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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 1999 /18 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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In these busy times, why not bring back a certain buzz? --
INFORMATION OVERLOAD is threatening to drive everyone insane.

It has become so overwhelming -- the world bombarding people from all directions, nonstop, all the time -- that the new cry in the land is a plea for simplification. How to shut out the voices, the data, the e-mails, the noise? How to isolate oneself, arrange for a little tranquility?

There seems to be no easy way. You're on the phone doing business for 20 minutes, and by the time you hang up there are seven more messages on your voice mail. You come to the office in the morning and turn on the computer, and there are 127 electronic messages that have arrived since you last sat at the screen. You go home at night and try to have a pleasant long-distance conversation with an old friend who's living in the town where you both grew up, and if it's not your own call-waiting that keeps clicking in, then it's his.

All the technology, all the uplinks and downlinks, all the satellite connections that have enabled anyone in any part of the world to be instantly in touch with anyone anywhere else in the world . . . and it's vaguely unsatisfying.

Like that phone conversation with your old friend -- by the time he's gotten off the line three times to check who's on call-waiting, by the time you've clicked off four times to do the same, you've forgotten what it was you were discussing. Your impulse to catch up on old times, to enjoy a leisurely talk, has been chopped up into hurried bits and pieces.

And all that e-mail that's always waiting for you? You glance at it, speed-read it, store it or delete it and move on to the next. It's like a pie-eating contest -- the contents of the individual pies don't matter at all, they exist only to be consumed and tossed aside. There must have been a time when you loved the taste of pie, savored every bite -- but in a pie-eating contest the rules are changed, just as, in the e-mail era, the rules of human discourse have been changed. Move 'em in, move 'em out.

Is there a solution? Can the same brilliant technological minds that enabled us to be so constantly in touch with each other come up with a way to give us some peace?

Actually, the technological device is already there.

Most of us have just forgotten about it.

The solution to information overload? The key to calmness?

The busy signal.

Yes. A return to the busy signal -- which once was the ultimate do-not-disturb sign -- would cut the amount of communication that goes on to a fraction of what it is now. All of the things that the information revolution has accomplished -- the seamless flow of voices and numbers and messages around the world, at the speed of light, 24 hours a day -- would suddenly be logjammed.

Call a person who's on the phone? You can call -- but the person won't answer, because he or she won't know you're on the line. Leave a message? No -- instead of hearing a voice-mail greeting, you'll hear a busy signal.

Send an "instant message" to someone who is working on his or her computer? The computer won't accept the message -- its owner is already doing something on the screen. Try back later, when the computer, and its owner, have chosen to rest.

Would this be frustrating? Incredibly so -- for the person trying to call, for the person trying to reach the computer.

But for the person who chooses to re-engage the busy signal, it would feel like a vitalizing surge in personal power. The busy signal says: I have chosen to do one thing at a time. The busy signal says: I will concentrate on what I'm dealing with right now, and if you'd like to try me later, I may concentrate on you. The busy signal says -- and in a divided-affections, divided-loyalties, divided-attention-span age, this is a hugely controversial statement:

I'm busy.

Would the return of the busy signal cause you to miss some calls, to lose out on some messages?

Yes. No question about that.

What about the really important calls? What about the messages that you truly have to receive?

You will. In due time. If they genuinely are important, the bearer of those messages will soon enough get through to you. That's the definition of something being important: It will get to you, no matter what.

Everything else?

Buzz-buzz-buzz . . . .

The symphony of the busy signal. They're playing our song.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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