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The Message in Voicemail

April 14, 2002

Once upon a time there was a society where real people answered their own office telephones. They lifted the receiver, curious to know who was calling. "Hello?" they said. They talked to the caller, back and forth, just like a conversation. When done, they hung up and thought that was normal.

If the call recipient was absent, a co-worker jotted a message on a small piece of pink paper. "While You Were Out" slips accumulated until the person came back and politely returned the calls. If calls came after closing, no one answered; that was the signal no one was there. So you tried tomorrow.

Almost 30 years ago Gordon Matthews was in Colorado attempting to call a Dallas co-worker. He phoned. No answer. He phoned again. No answer again. Matthews noticed a nearby pile of phone messages. "When I see something that irritates me," he said later, "I invent something to fix it." From those unanswered rings, the pink reminders and Matthews' fertile mind came one of the most amazing, helpful, annoying, frustrating, timesaving, maddening and ubiquitous modern conveniences: voicemail.

Like most inventions, it solved problems and created others. Voicemail revolutionized American workplace communications. It altered business manners. It added to the depersonalization of life, allowing us to do more while relating less. Envisioned as an efficient way for employees to communicate, voicemail evolved into an all-encompassing corporate communications network, answering phones, delivering messages to multiple parties, forwarding and storing messages, creating personal reminders. It also developed the dubious ability to route callers through a baffling array of recorded options to save staff money and test the patience of the most loyal customers. (To learn more about voicemail's inventor, push 1 and keep reading.)

Most important to some minds, voicemail enables millions of Americans to deal with each other without actually talking. If you time a call properly after-hours, you can do all your business talking by yourself on a machine with no threat of contradiction or personal interaction. Someone may be doing that to you right now at the office.

Three dozen patents are held in the name of voicemail's inventor, who said he never approved of the impersonal voicemail permutations. His own home phone number in Texas is unlisted. Matthews died recently of stroke complications at the age of 65. The office voicemail message with that news got erased soon after his February death. But the impact of the little-known man's mind on our lives will be stored much longer than 60 days. (Push 2 to repeat this editorial. Or simply return to the top.)

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