Addicted to novelty since 2001

The Expositional Power of the Answering Machine

Since the popularization of answering machines in the 1970s, they’ve acted as excellent expositional devices in television, movies and plays. They enable a very efficient means of conveying information to the audience while the performers are free to do other things (snog, cook dinner, whatever).

The musical Rent, for example, puts the device to good use and comic effect, by having the leads’ parents call and sing harassing messages into the phone.

I just saw the excellent, off-beat character study that is Half-Nelson. The protagonist, played superbly by Ryan Gosling, has an answering machine. It’s put to work providing exposition and pushing the plot along.

The only person I know that still has an answering machine is a seventy-year-old woman. For several years, I’ve felt like answer machines only exist in Hollywood. That is, even though real people have switched to voice mail, their movie and television counterparts seem desperately attached to their whirring machines.

Admittedly, Gosling’s character is an inner-city American school teacher and crack addict, but you’d think he could afford voice mail.

I’m not saying they’re a lousy solution. They just seem to be going the way of the dinosaur everywhere except our movie theatres, stages and TV screens.

Do you use an answering machine? Don’t be ashamed, but you can comment anonymously, you know.

UPDATE: All right, let’s get slightly scientific about this. I created a little insta-poll so that we can compare the answering machinists to the voicemailers.

UPDATE #2: I hereby recant my conclusions and assumptions (ass, you, me, and so forth) about answering machines. Clearly, while my friends and family are just keen on the voicemail, they are aberrations in world that still digs the answering machine.

UPDATE #3: The poll was running really slow, so I took it out.

25 Responses to “The Expositional Power of the Answering Machine”

  1. Michelle

    Bahaha! My parents use an answering machine. They’re in their sixties. And my mother in law who is almost 80.

  2. j

    Since I am a student, as a cost saving measure, I do have an answering machine.
    Can’t wait until I’m working!

  3. NorthVanDan

    An answering machine can be accessed remotely and provides the same functionality as voice mail without monthly fees.

    I would use it if I had a land-line.

  4. sb

    Count one more answering machine user who is not 70! Although, to be truthful, I have begun considering voice mail recently due to (semi)frequent power loss in the winter here.

  5. darren

    Huh. Clearly I have just have a voicemail-centric group of friends and family.

  6. filmgoerjuan

    I use an answering machine as a) I don’t get many messages and b) I refuse to pay TELUS for any of their add-on services.

  7. Richard

    I don’t have voice mail anymore. I still pay for it, mind you–note to self, stop paying for services I don’t use–but it’s broken and I never bothered to ask Fido to fix it.

    And I feel better for it: it’s faster for me to call someone back and ask them what’s up than it is to check a message.

    (The movie Sneakers has a significant scene involving an answering machine, but I won’t ruin it.)

  8. Andrea Coutu

    Before I got married, I had an answering machine. I reasoned that I was saving enough on Telus fees to buy a new machine every year. However, I eventually relented and saw the benefits of being able to receive voice mail while I was on the phone.

  9. Andrea Coutu

    Before I got married, I had an answering machine. I reasoned that I was saving enough on Telus fees to buy a new machine every year. However, I eventually relented and saw the benefits of being able to receive voice mail while I was on the phone.

    I still know at least three people within 2 blocks of me who have answering machines. No ideas whether this is geo-specific!

  10. Anthony

    I am one of the many hundreds? thousands?? who still use an answering machine. I do not wish to give the mony grubbing monopoly Telus anything more than I have to for the crap they call service.

    Oh and I am a very youthful 41… Darren maybe you need to widen your circle of friends include a few answering machine folks maybe.

  11. Brian (Shadowfoot)

    I’m using an answering machine again. While I had dial-up internet it was good to have voicemail. I decided to save a few dollars a month and cancelled it. The first maching I got answeree the phone too quickly so I lived without anything for a couple of months.

  12. Dustin

    Before I had a cellphone I always had an answering machine. It’s much cheaper (in the long run) and it lets you hear the messages as they’re recorded (so you can pick up if you want).

  13. Tom

    Both… I have voicemail on my Cell Phone, but on my landline I have an Answering machine.

    I’ve had my Digital Answering machine for close to 13 Years (I’m 31, it is one of the first items I purcahsed after moving out to school at 18). I have Vonage service that gives a Voicemail box, but I find I check my messages quicker when I see the blinking red light when I come home.

    I suppose when it breaks I’ll make the switch completly.

  14. James

    Score one more for the answering-machine household. I like coming home, seeing the blinking number, pushing the button and hearing the message.

    Voice mail offers no competitive advantages to me and I find it a pain to call a number to have a computer tell me what to do.

  15. Mike

    I hate voicemail. To check my messages takes me roughly 437 button presses, and I can’t skip to the end of the message when one of my smart ass friends decides to leave a ten minute message that says, in essence, “What’s up, dude?”

    My answering machine is easy: if the light is blinking, I have a new message. I press one key to hear it, and another to skip it when it turns out to be phone spam. Much better UI.

  16. Patty Foster

    I also have an answering machine for my land line. It’s cheaper than the add-on service and I can also call screen better as I can listen to a message as it’s being left and make a decision as to if I’m going to answer it at that point. I don’t usually do that but if I’m home and sick I don’t really want to crawl over to the phone to answer it unless it’s reallllllly important.

  17. Todd

    I have three friends I can think of who have no voicemail for financial or social reasons (I get along with angatonistic people), so it wouldn’t surprise me to get an eternal ring.

    I’m always surprised when I get an old-skool answering machine picking up the call, and even more surprised when I see them in stores. I have no special reason to use voicemail other than that I don’t have to deal with another machine.

  18. Jen

    I had an answering machine until I got Vonage (which has voicemail included). Mostly for the (popular here) reason that I didn’t want to pay telus for their voicemail fees.

  19. Travis

    I switched to voice mail once answering machines stopped using tapes — the digital recordings were crap, so I might as well get the added convenience of digital crap at the phone company level.

    Before that, I used to save many of my answering machine messages, incoming and outgoing.

  20. Jenn

    My boyfriend has an answering machine as where he lives in the NWT, there is no voicemail. The best part is hearing the message the previous owners recorded as he can’t figure out how to work it. I’m not even sure he knows how to pick up his messages.

  21. pat w.

    I had no idea anwering machines were regarded in such ageist categories. Well, here’s a 72-year-old who own up to owning one, and shoppping for a Christmas gift answering machine for my kids. I’m having no luck in my research so far, but came across your website in doing so.

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