My friend Earl Babbie has a slogan at the bottom of every e-mail. It says: “kth Law of Cyberspace: We are all, as individuals, in over our heads.”
We sure are. That explains why people are having to hide from each other. Good ole Earl prints his address and phone number right there in plain sight, despite his apparent anxiety about being too much “in demand.”
I am easy to contact too, but that accessibility does impose extra burdens. I have to spend far too much time weeding out junk mail and telephone solicitors. And I’m just a normal individual. Imagine the burden placed on celebrities and organizations. No wonder they hide from us. You don't expect to get the address or phone number of a movie star, of course, but you cannot even contact the editorial office of most magazines. Go to their web sites and you’ll not find their location, e-mail address, or phone numbers. Articles, yes. But contacts? No way. If you want to submit an article, for example, tough luck! I have just now spent over one hour searching for the book review editor of Psychology Today. Eventually I gave up. Even the New York phone directory cannot find them.
Consider my university. Twenty years ago my department had a secretary whose main job was to answer the phone. Then came voice mail. I was chairing the department but my office was downstairs. To get information that I needed right away, I had to walk upstairs. In fact, there was not a single phone number on the whole campus that ordinarily would be answered by a person. I once phoned on the morning of a big snowstorm to ask whether the parking lot had been cleared, but I couldn’t reach anyone to ask.
The same goes for government offices. I was running a conference a few years ago and some of my European speakers had urgent problems requiring a wire from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs authorizing their visit. That building in Ottawa (see photo) contains some 6,000 employees, but there is no one who answers the phone. You have to enter the name of the person on your keypad, and if you don’t know who is covering, say, the Bosnia desk, there’s no way to find out. I spent two hours trying, that morning. Eventually I phoned the secretary of the foreign minister at parliament, not the ministry. She made some phone calls for me, bless her heart.
It is entirely understandable why people and organizations want to protect their time from useless junk communications. Yet by sparing themselves this unwanted contact, they waste the time of perfectly nice people such as you and me. The total amount of time they save is far less than the amount of our time they steal by making us wait in queue or even search for addresses and phone number.
I call this a social problem. Technology is wonderful when it works. It is now too hard to master. My technically savvy assistant has spent all week trying to set up a new computer system for me. It’s still slower than the old system because it’s too complicated. But then if the technology works, it should be making life easier for us but that very ease encourages people to send messages frivolously. We bother each other so much that everyone has to hide. Two weeks ago I bought a handbag on eBay. Today there were messages from the seller, from eBay, and from the Chase Bank, some of which imply that some of the other messages are hoaxes designed to get me to supply my PIN number and password, which in fact I think I have done. I can’t tell who is lying and who’s authentic. I’ll probably have to change my password on a lot of accounts. I wish I had never bought anything on eBay. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in paying for the purse, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a bad rating as a dishonorable customer because I cannot figure out how to fill in the forms they required.
What’s the answer? Honesty would help, and self-restraint in communicating. But the creators of technology need to recognize the value of simplicity. I cannot learn to use my cell phone. It’s just too complicated. I cannot play the DVD tonight; something complex has happened to it too. The remote control is unfathomable. My wireless laptop is not working because of interference by someone in this apartment building. Microsoft Word has become far too complicated. I am using an old version because the newer ones give me grief. They even change what I have written into different words that I never meant to say.
But besides simplifying technology, we have a right to expect some people to make themselves available. Private citizens have the right not to have e-mail or even telephone service, if they so choose. But we have a right to expect more from businesses, universities, and government agencies. It should always be possible to get through to a human being within one minute. What we need is a social movement demanding that kind of accessibility from every organization with whom we do business.
You start it and I’ll join it.