Enmeshed By Ever More Messages

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Perhaps I am getting perplexed on the message front. Or it could be my usual simple-mindedness. But a message I sent the other day to an editor - actually, I spoke it to her voice-mail - was, on reflection, a good message except for one minor point: It made no sense at all.

She had never received a previous message, which I had left on her voice-mail 10 days earlier. "But I did send it," I insisted. Interestingly, her immediate suspicion was of my message-sending competence, while my immediate suspicion was of her machine. A generational difference, perhaps. "Did you wait for the beep?" she asked kindly. "Yes I did," I replied. Very politely, I refrained from adding: "I'm not your granny."

This was not the first time she had failed to receive messages from me, so I said: "Tell you what, I'll record another one right away, now, just to make sure your machine is working."

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I did. In it (after the beep) I said: "Elizabeth, this is the test message. Please let me know if you don't receive it."

OK, I can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake. I admit that it wasn't until deep into the following night that I woke up with an uneasy realization that my test message was totally nonsensical.

I suppose it was characteristic, like that other absurdity I find myself committing when I am on a platform addressing an audience. "Am I audible at the back?" I enquire. "Please do raise your hand if you can't hear me."

I've noticed that nobody ever raises his hand. They don't seem to get the message somehow. I can't think why.

IT is scarcely surprising that one is bewildered, message-wise. Our brave old world is awash with messages, the getting and the sending of them. A mess with messages. And a mass of these messages, surely, go amiss. There are just too many of them. Messages have become so ubiquitous, that - have you noticed? - the very word "message" has taken on a new and pushy life as a verb: "to message."

"I messaged you!" people sort of yell at you, almost as if it's an accusation. "I messaged you! Don't you read your messages? Don't you listen to your messages?"

Keeping up with one's messages is increasingly a task in itself. You come home after an afternoon out, and there are five recorded messages on your answering machine, some of them reinforced by fax messages. If I dial a certain four-digit number I am instantly "welcome to British Telecom call-minder," a system that stores up even more messages for me. Then the screen on my mobile phone signals me that I have missed one message. My computer, linked to the head office, can accrue 15 messages or more in a couple of days. After a week's vacation, reading the message mountain is like tackling "War and Peace." The "delete" key can be very handy.

It is the sheer opportunity today for sending messages that boggles the mind. It is so unskilled, so unspecialized. Anyone can send messages. All the old methods - the drumbeat and smoke signal, not to mention ocean-launched bottles, carrier pigeons, telegrams, telexes, postcards, letters (and even, potentially, telephone calls and faxes) - are being subsumed, we are told, in the biggest message-melee of them all, the Internet.

Why on earth is the sending of messages such a pre-occupation? Are we worried that we might lose touch with each other? Or was Marshall McLuhan right to argue that it is the medium that is the message (or, as he later modified it, "the massage")? Did he mean that it is the comforting elegance of the technology itself that makes the sending of messages so significant? The sending is all. What the messages say hardly matters by comparison.

I am having these thoughts partly because - at long last some may say - I am poised on the brink, the very cliff-edge, of enmeshment in "the Web." I think I want this to happen to me ... don't I?

From where I stand, the Internet looks like a burgeoning global catch-all of messages. Are they worth sending? Are they worth receiving? People tell me my new computer will let me access untold wonders of information, impossible on my old equipment. Cyberspace is to be my oyster. From now on I can e-mail anyone and everyone at any time of day or night. I hope they're ready.

But the real question is, am I - confirmed techno-peasant that I claim to be - ready?

My editor, baffled no doubt by my aforementioned message, answered it anyway, by office e-mail. I came across her reply yesterday, a week after she'd sent it. I thought I had better catch up with my messages. She wanted me to know that my recorded paradox had reached her safe and sound. And she ended her message with a long line of exclamation marks. I can't think why.

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