts as a checkmate, since the pitch halted there. These are the kinds of retorts I usually think of long after the fact, but I think this interactive stuff is honing my skills.

My favorite phone person to pester is a passing acquaintance, a guy who once sold me a guitar amp. That tenuous connection is evidently sufficient for him to accept me as a brother, since he keeps calling up with tremendous offers for me to get in on the verdant ground floor of various health elixir multilevel marketing schemes he's involved in.

"Jim, this company is really doing it right, with high commissions and none of the underhanded stuff of the other multilevels."

"By other , you mean like the one you were so hot for me to buy into three months ago?"

"Well that one changed . This organization is . . . " and he started reeling off percentages and nets. Finally he described the product: $89.95 bottles of a green powder made from plankton, wheat grass and probably old Otter Pops.

"Let me cite some case histories, Jim. A Mr. C.K. began taking Green Bluxphena, and after three weeks his lifelong asthma cleared up. Mrs. L.M. said Green Bluxphena made her arthritis disappear. Chronic fatigue sufferers report being reinvigorated by drinking it."

"Boy, that's great! Have they tried using it on dead people?"

The phone lines are but one of the many electronic avenues into our homes now, the latest being these new $800 satellite dishes the size of a hubcap that are supposed to carry hundreds of channels of entertainment.

Add that to the phone-linked superhighway, cable TV and whatnot, and you realize that soon we'll have far more channels than there are things to put on them. Eventually, they'll have to put TV cameras in everyone's homes and we'll just watch each other all the time.

If that happens, I'm determined to be prepared. I'm already having business cards made that read "Jim Washburn, Media Giant." I also went and got myself a radio show, which I'm finding isn't necessarily as much fun as starring in your own comic book, in case you're ever faced with a choice between the two.

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