At this time of year, we think about getting in touch. People you haven’t talked to in 30 years emerge from the woodwork to ask what you’ve been doing since you were college roommates all those years ago. And many of us will pick up the telephone to talk with faraway friends and relatives.
To do that, we’ll dial a phone number. That number might be a Skype or Yahoo ID. But it’s still something we have to keep track of. And today, when everyone has an ever-increasing number of phone numbers and IDs, that task gets harder and harder. I have four phone numbers plus three IM IDs.
I’m trying to get everyone to use my Grand Central number, but all these people out there know my other numbers. And I can’t get the people who call me most frequently — my friends and family — to use the number.
They can’t be bothered to learn it when they already knew the others. There’s no percentage in it for them. I suppose I could re-train them by not answering any other number, but, quite frankly, that’s too much work.
So I was thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if I could just pick up the phone and ask for, say, Marcelo, instead of looking up his phone number. Sure, I can program it into my phone. But that’s just one phone. And I have three.
So when I was leafing through an old magazine — a 1941 edition of Woman’s Home Companion, to be exact — one particular ad caught my interest.
It was from the American Telephone & Telegraph Company and titled “Recipe for Happiness” and showed a happy little telephone gnome waving a spoon. Leaving aside the obvious “the more things change the more they stay the same” point here, this particular recipe illustrated how technological innovations — like telephone numbers — don’t necessarily mean progress.
The “recipe” goes like this (I’m abbreviating):
Think of a friend you haven’t seen for ages.
Wish you had the opportunity to make a surprise visit.
Pick up your telephone.
Say to the friendly operator, “I wish to place a call”
Tell her who and where (telephone number or address).
Wow, I thought, that’s the way it used to be. Call up the operator and ask for Voxilla in San Francisco. Instead of digging through that overflowing Rolodex or worsening your case of PDA thumbs.
It’s still like that in some places. For example, in the small down east Maine town where my cousin lives, you can call the operator and ask for people by name. Not only will the operator connect you, she’ll (and it’s still a she) tell you if they’re home or not.
Now, the other — dark — side of this pretty picture is the monolithic phone company stifling competition and innovation. And, as nostalgic as this ad may make me feel — and you can see my fondness for nostalgia in my interest in old magazines — I certainly don’t want to go back to the bad old days of dollar-a-minute long distance calls.
However, there’s something here to think about. We’re not going to get the friendly operator back. If we do, he’ll probably be in the Philipines and won’t know that Mary teaches until 4:30.
But many of the VoIP innovations out there come very close to giving us the simplicity of the old days. Imagine Grand Central’s “one number for life” married to Iotum’s relevance engine with voice recognition. In fact, VoIP technology could make calling even smarter than the operator.
My wish for 2007 is that I’ll be able to pick up the phone and say, “Marcelo at Voxilla” and the phone will reply, “He’s reading the kids a story right now.” And I wouldn’t dream of interrupting.