In my lifetime telephones have evolved from heavy, unreliable fixtures – rarely more than one to a home – often with shared lines – to a communications – recording- paging – caller identifying device which lives in our cars, travels in our briefcase, dominates our workplace, and is available in virtually every room in our homes, boats, RV’s.

Cordless, candy bar sized instruments keep us perpetually connected to the world. Some accept voice activation and require no hands to operate. Virtually all are equipped with voicemail. I have so many phones in my life that I need a plastic bound directory in my wallet to keep track of just my own numbers.

Has all this technology improved our lives? – made us happier? - conserved our valuable time? I think not. We seem to have abandoned civility – created a potential holocaust on our highways – boorish behavior in public places – and interrupted play in front of royalty at the All England Club.

In times gone by real people, for the most part, answered phones and were usually courteous. Answerors in business, social services, professional offices, and even government were expected to sound pleasant and trained to help any caller who was buying, selling, looking for information, making an appointment, or trying to locate someone.

Cost cutting, full employment, ego enhancement, outright sloth, have conspired to produce the voicemail – call waiting – who’s calling? – syndrome, which makes calling anyone a gut wrenching ordeal.

Whether a doctor, dentist, lawyer, masseuse, personal trainer, lawn service, car dealer, airline, bank, insurance company, IRS office, or even police – chances of getting other than a recording are only 1 in 10. If a real person answers they will not be pleased at being asked to do something.

Asking to speak to a specific person guarantees the rude, curt, WHO’S CALLING? response – as if the answer will determine your worth and subsequent right to be connected.

Identity yourself, and you will be asked your company affiliation, or the nature of your call.

Give your name, company, nature of call, person sought, reason sought – the answeror only then will reveal that your party is unavailable and will suggest his or her voicemail – the final barrier to human contact in a world where everyone appears to be on the phone all the time.

At one time knowing someone’s direct dial number could finesse the gatekeeper or answering machine. Chances of connecting were good. Today, calling direct reveals your party is either away or on another call – offering a choice of voicemail or O for assistance.

O for assistance is one of the cruel jokes in our high tech lives. At no time in literally thousands of attempts has O for assistance delivered a real person – rather another recording indicating that Joan, Sally, or Sam are not available – suggesting Joan, Sally, or Sam’s voicemail.

Even more frustrating is the growing number of businesses, institutions, and organizations who have completely eliminated people on the front line. A call produces a recording, which puts you to work asking for the first few letters of the party’s name. If this finally results in a ring, a new recording offers voicemail and the O for assistance dead end.

Several years ago the only phones were in homes and offices. People who called got no answer if no one was home and tried again. As you didn’t know they had called there was time available for reading, painting, exercise, or just relaxation.

Today before hanging up our coat or fixing a drink we check our voicemail – to list the dozens of attempted calls, and numbers needed to return them. On average two-thirds of the returns will be greeted by recordings suggesting another try.

Add car and portable voicemail messages to the projected growth of the cellular industry, and it won’t be long before we spend every available minute listening to and leaving recordings, resolving nothing.

Add call waiting, the intrusive click which asks the real person you are finally talking to, to wait while you take another call, and you have chaos.

The telephone, designed to make it convenient and pleasant to communicate, has become a formidable barrier – a substitute for human contact.

Adding e-mail to the mix enables us to never leave our homes. Actual face-to-face dialogue may cease to exist.

If our country, even for one week, were to shut down all answering machines, to decree that only real people can answer phones, our robust economy might collapse. We might, however, find we eliminated a huge layer of largely unnecessary and unproductive work. At the very least, it could again make the phone fun.