Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The End of the (Phone) Line?

Author Charlie Stross muses about the possible end of telephony: "while voice telephony hasn't outlived its usefulness yet, but if we don't find a solution to the spam problem the end is in sight."

The spam problem, oh, yes. Remember when spam used to be shit posing as mail? I haven't had a spam message in my email inbox for so long I'd almost welcome one for the comic relief. I remember those messages used to say things like "Peenizz ENLXXARGEXMENT IN TWO2 DAYS!!!" At least six years. It's been at least that long since I've been bothered by so much as a single unsolicited email.

I get unsolicited phone calls every day. Often several times a day, and sometimes into the later hours of the night. We tend to power down this household at 8 or 8:30 p.m, and if the phone rings much after that I assume somebody's dead or dying. Yet telemarketers think nothing of calling at 9, 9:30, even later, and why would they? It's probably midmorning in Bangalore where they're calling from.

These calls come despite our having signed on to Canada's joke of a DNC registry, which, as it turns out, has so many loopholes it may as well not exist at all.

In fact, it's a safe bet that if the phone rings in this house, it's not worth answering. We subscribe to Call Display, even though we're charged to do so (and this in itself is one of the great Canadian scams; it costs money for the telco to block that information!) It's invaluable in that it lets me know at a glance whether or not the ringing phone is going to get my attention. (Telemarketers who may be reading this: did it ever occur to you people that if you call my number seven hundred times and  I never once pick up, it's because I have no interest in talking to you? No, of course it didn't.)

In case you're wondering, no, I don't pick up the phone and scream at them, much as I admit I'd like to sometimes. There are two reasons for that: one. I really can't be bothered to expend that much negative energy; and two and more importantly, I've been on the other side of the phone. Market research isn't telemarketing--in fact "sugging", or selling under the guise of research, is strictly illegal-- but most respondents seem to think it bears a suspicious resemblance. Telemarketing is soul-crushing work. We'd be doing more than just ourselves a favour if we outlawed it.

Many of my readers have moved to outlaw telemarketing themselves simply by ditching their land line. An increasing number of Canadians rely solely on cell phones and/or VoIP for their communications needs, and as Stross notes in relation to himself, an increasing subset of those people rarely if ever actually speak into a phone at all. I find Mr. Stross's reliance on text messaging to be especially ironic given that he has often publicly complained of carpal tunnel.

I will not ditch my land line. As it happens, I just ditched my cell phone--a long overdue move given that I haven't seen it in six months and haven't used it in well over a year. (I happened to run across it, but do you think I could find the cord to charge it?) Maybe if I cared, I'd have put more mental effort into keeping track of the location of cell phone and charger. But as you might have guessed,  I can't seem to care about cell phones. I view them, in fact, as a plague upon humanity, proof that our species is sick and getting sicker every day.

This comment from an anonymous guest on Stross's site:

"I find voice telephony inherently rude. There is an assumption that a unilateral decision by someone else to talk to you should be immediately agreed-to. The first thing I say when I call people is "Is this a good time to talk?"

Maybe my life has grown too static, but my friends and especially my family know when "a good time to talk" is, and that's when they call me, and if they make the effort to make that contact, I consider it rude to ignore them. Texting, to me, is infinitely ruder by sheer volume. If you had to place a telephone call every time you wanted to express a thought, you'd soon be ripping every telephone jack out of the walls of your home....but God damnit, my pants won't stop vibrating. Worse, imagine if you were engaged in a telephone conversation and you could never get half a sentence out without being interrupted. You'd have to back up and start your thought over to incorporate the interruption...then like as not have to do it again. And that would happen every time you called somebody. Hey, it happens every time I text: I'll be busily mashing my thumb down on seven keys at once when an incoming text renders the half sentence I just managed to stutter out completely irrelevant.
Let's continue this mad analogy: suppose that unless you paid very close attention to every phoneme you uttered into a phone, odds were pretty good your caller would hear something completely different from what you meant to say. Something potentially highly embarrassing: imagine if, for instance, you'd last called one of those numbers, and your phone ever-so-helpfully stored up everything you said only to spew it back out to your grandma the next day. How would you feel about your phone then?

And work, you know, that place you're always stressing and complaining about, what if they could (and did!) call you any ol' time they felt like it, whether you were home, in the car, sleeping, cuddling your spouse, or whatever?

And yet all of this happens with texting, and it is by far the most common communication method in use today, and its every flaw is either ignored or giggled over. Humans. I'll never understand them: even being one doesn't seem to help.

Telephony, as Stross notes, is essentially free: 2400 bits a second is an infinitesimal amount of bandwidth nowadays, and even international calls cost next to nothing to make happen. (My phone bills from September 1990 through April 1991 never got below $300/month, and I never once called anyone outside Canada and only rarely outside Ontario. How times have changed...then again, our media bill is more than that now, so maybe nothing's changed at all.)

"Essentially free" is a magnet for spammers, of course. Which means my phone will be ringing off the hook. Sigh. Stross and his commenters (who skew highly intelligent; unlike most Internet comment threads, his are always worth reading) go over the various workarounds: a whitelist (phone automatically rejects all calls except from numbers I specify); various filters ("you're attempting to reach Mr. Breadbin, please press the number corresponding to...six..minus...four...now" which would kick out autodiallers); various other solutions. The problem comes from legitimate calls from unknown numbers. They tend to be important. Your son's phone-slash-wallet-slash-identity was stolen and he as to call you using a friend's cell, or a payphone (remember those?) You never thought to whitelist your aunt, and she's hurt and needs help. A blacklist is much harder--there are practically an infinite number of spam number combinations out there. But still doable thanks to the remarkable amount of data-mining done now. There are apps that will screen any incoming call and instantly assess its validity. That's free, by the way, thanks to the do no evil folks at Google.

Free for now. Wait until Bell Canada gets a hold of it.

The Scrabble analogues on Facebook--including Scrabble itself, as of just recently--now thrust ads in your face, Really annoying ones. Then they tell you you can shut them off for a whole week (!!!) just by getting three friends to sign up and see them. Telemarketing isn't quite the scourge advertising is--I see so many ads in a day that my eyes have long since learned to simply edit them out--but it's a profitable scourge, or it wouldn't exist. I can very easily envision Bell Canada charging the telemarketers for a business license and the use of whatever hellspawned equipment they need...and then charging each customer a fee, akin to how your bank soaks you for ATM usage. "Pay just $5.99 a month and ten telemarketing calls will magically not get through to you."  Pay $10.99 and we'll guarantee every caller on weekdays has a reason to call you besides trying to sell you something."* *between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. only; conditions apply.

I live in Canada. Any solution will cost dearly, because Bell and Rogers and Telus, aka ROBELLUS, and its lackeys in government,  make sure that there ain't no such thing as a cheap or even a "moderately expensive" lunch. Welcome to Canada. At the sound of the beep, please bend over and assume the position."

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