(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)
By Jeremy Wagstaff
One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.
Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.
Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.
The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.
Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.
Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.
Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.
Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.
The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.
And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.
I actually think this is a good thing.
I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.
What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.
There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.
Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.
Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.
We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.
And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.
In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.
Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.