Saturday, 25 September 2010

American Cell Phones, American Voice Mail, and the Phasing Out of Money

WEDNESDAY: No, I haven't died, and I haven't fallen down the stairs again or been run over by another bus. I've just been away on a rare holiday. I considered keeping up on my blog while I was away, reporting on my non-sandwich lunches consumed thousands of miles away from Sheffield while being inspired by holiday-type subjects. But most of my holiday was spent in Internet-free zones.

Where on earth, you might wonder, could this be? The Antarctic? A tiny uninhabited Pacific island? On the shores of the Sea of Tranquillity on the lunar surface? Nope. It was, er..,Southern California and Seattle. Strange but true...

It was probably mostly choice on my part that I didn't find many opportunities to log on while I was away. I was too busy doing other things, like having a holiday and stuff. You know, those things we used to do before the Internet.

But this week I'm back in Sheffield, back at work, back eating my Wensleydale, pesto, and sun-dried tomato sandwich in the Winter Garden. And I can use this time to reflect on the things I learned about America in 2010.

It's a different place from when I used to live there in the previous century. It's even changed from my last visit three years ago, especially in the area of electronic technology.

For one thing, some Americans are finally learning to send text messages on their mobiles. Well, one American is, anyway: my friend Barb. All of the other mobile phone users I encountered were still speaking into their phones, often at deafening volumes, even if only to say, "We'll be there in five minutes". What is the point? When I'm in a public place I'd much prefer to hear the tap-tap-tapping of a dozen sets of fingers than a dozen loud simultaneous monologues, all directed at little pieces of plastic. Perhaps stopping the invasive din of phone conversations in public hasn't caught on yet because public spaces are so much bigger than in the UK.

But American phone technology has passed by the UK in one respect: everybody seems to have Caller ID, so land lines are just like mobiles in that respect. And I was extremely impressed when my friend Barb and I were watching TV at her house, and a message suddenly appeared in the corner of the TV screen saying my mother was phoning at that moment. Is that way cool or what? Or at least way frightening?

On the down side, American voice mail has become even more infuriating than the UK version. First of all, the recorded voice gives you not just 3 or 4 button options to press, the last being for "all other enquiries". When I phoned the airlines to change a detail of my return flight, I was offered 10 options, and not one of them directed me to either where I wanted to go or to a Miscellaneous Enquiries option. So I repeated my call and pressed a random number and then more random numbers, eventually reaching a female voice that seemed to care. But it was a recorded female voice, and I was asked to speak my answers.

"What is your reservation locator number?" the recorded voice said.

"A-T-V-S-J-T," I replied.

"You said 'X-R-U-W-N-O'. Is that correct?"


"I'm sorry. Please repeat the number."


"You said 'Are-Ex-Oh-You-Why-Em'. Is that correct?"

"No, it isn't, you f***ing bitch! Can I please talk to a human being?!"

A young male voice, seemingly live, finally replied, and I was able to change my reservation. But only after a major battle with a female robot.

THURSDAY: I'm back in the Winter Garden, and I've got a very busy houmus sandwich. I say busy because it's with cracked peppercorn cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, red pepper, spring onion, dried parsley, and cayenne. And all of these ingredients are getting on just fine and having a wonderful time in my sandwich. I can almost taste the laughter. It makes me want to hold my sandwich up to my ear and see if I can hear the conversation. But I won't, because there are already enough scary people in the Winter Garden today.

There is a trend in the UK toward phasing out cheques. I suppose it's because so many people use cash and credit cards and direct debits and deposits for their monetary transactions that writing cheques for goods and services is becoming a paper-wasting anachronism. I'll admit I write maybe one cheque every year or two, and it's almost always to pay for a takeaway because they don't take cards and the local cash machine happens to be broken.

In the US, however, they seem to be phasing out actual cash. Although I was fortunate enough, thanks to frequent flyer miles, to fly across America in First Class, I did notice that in the Economy section of my flights, even though everything costs money now including pillows and blankets, they don't accept cash -- only cards. Even in Boston Airport, in the pub where I popped in for a between-connection pint, there was a sign announcing proudly, "We accept cash." Wow. You mean I can actually pay for my pint using currency? Isn't that a bit risky?

Pulling out a 10-dollar bill I handed it over to the barmaid. And she gave me some dollar bills in return, and even a couple of coins. Considering we weren't in an episode of Star Trek, it just seemed so natural.

If America does phase out the use of cash, what are people going to throw into fountains? Their debit cards? And how will people make random decisions? By flipping a credit card? Oh, wait -- there's an iPhone coin-flipping app we can use when we no longer have the real thing. And considering all of the other available iPhone apps -- such as virtual playable guitars and drums, a virtual flickable cigarette lighter, virtual rollable dice, virtual tug-of-war, virtual fireworks, a virtual whoopee cushion, virtual bubble-wrap popping, a virtual fireplace, and a virtual tanning bed -- not to mention virtual-life communities on the Internet, we can gradually phase out real life altogether. And then we won't need any form of money.

I'd better order my Star Trek uniform soon...

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