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Malcolm Holland

The Death of the Telephone Call 1876–2007. By Timothy Noah

When Slate was founded in 1996, people all over the world spent much of their day speaking into telephones. In 2016, as Slate celebrates its 20thbirthday, the phone call is a thing of the past.

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Not entirely of the past, of course; phone conversation lives on in roughly the same way that swing dancing lives on, or Latin declension, or manual transmission. You can still find it, but you have to look a lot harder, because it’s no longer a way of life.

The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech.

Some were still, of course, making phone calls on their “landlines.” But by 2007, landlines were already being displaced rapidly by mobile phones, in part because you couldn’t send a text on one. Today, we’remere seconds away from a majority of U.S. households possessing no landline at all, and text messages are five times more frequenton mobile phones than phone calls. You can still call your best friend on the telephone, but he probably won’t pick up. Instead he’ll text you, or ping you on Facebook, and wonder when the hell it was you became so emotionally needy.

It’s a lonely business, this life without telephone calls.

I have a friend named Joe, whom I don’t see often because we live in different cities, and always have. He’s not a close friend, but I like him enormously. I used to phone Joe, or Joe would phone me, a couple of times a year. No particular reason—we’d just check up on each other, exchange a bit of gossip, talk about politics or journalism or our families. I saw Joe recently at a party, along with his second wife and their young son, and was caught up short when I realized that I had no idea what their names were. I had no idea because Joe and I had stopped phoning each other sometime around, well, 2007. When I introduced myself to Joe’s wife (her name turned out to be Dawn) I noticed that my name was no more familiar to her than hers to me.

Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, “Have I ever seen this person in the nude?” The sighting doesn’t have to be (indeed, seldom is) recent. Nor is it necessary that I remember it. I need only deduce that, sometime or other, I must have seen this person naked. That clears phone calls to a wife or girlfriend, to children, to parents, to siblings, to old flames, to former roommates from college, and very few others.

I make exceptions to the naked rule now and then, but always with trepidation, because when a friend you’ve never seen naked sees your name pop up on his smartphone he’s liable to think you lack boundaries. If you aren’t on this never-naked person’s contacts list, forget about connecting at all. Nobody answers a cellphone that blinks an unfamiliar phone number, and nobody has the patience to listen to voice mail. (The final voice mail that anybody actually heard was recorded sometime around 2009.)

With business calls, prevailing etiquette isn’t all that different. If you know somebody pretty well in the business sense (the threshold here being not “have I seen this person naked?” but “have I ever seen this person across a lunch table?”) you may phone with some confidence that the party will pick up. If not, you’ll have to leave a message and enter a ghastly limbo that requires a formal appointment. To talk on the phone! If you’re a journalist like me, appointment phone calls are a dreary ritual in which you’re put on speakerphone and a press spokesperson sits in to eliminate the possibility that anything of the slightest interest will be said.

The phone call always was an invasive form of communication, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that as soon as a plausible substitute presented itself we grabbed it. What was the very first phone call, on March 10, 1876, if not an urgent human demand? “Mr. Watson,” said Alexander Graham Bell, “come here—I want to see you.” That Thomas Watson, situated in the next room, would comply was a given, because Bell was his employer. For the next hundred years, phones continued to boss people around. A loudly ringing telephone demanded its owner’s immediate attention because you never knew who it might be. It could be the president! Or news that you’d inherited $1 million from a relative you’d never heard of! Or (God forbid) your teenager wrecked the car and was in the hospital! Octogenarians still tend to respond to a ringing landline with terrific urgency, risking hip fracture as they lunge to answer it.

The telephone’s bratty demand for attention is a leitmotif in midcentury American popular culture. Ray Milland’s plot to murder Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder makes no sense without the presumption that she’ll get out of bed to pick up a ringing telephone at 11 p.m., something nobody I know has done for years. The “Telephone Hour” number in Bye Bye Birdie is based on the quaint notion that teenage gossip travels at breathtaking speed through fat analog phone cables; today, of course, it travels infinitely faster through silent Instagram postings permeating the very air.

The telephone’s rule was absolute until the mid-1980s, when the rising popularity of answering machines and caller ID began to undermine it. Baby boomers wielded these tools against their telephones like a lion tamer’s whip. If it was important, the caller could leave a message just as if they weren’t there, a deception their World War II generation parents could never countenance. The advent around the same time of call waiting similarly made human agency a deciding factor in whether you were available to talk. Sometime around 2010, my then-teenage daughter was trying to call a friend. Something’s wrong, she said. This phone has gone berserk. She handed it to me. I listened, then explained patiently what a busy signal was. She’d never heard one before.

With the rise of mobile telephones around the turn of the 21st century, you and your telephone were never going to be apart, and screening phone calls became a simple matter of survival (literally, if you were driving). Mobile phones were vastly inferior to landlines (and remain so), with iffy coverage and lousy reception. Rare is the lengthy cellphone call that isn’t dropped at some point, requiring one party or the other to redial. (Or both, and then both are sent to voice mail, and everyone gives up in exasperation.) The iPhone, introduced in June 2007, made telephone reception slightly worse, but it did everything else so well that you just had to have one. People stopped thinking of it as a phone and started calling it a “device.” Within six months the phone call was dead.

Freedom from the telephone call’s yoke has yielded many societal benefits. You can go wherever you want (except certain mountainous areas) and stay on the grid—or not—as you desire. You can end a dull phone conversation by saying, “Hello? Hello? I think you’re breaking up,” even when the reception’s crystal clear. The age-old complaint, “Nobody writes letters anymore,” is seldom heard, because in fact we write letters all the time in the form of the texts and emails that replaced phone calls. We may not rank up there with Héloïse and Abelard, but then neither did most 12th-century correspondents.

But this new freedom came at the cost something precious: the human voice. Texting is more stilted and less spontaneous than speech, even for those of us who write for a living. It’s performed with greater anxiety about being misunderstood (hence the nervous punctuation with emojis) yet also, paradoxically, it’s more controlled, with highs and lows filtered out.

Anger is difficult to convey properly in a text, compared to the hallowed method of shouting into a phone and slamming the receiver down. This mode of communication reached its apotheosis in 1950-1984, with Western Electric’s magnificent Model 500, an absolutely unbreakable hunk of molded plastic. The phone smash came in especially handy when you got the runaround from customer service. But today “customer service” means you send email or a text into a void where no one can hear you scream. A dozen years ago I congratulated myself in Slate for tracking down Amazon’s customer service number, which was more closely held than the nuclear launch codes. Today it’s a cinch to Google Amazon’s customer service number (888-280-4331), but that ease is illusory, because once you dial it you enter an automated-menu labyrinth that would put the Minotaur to shame. To press the correct sequence of phone buttons necessary to locate a human being is beyond the patience of most Amazon customers—especially pissed-off ones—and you can bet Amazon knows that.

Texting is a good medium for flirtation, a transaction typically between two people who don’t know each other very well. But it’s a poor medium to express love in its more mature forms—romantic, familial, or platonic—because one’s beloved has learned to expect a wealth of cues that only a poet could supply through written words alone. The tinkle of human laughter, perhaps the sweetest sound on Earth, is entirely absent in texting, replaced by a depressingly pro forma “LOL” whose sincerity is always subject to doubt. Indeed, texting is a superb medium for telling lies. You have plenty of time to think through how to frame your deception, and the person you’re lying to will never hear the catch in your throat. Texting is an even better medium for passive rejection, or “ghosting.” In the early aughts there was a lot of press for something called the Rejection Line. If someone was pestering you for your phone number, you just gave him the Rejection Line number instead of your own, and when he called he’d hear an automated message telling him to get lost. It was an ingenious prank, but it’s no longer necessary, because even stalkers now prefer texting.

What sort of future will the telephone call’s death bequeath? Will we become a nation lobotomized, where no love may ever ripen nor grievance be aired? Will our circles of friends shrink and shrink and then finally disappear? Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with video calling. But that’s even more demanding than a telephone call; even within my naked-people circle I dare not video call more than two or three souls, lest they actually be naked when their device rings. Those who indulge my video calls do it purely out of generosity. They all hate the medium. The reception is even worse than with a cellphone call, and I hear a lot of complaints from the over-50 set about unflattering camera angles.

Perhaps a hardy band of artisans in Brooklyn or Venice, California, will revive the telephone call as a boutique ritual, much as they’ve revived the playing of vinyl records on turntables. Perhaps Google, once it’s perfected the self-driving automobile, will automate text messaging, allowing our cellphones to communicate without any human intervention at all. (Imagine, for instance, an algorithm that could recognize the linguistic structure of a joke and then answer automatically: “LOL.”) Perhaps we’ll just barge in on each other more, like wacky neighbors did in 1950s sitcoms.

Perhaps all these things will happen at once.

Even more than a writer, I am a reader: of newspapers, magazines, the internet, and books. Logically, I ought to cheer the triumph of the written word that this age of texting hath wrought. But the telephone call’s demise has impoverished me, separating me from friends with whom I communicate now mostly on social media, which isn’t the same. My kids are grown and the house is quiet. A whole day will now pass when I don’t hear the sound of my own voice. It would be nice now and then to hear the telephone ring.

Timothy Noah is labor policy editor at Politico and author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. From 2000–2011, he was a Slate senior writer.

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