Thursday, December 8, 2016

Answering Machine Stage Fright

Has technology changed our very personalities?

I mentioned in an earlier posting that our modern social media environment has forced us to become shameless self-promoters, hucksters, salesmen, and amateur celebrities.   Whether it is grooming your Facebook page by uploading (carefully chosen) pictures of your fabulous life, tweeting amazing thoughts in 140 characters, or creating YouTube channels where you are the star, we all have made ourselves into public figures, thanks to social media.

'Twas not always the case, though, in this country.

At one time, believe it or not, people had private lives in this country.  Private lives and private thoughts - thoughts that might have been kept to themselves or in a locked diary, but not tweeted and posted for the world to see.

What drove this home to me was thinking the other day about the early days of answering machines.  You may not recall this, but in the 1970's, answering machines first became popular for the average schmuck like you and me.  Before that, they were hugely expensive machines that only businesses had.  The advent of cheap cassette technology (and later, micro-cassette) meant that you could go to Radio Shack (remember them?) and buy a machine for under $99.   It helped also that regulations were changing and the phone companies were no longer requiring you to use their equipment - as well as the standardization of the RJ-11C phone jack - replacing the four-prong "modular" plug of years' past.

A funny thing happened, though.   I met people who were afraid to record the greeting on their answering machine as they had "stage fright".   They felt it was presumptuous to make an announcement like that, as if they were a radio or TV personality.  These same folks would also be "afraid" to leave a message on the machine if they called you.

You'd come home from work and find a message from Grandma going like this:  "Hello?  Hello?   Is this thing recording?  I don't know what to say......" or some other garbled message.   People just weren't as self-confident back then as they are today, and I really mean this.

Of the two, recording the greeting was harder, as you had to get your greeting into the allotted time period and do it in a voice that wasn't weird or breathy, and you had to be prepared to speak on cue after the beep.   A lot of people just couldn't handle it!  Some still can't - relying instead on the generic greeting that many VoiceMail systems now provide.

And of course, on my first answering machine (a huge thing the size of an attache case) my greeting was, well, sort of lame.  "Uh... Hello.... you have reached Bob... uh, like, leave a message...."

The era of cassette tapes is long gone, of course.  The answering machines have all long ago gone into the trash.   And today, we are a lot less shy about announcing ourselves to the world - through social media, videos, texting, tweeting, and so forth.   There is little room for shy people left in the world.

And of course, this took place over a period of time.   By the 1980's, people were less shy about self-promotion on their answering machines.  People made funny recordings for their greetings, or make joke greetings or whatnot.   You stopped hearing from people about being "too nervous" to record a greeting.

Maybe this was due to increased cocaine use.   After all, in the late 1970's and early 1980's young people in particular started caring more about how they looked and how they were perceived.  The grungy anti-materialism hippie look was out - in favor of the feather-cut and blow-dried penis-head haircut and designer jeans.  The VW beetle was out, the Monte Carlo was in.

With the advent of these answering machines and the newest technology - Pagers (beepers) - we all started to think of ourselves as Important People whose opinions were so valuable that we had to be accessible 24/7 (a phrase in an of itself, dates from that period).

By the late 1980's, cellular telephones became cheap enough that even a young law clerk could afford one.   We had important jobs and had to call in and check our VoiceMail (another feature that appeared on the horizon) because we were so damn important and what we said was important as well.   Driving a car, of course, was secondary.

Then, the Internet.   Now we had to check out e-mails 24 hours a day, and send off oh-so-important messages to one another.   Actual real work, of course, was less important.  And then, instant messaging, hand-held cell phones, smart phones, and eventually social media - first MySpace, then Facebook.

People who I knew were schmucks like me had fabulous lives on Facebook.  They changed their "profile" picture from what appeared to be a mugshot taken in a room with fluorescent lights, to a kicky fun photo that showed only half their face.   Clearly they were having a good time and not taking any of this seriously!

Grooming our images on the Internet became paramount.  And some people went nuts with this - thinking that an amazing life on the Internet was better than just living in the real world.   It didn't matter what you did or who you did it with, what was important was documenting it all for posterity (and your "Facebook friends") to make sure it all looked like you were having fun.

What is scary about all of this is not how it has played out, but where it is going.   Virtual reality and first-person-shooter video games, along with "fake news" are only the beginning of what could be a perfect storm creating an alternate reality that some people may never escape from.

Why indeed should you live an ordinary life, when you can escape into 3-D virtual reality where you can choose the avatar of your liking (why bother going to the gym?).   It is already clear that the Internet and social networking is addictive, the coming technologies may take it to the next level.

Of course, it has been tried already - "Second Life" tried to create an alternate reality with avatars and online sex (what really sells on the Internet).   It failed not because people didn't like it, but because they were trying to use a technology too advanced for the hardware of the time - people were still using AOL and dial-up modems, along with older PCs which could not render 3D graphics quickly enough.

The problem is, of course, that there really is no going back.   We are not going to revert to an "aw shucks" Mayberry RFD way of living - even if we wanted to.   But maybe, on a personal level, we can choose what level of participation we want to have in this brave new world.   Myself, I got off Facebook when I sensed that there was something fundamentally wrong and evil with it.   And I never understood twitter, which only seems to make the news when something awful happens as the result of it (no one will ever win the Nobel prize for a tweet, but on the other hand, you can lose a job, a career, a spouse, or go to jail over one).  It is possible to simply not accept some of this new tech, as they haven't made it indispensable to daily living (yet).

Maybe I should dig that answering machine out of the attic and plug it in again....