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Aug./Sept.'04 Articles:
The SHAC 7 & Democracy
Editorial: Kerry: The Only Option
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
Conflict in Space?
Moore Truthful Lies
Remembering Ronnie
(music reviews)

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Ordering Back Issues


by Morris Sullivan
Contributing Editor

You've reached Our Father Who Art in Heaven. If you know your party's five-digit extension, you may dial it at any time, followed by the pound sign. If you do not know your party's extension, please listen to the following menu...

In the beginning was the word. A few ticks later on the cosmic clock, voice mail arrived, followed shortly thereafter by call routing.

I'm writing about voice mail because I'm trapped in an endless loop of call routing and voice mail. I need to reach an elementary-school principal for a fluffy back-to-school news story. Once upon a time, there were receptionists. A good receptionist was worth her weight in gold (they were almost always female, because women sound better on the phone than men; that's why call routing computers have feminine computer voices.)

Naturally, they were too expensive, so they were replaced by computers. Thus am I trapped in this limbo between extensions, one leading to the other and none leading to the human to whom I need to speak.

I remember as a child reading science-fiction stories in which people were replaced in the workplace by robots. In some of these stories, the robots freed us soft machines from labor so that we could enjoy endless leisure. In some sense, that vision has come true. People who answer phones have all but been replaced by computers that answer phones, thus making it possible for the rest of us to write opinion columns while on hold.

I am ashamed to admit that I helped contribute to the growth of telephone answering technology. Back in the 1970s, I was in the office supply business. A wholesaler of typewriters and adding machines added a line of Code-A-Phones to their inventory. I didn't order any for stock, but I had a few customers ask me to special order answering machines for them, which I did. They were notoriously unreliable–tapes jammed, power flickered and they shut off, and sometimes they just plain didn't answer or play back.

The answering machine, I thought, was a trend doomed to a brief existence. I was wrong.

...If you are praying for the health or safety of a loved one, press one; for help with a problem at work, press two; for help with a final exam, press three...

A little over nine years ago–July of 1995, to be exact–the first "Notes from the Cultural Wasteland" was published in a now-defunct Orlando tabloid, Tabula Rasa. I didn't realize when I wrote that first column that it would be the first of many. By the end of that first year, however, I had a mission for the column: I would chronicle and comment upon culture at the turn of the millennium.

Thus this year marks the beginning of my tenth, and last, year of that chronicle, and I have decided to use this year to wrap up "Notes from the Cultural Wasteland." In the process, perhaps I'll find a new mission for a new column.

A lot has changed since 1995. Technology has long driven cultural changes: Gutenberg's printing press, which made information available to the masses, is a good example. Today's equivalent is digital information.

...If you're praying for the soul of the family dog, cat, or parakeet, press three four...

Modern technology is a wonderful thing, except when it isn't.

Around the time I wrote that first "Notes from the Cultural Wasteland," I had my first experience with digital music recording. A didgeridoo-playing friend of mine and I were asked to underscore a video PSA for a film festival. We went to the state-of-the-art sound studio at a local television station, where a recording engineer miked my guitar, the didgeridoo player, and the voice talent. He had us run through the commercial spot live a few times, just to get a sense of it, and taped it just to have later.

For the next few hours, we made digital recordings of the guitar part, the didgeridoo, and the voice-over. The engineer would later assemble a final version from the individual digital tracks. The next day, we assembled to hear the tape.

The digital data disappeared, explained the abashed engineer. Somehow, it hadn't been saved to disc. They had to use one of the live takes. It sounded just fine.

...If you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and you feel NO evil, press three five. If you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and you feel SOME evil, press three six. If you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and you feel A LOT of evil, press three seven. For all other prayers, please dial zero for an operator...

Voice mail is the Antichrist. E-mail spam is the apocalypse.

Technology has made many things possible that, even in 1995, were hardly imaginable. For example, technology makes it possible for former President Bill Clinton to ask me for money–not just once or twice, but every day, which he has done by e-mail since the Democratic National Convention began.

It also makes it possible for people I don't know to suggest that I need Viagra, then offer to sell me some. It even makes it possible for people to contact my mom offering to enlarge her penis.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and one of the last true holy men walking the face of Earth, is said to love modern technology, especially the Internet. For $96.50, you can see and hear the Dalai Lama speak on world peace at an arena in South Florida in September. Reservations are available through Ticketmaster at

Granted, it's cheaper than a Britney Spears concert, but there is something disturbing about paying almost 100 bucks to listen to the Dalai Lama speak–and there's something damned weird about being able to buy access to the Eightfold Path through Ticketmaster.

Our operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you have received this message during those hours, then the operator is assisting another supplicant. Please listen to the following menu: If you are praying for the health or safety of a loved one, press one; for help with a problem at work...

A friend gave us a phone. "Hey! You guys are into retro stuff, right? I have this old phone," she began. "It works. But you have to dial it, and it's really slow."

The phone is a "modernistic" style in a shade of pinkish-beige found nowhere in nature. I don't know how old a phone has to be to be considered an antique. I can't remember the last time I dialed a phone: sometime in the '70s, maybe? Anyway, if not an antique, it is at least quaint. And it does indeed work. In fact, it works damned well.

Since that phone was manufactured, I've probably tossed into the garbage 30 or 40 phones, each higher-tech than the last. The antique phone feels substantial, the sound is clear, and it is likely to last until the end of time. There is, I admit, a little crackle I hear when I use it, but it is a warm, friendly crackle that makes me feel a little nostalgic.

Of course, hooked a caller ID unit to it. I can't imagine answering a phone without first knowing who's at the other end.

Hi. This is God. I'm not available right now, but your prayer is very important to me, and I will answer it as soon as I can. If you are praying for the health or safety of a loved one, press one; for help with a problem at work, press two...

I have a hummingbird that comes to my yard. I noticed her one day trying to eke out enough sustenance to sustain her incredibly high metabolism by sucking nectar from some little weedy flowers that had sprung up in my yard. I decided to put out a feeder for her, and now she comes to visit in the cool of the evening.

Funny how birds can let you know what they want. I took a break from writing to sit on the porch with a glass of iced tea. My hummingbird came to have a drink with me. I'm not very good at keeping the feeder filled, unfortunately, and it was nearly empty and full of ants. She poked around in the little plastic flowers on the feeder, then rose up and hovered in front of me, chirping that strange little buzzing chirp hummingbirds have.

It had been a long day, and I was tired. But she's just so damn cute, you know? I got up and refilled her feeder. She came back and drank with me for awhile, obviously pleased her message had gotten through.

She'll be migrating south soon, I guess. Somehow–God knows how hummingbirds do this and survive–she will fly off and catch a breeze that will blow her across the Gulf to Mexico. In the meantime, however, she'll keep visiting me and letting me know when I've neglected her feeder.

She'll do it without voice mail, call routing, e-mail–or even words.

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Previous Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns

Other articles by Morris Sullivan: