Let's talk about the telephone and the state of the art of talk technology. Really, I'd prefer to talk to you face to face - to see the gestures, grins and grimaces that accompany all those words. That's what I call Real Talk, face-to-face talk, the old-fashioned kind.To set the stage for a talk technology discussion, I must confess straight out that I am one of Ma Bell's stepchildren, kind of a Cinderella of all this talk technology. The telephone gene was left out of my DNA package. In the area of talk technology my growth and development have been badly stunted and I score very low on the TQ test (that's Telephone Quotient and is similar to the IQ). In short, I can actually live without a telephone, though my husband insists we keep one in the house.
The basic function of the telephone is to communicate and to transmit information. I respect that. And, truly, there is nothing more luxurious and fulfilling than a long talk on the phone with a good friend or close relative. But I do not understand how or why the telephone has taken control of our culture. And I wonder what in the world all those people talk about as they drive around town with telephones hanging off their ears. Being retarded as I am in the TQ department, I must say I get in my car quite often to escape the incessant ring - the ring that pierces brick and stone walls when human voices can't. I picture Hell as a place where telephones ring all the time.
An old Ernie Kovacs TV skit sums up my relationship with the telephone. At any rate it's classic Kovacs, for the black and white TV screen, circa 1955. Ernie, chomping on a big cigar, is bent over his desk intently working on piles of paper. Bushy black eyebrows and mustache moving up and down, he shoots paper airplanes into ``in' and ``out' boxes and occasionally he shoots a paper airplane out the window. He is hardly making a dent in the mountains of paper.
The big square desk telephone is jumping up and down, ringing incessantly. Finally, in a slow, deliberate way Ernie sits up and straightens his bow tie. Methodically he opens a desk drawer and, big black eyebrows arched, removes a revolver. In perfect Kovacs form he takes slow aim at the clanging telephone and - Bang! - scores a direct hit. The phone is still. Ernie methodically replaces the revolver in the drawer and returns in silence to his paper work.
Today, telephone technology has gone way beyond the straightforward innocence of Ernie Kovacs' big black square desk telephone. It seems as if we're dealing in words by the pound around the clock, voluminous piles of wordage, millions and trillions of seemingly important words. Silence is an endangered species. And I wonder if by the year 2000 we'll even remember the sound of silence.
There is call waiting, three-way calling, call forwarding, conference calls, loud speaker phones and speed calling, not to mention the answer phone.
Speaking of answer phones, I recently recorded all the conversations in our house one Saturday morning on the answer phone. But, of course, being of very low TQ, I don't even know how I did it. (This was a humbling experience. Our uncensored conversations were less than edifying.)
But I reserve my full wrath for the car telephone. I used to call it sacred time when a husband and wife could take a trip in the car alone and have a Real Talk, with no distractions. That's face-to-face talk about important family matters. With no escape hatch for either party, you had to face the music and work out those thorny family problems.
That sacred time for husband and wife is a thing of the past. On a recent trip to Chapel Hill, my husband, armed with car telephone and telephone books in the front seat, asked me to look up numbers, dial them and then take notes on his conversation as the car wobbled off onto the shoulder of I-85 and back. Coming home, I pretended to fall asleep. Sleep may be the only sacred time left amid all this talk technology.
If we're stuck in a Telephone Age, we at least ought to invent some appropriate new products and awards. A silver teething rattle in the shape of a telephone receiver would be nice. Baby could then get accustomed to the feel of the phone in those important early months. After that, why not a little toddler phone. It would be a cellular model that would fit discreetly in a lunch box and let her stay in touch with Mom during those long mornings at preschool.
A very modern touch would be to have a micro-mini telephone receiver surgically implanted in the ear. One would never again be bothered by sore, aching and inflamed telephone ear.
We would have the Alexander Graham Bell award for the Talker of the Year, the person who logged the most consecutive hours on the phone in one sitting. We could have the Collegiate Telephone Awards, awards for college students whose phone bills for one semester exceed the tuition.
Of course, there ought to be a support group for those people who feel left out of the Telephone Generation. The group could meet regularly using conference calls. Naturally, there should also be remedial courses for people like me who can't figure out how to use talk technology for their own betterment. And special memory exercises to help us remember who is on which line when using call waiting.
Meanwhile, in answer to the question, ``Can we talk?' I say: Sure, but let's have a Real Talk - the old-fashioned, face-to-face kind. It's so much more satisfying seeing all those gestures, grins and grimaces that go with the words.
Ann Brown of Greensboro is a free-lance writer and former high school English teacher.