Fax Abuse and Other High-Tech Hijinks

THE owner of a 1990 Honda CRX was not amused: His car, he complained, didn't stop properly in the rain. When American Honda Motor Company checked his tires, the company found them "normal," dismissing his claim.

Frustrated and angry, the man threw a high-tech temper tantrum. In a single day, he allegedly called the company's toll-free customer hot line more than 100 times, clogging the phones. He also reportedly made harassing calls to another 800 number at the company. And in a final act of retaliation, he transmitted multipage letters to Honda's facsimile number, tying up the fax line for days.

When American Honda tried to contact the man, officials discovered that his number is unlisted. As a result, the company had to block all calls from his area code. It is now suing to prevent him from harassing the company.

Who could have predicted, even a few low-tech years ago, that the communications revolution would come to this, making it possible for one angry customer with an automatic redialer and a fax machine to tie the electronic hands of a big company? And a decade ago, who could have foreseen that in the waning days of 1991, Congress would need to pass a law protecting phone customers from automated telemarketing calls?

Yet these cases mark only the beginning of legal wrangles spawned by technology. Troubling signs exist that the newest form of air pollution is verbal, produced by loud callers brandishing cordless phones in restaurants, stores - even churches.

My own groan-and-bear-it list of high-tech intruders has grown in recent weeks. On a bus from the San Francisco Airport into the city, a man behind me chatted at length with someone in San Diego, reporting in boring detail on his flight, the weather, and his plans.

The next day, a woman making a purchase in a small shop was interrupted, mid-transaction, by a ringing phone in her briefcase. While she and her husband decided when and where to meet, other customers waited - and waited.

Back home, a businessman seated in the next booth at a suburban Chinese restaurant took obvious delight in making a loud and lengthy call about nothing in particular. Just when we hoped he was through showing off, he asked his friend on the line, "You wanna say hi to the boys?" and passed the phone to his companions.

It is enough to make a captive audience long for old-style phone booths with doors that closed or for new-style "No Phoning" signs that could become as common as "No Smoking" signs.

In the office, the fascination with technology produces other strange scenarios, some funny, some annoying. Again and again, publicists call my colleagues and me to ask for our fax number, even if the information they're sending isn't urgent. When they're instructed to mail the material instead of faxing it, they often act as if they've just been told to use the Pony Express. Yet if they could see the pages accumulating in the fax room, they might be less eager to rely on a high-tech device and more will ing to lick a low-tech stamp.

"Keep in touch the old phrase takes on added meaning with each new invention that frees users from conventional limits on time and space. But the communications revolution is also producing a communications rebellion. The same exhibitionists who make high-visibility calls in public may be among the growing numbers of people who, like the disgruntled Honda customer, zealously guard their privacy with an unlisted number at home. Nearly 30 percent of Americans now pay for unlisted numbers, a rate that reach es almost 60 percent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.

The Information Age has arrived with a vengeance, and the message it delivers on all the slick new machines is a troubling quandary: How to keep honest information from being buried under disinformation, sales pitches, and trivia. The arts of communication are too important to turn into a babble of electronic toys making more sound than sense.

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