Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Death of the Telephone Call

By Jennifer O’Connell

So there I was, busy doing what I am most often to be found doing on deadline day - eating chocolate, listening to iTunes, obsessively checking my Twitterfeed and waiting for some pictures to upload on Facebook, whilst reading an obscure article on how technology is shaping children’s language development skills - when something unusual happened.

The phone started to ring.

Not my iPhone, but the actual landline. It’s so long since I’ve employed this dusty old piece of technology, I had a moment of panic as I wondered where it was.

When I eventually founded the handset – somewhat amazingly, still plugged in - under a pile of papers on top of my desk, I started at the number flashing on the low-tech LCD screen. It was 14 digits long, and began with the numbers “0037..” Not my mother, so.

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“Yes. Hello?” I snarled. There was a buzz, and a click, and eventually the voice a woman who sounded as though she was shouting into a tin can.

“Hello, Mrs O’Connell. This is the computer services department, ringing about your computer service…”

“Not interested, thanks,” I barked, and replaced with handset back in the cradle where it will patiently await the next missive from Mumbai - leaving me to get on with much more important tasks, such as watching YouTube videos of flying donkeys.

There is perhaps no greater measure of how dramatically the world has changed than the death of the old-fashioned telephone call.

When I was a child, our family phone was a gorgeous, creamy piece of curviness that sat on its own dedicated piece of furniture in the hall. A silver referee’s whistle hung on a hook nearby, in case of ‘dirty’ calls.

When it rang, its peals echoed through the house and all three older children rushed to get it. “Hello, 74693. Who’s speaking please?” we would recite obediently.

It was usually my granny, or my Dad, calling from work, or one of my mother’s friends. One memorable Christmas eve, it was a slightly-tipsy sounding Santa Claus.

Sometimes, when we asked who was on the phone – as we always, always did - my Mum replied it was just George Michael, calling to order more of her famous apple tart.

By the time I was a teenager, we had acquired two posh, push button devices in complementary shades of dirty brown – one for the kitchen, and one for upstairs, which was surgically attached to my ear for the best part of four years. 

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I can still remember the phone numbers of most of my closest childhood friends, long after their faces have blurred.

Every important event for the first twenty or so years of my life was bookended by a phone call. Stories began on the phone, stories were recounted on the phone, and stories ended on the phone. When I got home from school or town, I would head straight for the kitchen, anxiously scanning every surface for the sight of the yellow Post-It that would reveal whether the world had ended while I was out, or more likely, that Warren had dumped me again. Both of which amounted to more or less the same thing.

There are funny phone memories too: the illicit reverse-changes call to my granny when I was an au pair in Germany at 16 to find out how to boil a potato; the prank calls my friend Elaine used to make on the coin phone when we shared a flat together in Dublin.

As a newly-minted journalist, I spent most of my days whispering urgently into a phone. By then, I’d acquired a mobile – my first an oversized, curvy, purple-and-orange Philips device, with a number that began ‘088’.

And it was, curiously enough, at about this time that my passionate affair with the telephone began to wane.

There have been memorable phone calls since – the time in 2002, when my then-boyfriend borrowed my mobile to ring my Dad and tell him he’d just asked me to marry him; the early morning in 2008, when I called my parents from a hospital bed to tell them their very tiny little grandson had just arrived unexpectedly early into the world – but most of the big news, along with all the idle gossip, the funny stories, the long moans about work or parenting, is imparted these days through other means: text, email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, Skype.

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have fallen out of love with the old-fashioned phone call. And research suggests I’m not alone.

Recent figures by Nielsen reveal that the average number of mobile phone calls we make is dropping every year, having peaked in 2007. And our calls are getting shorter. In 2005, they averaged three minutes in length; now they’re almost half that.

There’s a kind of irony in the fact that, in an era of always-on communication, there doesn’t seem to be any place for the old-fashioned phone.

A recent article in Wired magazine may explain why: “We don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It [itals]deserves[itals] to die.”

My four year old would probably agree. When her father was away on a business trip recently, I asked her if she’d like to call him. She promptly burst into tears. “I don’t want to talk to Daddy,” she sobbed. “I want to see him.” She meant via Skype.

Clive Thompson, the author of the Wired piece, points out the phone’s other shortcomings: “If I suddenly decide I want to dial you up, I have no way of knowing whether you’re busy, and you have no idea why I’m calling… Plus, voice calls are emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it’s so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one.”

This is all true – but wasn’t it always the case? So why is it only recently that the phone has come to be seen as such a rude, intrusive device? Is it merely because all this technology has conspired to make us less sociable? Or is it just because, other than Mumbai-based telemarketing companies, no-one bothers to actually call anymore?

Thompson predicts that the phone will survive in an evolved form, so that in the future it will allow us to show prospective callers whether we’re busy, or free to talk. He believes that video-chatting will become more common, that we will ‘call less, but talk more.’

Either that, or the clerk for Western Union will finally be proven right in his 1876 memo predicting that: "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday August 8, 2010.


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