The busy signal

That bip-bip-bip you used to hear on a landline when your call couldn’t get through is usually heard only in the ghosts of old audio recordings, these days. You’re very unlikely to hear it on an actual telephone now that we have invented both call-waiting alerts and voicemail.

Its passing is mourned, however, by me, because with its demise also came the demise of a vital source of information. When you called someone and got the busy signal, it told you:

a) that the person you hoped to speak to was actually in the house, and

b) if you waited a little while, they would get off the phone to whoever they were having a conversation with and you’d be able to talk later.

Just a matter of being patient.

Of course, if you sat at your telephone table dialling and redialling for over an hour, you’d begin to wonder if the person would ever get off the phone. Or perhaps the person had knocked the phone off the hook and was blissfully unaware of the howling sound issuing from the phone to indicate that they had done just that. Or perhaps the person had fallen into a coma, knocked the phone from the hook as they toppled, and was now slowly bleeding to death on the kitchen floor…

But no. They’d pick up again later. Still alive.

Now, however, when a call goes to voicemail, this provides no information whatsoever (apart from the fact that you can’t talk to the desired person right now). It doesn’t disclose whether the person didn’t answer the phone because they’re not right beside their phone. (Unlikely; our communication devices often seem to be melded to our palms.) Perhaps the person is too embroiled in some physical or cognitive undertaking to spare the time for conversation. Maybe they have their phone, and are not occupied in the slightest, but just don’t want to talk to you. They don’t want to talk to you right now, maybe. Or maybe they never want to talk to you again…

You have no way of knowing what the situation is. You have to wait, and wait, in a desert of ignorance until your destiny is revealed.

The busy signal, though. That was a signal of hope.

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