The other day while I was on hold listening on speaker-phone to both sides of a Fifth Dimension album while trying to set up a new healthcare policy, my thoughts flitted back to Florence Krine. A friend of my mother some 40 or 50 years ago, she was my harbinger of future shock.

Florence loved people. She loved to chat, to network, to give more than receive. To supplement her bookkeeper’s wages and to take a break from numbers, she worked for Mountain Bell (what Ma Bell was called in my native Colorado) answering a helpline for customers setting up new phones. Feeling engaged, she next took on trouble-shooting calls with the perplexed who bought General Electric appliances and Butterball turkeys. Eventually this led her to the advanced skill of compassionate calming on the hotlines for Poison Control and the Good Samaritans.

Playing Florence Nightingale by phone, Florence Krine felt she was making a difference in the lives of others. But there was a darker reason she was doing this. She feared for the future — a time when computerization and cost-cutting measures would deal a deathblow to human interaction.

Yes, Florence had her feet planted firmly in another era, right next to my mother’s. This was an era where Florence was as natural a name as Ida (my mother), Edith, Estelle, Maxine, Laverne or Shirley.

Fifty years ago, Florence had just seen Colossus: The Forbin Project in which a super-computer wages war on the world. Seeing this film on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey did not make her a fan of high tech’s iron-heeled advancement in our society. In fact, she said she had dreams of strangling robots.

Florence’s lament was quite simple: computers will replace people. There will be fewer jobs. There will be less understanding of our needs. Robotic exchanges will make it harder, not easier, to communicate. They will stifle nuance and ignore tone. Educated guessing will become a footnote in the history of conversation. All this will mean more frustration, more stress, more melancholia. And, of course, there’s the additional conundrum posed for the hard-of-hearing and the arthritic-of-finger.

And so it came to pass. Florence Krine’s nightmare is now our reality. Her fears are among today’s stumbling blocks on our way through the day. The more I am forced through the looking-glass of the internet or put on interminable holds, the more I wax nostalgic for the era of Florence. But that’s not good for my health. The world has changed and demands I change with it.

My mother, already given to anxiety and mis-hearing, was one of the first defectors. As soon as a simple call to the local pharmacy kicked off with a recording telling her to press 1 for this or 2 for that, she slammed the phone down. She did what? Now there’s something else you can’t do anymore! Instead, she would physically go to the pharmacy, as long as she was able, to speak with a human. This was the sane way to get her medications and her questions answered.

Sadly, we have accepted the diminishing returns of diminishing human contact. It’s bad enough when we’re not in a pandemic. But now, with personal involvement a mere memory, making a business call is like walking into solitary confinement. Instead of human interaction, we fall down a rabbit hole, looking for Alice, any Alice.

Florence as phone helper knew she would be sorely missed. She foresaw the danger of dehumanizing effects. Now I too fear her greatest fear — that the ultimate goal is to have robots on both ends of the phone call.

So am I truly alone? Are you feeling a similar sense of loss?

I’d like to help you out but I may lose my place in the queue on hold waiting to find out what “Package Delivered” means when there’s nothing outside my door but a deer grazing on what the turkeys didn’t eat.