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Technology is calling but some let it ring awhile

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2003

The woman coming toward the door of our Dade City office the other day looked a little frustrated.

"Do you know?" she asked, "where the nearest pay phone is?

Not long ago, that wouldn't have been a tough question.

There used to be pay telephones on several street corners in Dade City. There were a couple more in restaurants and bars.

It was never that hard to find a telephone if you needed one.

But the only answer I could come up with was that I thought I had seen one at a convenience store about 2 miles away. Instead, I just let her use our telephone.

It's too bad she didn't ask about mailboxes. I know there aren't any of those around.

Whining about it won't help, and I'm sure the U.S. Postal Service wouldn't appreciate my pointing out that it seems to us consumers that every time they ask for a rate increase we get a decline in service.

Mailboxes began disappearing several years ago, and now we pretty much have the choice of either driving to the post office or hoping our mail carriers will pick up outgoing letters and bills we leave half-in, half-out of our home mailboxes.

It all makes online bill payment and e-mail more and more attractive and creates a sort of chicken-or-egg syndrome.

Did mail service decline after the convenience of e-mail cut into revenues, or did a decline in mail service lead to increased dependence on e-mail?

Did the increased use of cell phones lead to cutbacks in pay telephone availability, or were cell phones invented by someone who got tired of waiting for 45 minutes behind someone conducting his or her entire love life from the parking lot of a convenience store?

As usual, technologically influenced social changes are felt first, and most, by Luddites like me.

After finally giving up and learning how to use it, I learned to appreciate the convenience and rapidity of e-mail, but there are some things (like packages) that still have to be hand-delivered, and some letters that should be written on paper, maybe even with wax seals and perfumed stationery.

Some day someone will probably learn how to rig a computer to spritz you with Obsession as you read, but it won't be the same.

On the other hand, I noticed during my single days that e-mail was perfect for letters involving dumping or being dumped. I got an e-mail one morning terminating a relationship, dashed off a quick reply confirming reception and reciprocating bests wishes for a happy future, and the whole thing was over with by lunch with no tear-stains or agonizing waiting periods involved.

Also, for those of us who live on the fringes of financial security, there are the joys of what we call "the float," which is the period between when you mail a check and when it is physically returned to your bank for processing.

The benefit of the float is largely imaginary. It gives you a chance to feel good about having paid a bill that is just the tiniest bit overdue, although you will generally find out that your creditors' computers don't care how you felt and nail you with a late charge.

It can also be a handy way of "borrowing" money by writing a check for funds that you hope will be in the bank by the time it arrives there. That works sometimes, but it can also make you more familiar than you wish with your bank's overdraft policies, and if you do it too often with the wrong folks, you get to say hello to Mr. Felony Investigation.

I have, so far, remained true to my desire to never own a cell phone, simply because I don't want to be available all of the time, or to have to explain why I wasn't, but I can envision a day when there might not be any other way to make a call.

I guess I'll adjust. I got used to sound systems with control panels that look like the cockpit of a 747, a television remote with more buttons on it than an accordion, a car that nags me to fasten my seat belt and remove my keys, and pharmacies so technologically advanced that they have managed to turn the 20-minute task of filling a prescription into one taking six hours.

But I don't have to like it.

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