Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Wrong Number, Please


The history of electronic irritants began when someone realized people would answer wrong number calls, especially at supper time. Before caller ID, no one knew who was calling, and calls were relatively infrequent. This one might be important.

In old movies, there’s a telephone next to the bed. It was answered in the middle of the night because a call then had to be important. Who would call at that hour if it wasn’t? (In those movies, it was—unless it was a drunk.)

Very few homes had more than one phone. (That is, one phone line; extension phones were not uncommon.) Back then, families ate supper together and few could resist a ringing telephone.

So telemarketing was born and prospered. Of course, it was hard to make really big bucks because those calls cost money: phones, phone lines, people making calls, and a boiler room to put them in. Then came computers.

Now, thanks to powerful, cheap computers—and specialized software—the cost of telemarketing is next to nothing. Yet, it still costs far more than its prolific descendant: spam.

Computer calls are so cheap, telemarketers don’t care if they get a wrong number, if you never pick up, or even if you’ve blocked their number. It’s so frickin’ cheap they just don’t care. Spammers care less. And the law is even less interested.

As costs keep decreasing, electronic irritants will keep increasing. Worse, they’re becoming smarter. Telemarketers track when you’re home (busy phone line). Spam gets trickier, with varied subject lines, source emails, text, and links.

What does this means for our future? As advertising becomes cheaper to deliver, there will be more of it. With far more spewing out, they will care far less how much is off target. It’s a numbers game, even if it’s a wrong number.

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