Ending the Tyranny of the Telephone

How do we deal socially with the new technology around us? How do we come up with new norms, wrestle with the loss of privacy, deal with the way technology seems to force us to change the way we live, work and communicate,?

It’s not a new question, but I feel we need a new answer. We tend to focus on the intrusiveness of new technologies, and agonise over how they’re changing society, while failing to notice that the old technologies were just as intrusive. In fact, I’d argue that with each advance of communication technologies, they get less intrusive rather than more.  Our problem is that we have memories the size of hamster droppings.

Imagine a device that dominates every desk, every home, is on every street corner and train platform. Where we are so conditioned to answer its call we get upset when it’s left to ring. Even when we’re eating, praying, watching TV, asleep. Where we are expected to identify who we are, where we are to a disembodied voice at the other end, to run off searching for someone at its behest, jot down messages on its behalf.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the telephone. An awful device that intruded upon our conversations, our reverie, our concentration, our world. What is remarkable, then, is not how much we’ve submitted to technology but the speed with which we’ve embraced a different technology that better suits our world.

As quickly as technology allowed it, we have started ditching the idea of getting each other’s attention through voice. First we adopted the cellphone, but when users figured out they could use it to send messages by text or SMS instead, the telephone as a predominantly voice-driven device was doomed. It’s not that we don’t want to talk to people; it’s just that we want to ensure that the time and place are  convenient for both of us.,

The truth is that the telephone imposed its tyranny on us and dominated our lives so much that we still can’t let go of the idea. We still call our mobile devices ‘phones’ even when that’s no longer what they’re primarily designed to do. (I have a mobile phone that is as big as a croissant; this was not something that the ubiquitous ads touting its glories will ever show being held up  to the ear.)

Now, in 2012 most mobile phones are not used as phones primarily — if at all. Australians, for example, are making 12.5% fewer phone calls than five years ago. People have been giving up having a landline phone: South Africa’s Telkom, for example, has lost more than a quarter of its fixed line customers since 2000.  We have thrown off the shackles of a 140 year tyranny remarkably quickly, realising just how intrusive the telephone was.

Yes, we’ve replaced it with technology that can be antisocial. We download a lot of data over our device, and much of that data is personal, for our eyes only, or gaming with others not present. We ignore those we’re with, preferring the absorption of the small screen to the social complexity around us. But we’ll figure this out. First, we had to deal with the tyrant. Nowadays, in this mobile spring, look around you differently: listen for the absence of ringing phones. For once we have the technology — SMS, the instant message, the tweet, the email–to retrieve our lives.

My croissant sized phone, for example? It has a feature that, when I turn it over, mutes all incoming calls and sounds. Now that’s civilized.

2 thoughts on “Ending the Tyranny of the Telephone

  1. I love this piece. I also love the freedom to decide when and where I will talk by phone. I cringe when my phone rings at an inopportune moment, which is most of the time. The tyrant has ruled my work life for years. The Tyrant has been my tool but I have never controlled it. Now, I can use email or text other more discreet functions to manage my still-connected life but I actually talk on the phone (or on Skype) less than a third as often as I used to. I use voice for things that are easier to solve with a three minute conversation than with a ten email exchange or for talking to family. I now view voice as one of my tools instead of as my primary tool.

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