The distaste for telephony is especially acute among Millennials, who have come of age in a world of AIM and texting, then gchat and iMessage, but it’s hardly limited to young people. When asked, people with a distaste for phone calls argue that they are presumptuous and intrusive, especially given alternative methods of contact that don’t make unbidden demands for someone’s undivided attention. In response, some have diagnosed a kind of telephoniphobia among this set. When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame: When asynchronous, textual media like email or WhatsApp allow you to intricately craft every exchange, the improvisational nature of ordinary, live conversation can feel like an unfamiliar burden. Those in power sometimes think that this unease is a defect in need of remediation, while those supposedly afflicted by it say they are actually just fine, thanks very much.
But when it comes to taking phone calls and not making them, nobody seems to have admitted that using the telephone today is a different material experience than it was 20 or 30 (or 50) years ago, not just a different social experience. That’s not just because our phones have also become fancy two-way pagers with keyboards, but also because they’ve become much crappier phones. It’s no wonder that a bad version of telephony would be far less desirable than a good one. And the telephone used to be truly great, partly because of the situation of its use, and partly because of the nature of the apparatus we used to refer to as the “telephone”—especially the handset.
But now that more than half of American adults under 35 use mobile phones as their only phones, the intrinsic unreliability of the cellular network has become internalized as a property of telephony. Even if you might have a landline on your office desk, the cellular infrastructure has conditioned us to think of phone calls as fundamentally unpredictable affairs. Of course, why single out phones? IP-based communications like IM and iMessage are subject to the same signal and routing issues as voice, after all. But because those services are asynchronous, a slow or failed message feels like less of a failure—you can just regroup and try again. When you combine the seemingly haphazard reliability of a voice call with the sense of urgency or gravity that would recommend a phone call instead of a Slack DM or an email, the risk of failure amplifies the anxiety of unfamiliarity. Telephone calls now exude untrustworthiness from their very infrastructure.
Great piece by Ian Bogost on how the decline of the phone call is not just a result of the rise of alternative forms of communication but also because phones today are not that great for making phone calls. I saw Aziz Ansari do a great bit on what it would be like to travel back in time with an iPhone and show it to someone who'd never seen a mobile phone before. I can't find the sketch online but it came after his bit on Grindr. I'll paraphrase:
“Whoa, what is that?”
“It's an iPhone!”
“That looks amazing! So, is it really great at making phone calls?”
“Actually, no, it actually is terrible for that. But if you want to know [something really dirty related to Grindr, you can fill in the blank], this will do the trick perfectly!”
Bogost notes that the mobile part of the modern phone is part of the problem.
When the PSTN was first made digital, home and office phones were used in predictable environments: a bedroom, a kitchen, an office. In these circumstances, telephony became a private affair cut off from the rest of the environment. You’d close the door or move into the hallway to conduct a phone call, not only for the quiet but also for the privacy. Even in public, phones were situated out-of-the-way, whether in enclosed phone booths or tucked away onto walls in the back of a diner or bar, where noise could be minimized.
Today, of course, we can and do carry our phones with us everywhere. And when we try to use them, we’re far more likely to be situated in an environment that is not compatible with the voice band—coffee shops, restaurants, city streets, and so forth. Background noise tends to be low-frequency, and, when it’s present, the higher frequencies that Monson showed are more important than we thought in any circumstance become particularly important. But because digital sampling makes those frequencies unavailable, we tend not to be able to hear clearly. Add digital signal loss from low or wavering wireless signals, and the situation gets even worse. Not only are phone calls unstable, but even when they connect and stay connected in a technical sense, you still can’t hear well enough to feel connected in a social one. By their very nature, mobile phones make telephony seem unreliable.
How Bogost writes about old telephone handsets, the way they fit into the crook of your neck, the way they warmed up the longer your conversation went, brought me back to those days of my youth when an hour long phone call with a friend or someone you were crushing on was like an audio version of one of Robert Barrett's love letters to Elizabeth Browning.