Ode to WorldCom's failure

Sometimes, schadenfreude is OK, especially when the target is a rude telecom company that dreamed of world domination.

Published July 13, 2002 8:11PM (EDT)

A year and a half ago, I had a vision in the desert. After a day in the parched heat of Anza Borrego, I saw the future, and it frightened me. But now, with the once-mighty WorldCom crumbling into dust, this future -- or at least the version of it that came to me in a flash at a bank of pay phones -- shall not come to pass.

In the future of my desert vision, there would be two telecom titans (Americans are fond of competition, at least in name if not in fact) lording control over the whole of the planet. One of the slouching rough beasts would be WorldCom -- a company whose name touted the ambitions of planetary rule upon which the corporate empire was founded. Telephony, the Internet and all things that rely on it would be their domain. As a desert encounter with an MCI pay phone using an MCI calling card made clear to me, the company would have the power, and they would be mean about it.

It's no secret that when WorldCom giant-stepped about the world stage dispensing with niceties such as the mother-may-I when it came to signing up customers (they were lambasted for switching long distance customers' plans without permission), they bore their arrogance with pride. And rightly so. After all, look at what they had achieved already.

Emboldened by the Telecom Act of 1996, in 1997 WorldCom -- a company from Mississippi with a small-town frog hit-the-big-time attitude -- swallowed a frog far larger, MCI, by coughing up some $30 billion in stock.

A friend of mine who landed a not-bad-at-all paying job with MCI right out of college back in the '80s decided he was outta there after the merger. He said the culture of the place changed, that it wasn't a matter of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Work became an unkinder, ungentler place. The business press may have hailed the swashbuckling Ebbers' modus buccaneerandi, but my buddy didn't sign onto a pirate expedition.

As for those customers: Even with those who intended to sign up for WorldCom's services, the company earned the remarkable reputation of having twice as many customer complaints as the pin-droppers at Sprint or good mother AT&T. Including me, of course; I was a willing if unwitting customer, there in the Anza Borrego desert.

After a day trek up Wildcat Canyon in the 80-degree December heat, I was still basking in the glow of the beauty of the landscape and clarity of the air, with the sun setting over the mountains. I went to the bank of pay phones in the campsite where I was staying and tried to call a friend in San Diego, thinking of dropping in on my return from the desert. I tried calling him on the so-cheap-it-must-be-barely-legal prepaid calling card I carried in my wallet, but a friendly computer voice which I imagined as HAL's younger female cousin informed me that legislation prohibited me from making calls to California from California using that card. The state line was still a ways away, so I decided to use the prepaid Walgreen's/MCI card I also carried. (How it got there I know not.) The phones were provided by MCI, too. Surely this had to work.

I'll spare you the blow-by-blow of computer noises and failed dialing attempts. Upshot: The card wouldn't work, the local operator couldn't help me ("I can't dial a number from here," she said -- whatever happened to operator-assisted calls?) and my call for assistance from MCI customer service was a bust. The snotty lad on the other end of the line for WorldCom -- let's call him Brad -- said the problem must be with the phone. In fact, as I informed Brad, there were a pair of phones and I'd tried both. While Brad never said he couldn't put a call through for me, he made it clear he wouldn't. "If I were you," Brad said, "I'd go use another phone."

"Thanks for the advice, Brad," I said. "But I'm in the desert. The nearest phone is 12 miles away." Which was a bit of an exaggeration -- it was three miles -- but necessary to make a point.

The point here being: When I was a lad and the first astronauts were hopping about the surface of the moon 33 years ago, I understood that in the bright, gleaming future before us we would have cars that could fly. Heck, we already drank Tang, just as the astronauts did. But when I was in the desert, hanging up a handset in despair on that MCI phone, the vision I saw of the future was something like Terry Gilliam's in the movie "Brazil," with investor-owned WorldCom cast in the role of bullying Central Services. I returned to my tent, vowing not to let the despair gnawing at my soul get the better of me, and thinking that if things got really bad, my family and I could tune in, turn on and drop out. It was possible to live without phones. When I was chasing the big story of the end of the 20th century in the former Soviet Union, I lived in Ukraine for a few years -- and I knew plenty of people there without phones.

Today, though, I can't help but feel there's a new morning in America. We still don't have cars that fly, and the cities of the future will no doubt look less like "The Jetsons" than "Blade Runner." But I'm planning a new trip to the Anza Borrego desert, where I will clandestinely install a plaque beside a pay phone, inspired by a poem P.B. Shelley published almost two centuries ago about "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" found in the desert. A pedestal near those hunks of rock declares:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

If I put myself in stone Ozy's shoes (wherever they are by the early 19th century), things look pretty bleak. And if I put myself in the shoes of those who led WorldCom's bid for world domination, here in the early 21st century I despair again. (For I too once harbored ambitions of world domination, played out on a Risk game board.) But if I put myself back in my sandals, unbooted after a day of hiking in the desert, standing at a pay phone and haunted by my vision of the future, I am filled with WorldComSchadenfreude: joy at the suffering of WorldCom.

Not at the workers who lost big-time, as Vice President Cheney might have put it, through the company stock option plans. But in the big picture, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, Freude! -- the word the chorus repeats over and over in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" -- is a little more accurate description of my emotional state of being in the post-WorldCom daze.

By Steven Boyd Saum

Steven Boyd Saum is lives in Oakland, California, where he serves as editor for a public affairs forum. He has recently completed a novel about Nikita Khrushchev.

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