May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Johnny and Ed used to argue annually over which animal was smarter, the pig or the horse. Or maybe they argued over which animal was dumber. Whatever. In somewhat the same spirit, I like to defend television when people around me are trashing it, by saying the telephone is by far the more insidious invention. No television set ever woke me from a sound sleep to sell me a magazine.
Why couldn’t Alexander Graham Bell have minded his own damn business? No, no, he had to go poking around like a busybody in matters Man Was Meant to Leave Alone. He came up with a device capable of penetrating and indeed obliterating the once-inviolate walls of that once-sacred fortress, the home. Once the phone got in, the floodgates were open. In fact, the gates were long ago lost to the flood.
So now my local telephone company is trying to get my long-distance business and sending me plaintive letters, and my long-distance telephone company is trying to get my local business and sending me plaintive letters. I suppose I could just switch the two of them for the fun of it, but actually, not even in my pathetic excuse for existence would that qualify as fun. They’re both incompetent at what they do, but that’s no sign they’d be competent at doing what each other does.
It would be a stupid and meaningless exercise, like, say, having Katie Couric and Jay Leno switch jobs for one day, with Katie hosting The Tonight Show and Jay hosting the Today show. (If that sort of insane absurdity really were to happen, the odds of The Tonight Show’s getting better and the Today show’s getting worse are approximately 10 million to one. Mark my words. Go ahead, get out a marker and mark them. Lord knows editors do.)
My lousy long-distance company likes to call me at 7 in the morning, when decent people are still asleep (except for those hosting morning shows and collecting garbage, of course), and wake me up to tell me that my payment of 47 dollars and 32 cents is one day overdue. Clearly the lousy long-distance company is on a short tether if my 47 dollars and 32 cents have become that crucial to its existence. I cannot tell you the name of the company but its initials are A-T-T. Not necessarily in that order.
Meanwhile my lousy local phone company used to be known by one name and then grew larger and was known by another name and then grew larger still and is now known by yet another. With each step in growth, service gets worse. The company’s growing larger is largely a result of an attempt to make the original great big telephone company smaller, breaking it up into smaller companies that immediately commenced getting huge.
It was a federal judge named Harold Greene who presided over the case that resulted in the breakup of what was at the time the world’s largest, yet surprisingly efficient, corporation. For years I privately cursed the name of Harold Greene for what he had wrought but then, in 1998, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and his obituaries revealed that he’d had a magnificent and brilliant career, playing a key role in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while working at the Justice Department. In addition, he came to this country from Germany as a refugee from the Nazis.
So, OK, it isn’t Judge Harold Greene’s fault that my local telephone company gets bigger every day but never better; the commercials do get ever-more impressive and lavishly produced, I’ll say that for the company.
The same company provides service for two business lines I have in my home office-or it did. One day I woke up to discover the account had been “slammed,” which I think means poached by another company. That company started sending me bills and nasty letters. I had done nothing and had no inkling a change was coming.
I called the old phone company and asked them to please stage a raid or something and get my account back because this new strange pirate company was much worse. And here is what happened: I was told to call a private number somewhere in Pennsylvania and leave a message. Yes. The person at this private number was for some reason in charge of trying to retrieve accounts that had been stolen away in the night by such companies as the one that snatched mine.
Alas, the private number’s voice mailbox was full and I couldn’t even leave a message saying “Help!” It’s all completely nuts and it sure doesn’t fortify one’s faith in corporate America. It’s another reason, as Johnny and Ed might put it, that the telephone is dumber than the television.
Progress in TV technology is continuing, as the cliche goes, apace. We do already have wide-screen TV available and great big plasma and LCD pictures to wow us, both definite improvements. Around the corner, where it has been waiting for 15 or 20 years, is high-definition television, proffering a thrillingly sharp wide picture. We might all have HDTV in our living rooms right now but for the fact that the Federal Communications Commission is so busy with other things, like ensuring that the concentration of media power gets ever more concentrated in ever fewer giant conglomerates. Somebody at the FCC has a screw loose, and I know what the screw’s name is. Judge Greene, come back! We need you!
Television, I love you. Telephone, I loathe you.