Phoniculture

Do you remember learning how to use the phone? I don’t quite, but you know we all had to; like all social conventions, it’s something you have to practice and be instructed in. I remember watching other, younger kids learn the rules of using the phone — not just start with “hello” and end with “goodbye,” but things like “don’t shake your head no, the person on the other end can’t see you!” I have a vague memory of a high school boyfriend who irritated me by giving his phone to his two-year-old nephew while we were talking, which he thought was charming but which was kind of a pain in the ass when the kid first of all didn’t say anything, and second didn’t know enough to give the phone back to his uncle when I asked.

I’d guess the average person of my generation or older was quite smitten with talking on the phone with our friends by high school. I have a visceral memory of how great it felt just to lie on my back on the floor (as far as the phone cord reached) and talk for hours, kind of turning off my vision and living in the mutual world inhabited by my voice and the voice at the other end of the line.

By contrast, I’d guess many people were a bit reticent when it comes to learning to use the phone for work. Answering phones was one thing — there was usually a pattern to stick to — but I remember being mired in a mild dread when I first had to call people for interviews or information when I was interning at newspapers and magazines. The calls were likely to be open ended, and in the case of investigative journalism (which I tried doing at one point in my career) might end up in the phone being slammed down and not picked up again by the person I was trying to get information out of.

With the hype over other technologies and the things they have replaced — Blogs! Killing newspapers! iPad! Causing advertisers to flee television and viewers to flee theaters! Twitter! Toppling governments! — it can be easy to lose track of the fact that *phones are still here.* And also, that they’ve changed tremendously in the past fifteen years. Not just smartphones and mobiles, PHONES. The part you put to your ear and hear people through.

I told a psychologist the other day that at the last two jobs I’ve had, there wasn’t a phone at my desk. She looked struck. I’m trying to construct in my head the world in which that happens, she said, puzzled. I personally haven’t found it strange. At the first of these two jobs, everyone in the office was on IRC, chat, or in Second Life most of the time, and if you needed to find them they’d be there. There was a sense that having phone lines, and a directory someplace where users might find it, would only invite unwanted calls. Silicon Valley-style workplaces seem to have moved away from phone culture.

Sometime since I started grad school and stopped having to make phone calls for work, I have somehow lapsed back into the phone-call-induced anxiety and timidity I had managed to pretty well overcome while working as a journalist. I’m trying to figure out whether this is related to the lack of a phone at my desk in the jobs I held from 2007-2010. This past year, there was a phone in the room, but I couldn’t get it to reach an outside line, and nobody called in. It didn’t really matter. I had my cell phone with me pretty much at all times, as I did at the previous two jobs.

Which is, measurably, not the same thing.

* * *

Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist, used phones in one of the experiments he used to demonstrate to his students how social order was constructed. Go home, he said, and record a phone that is ringing just for you. The trick was that on the recording, there was no way to know who the phone was ringing for; the ring was detached from the specific context of where in the house it was ringing, what had recently happened (had someone just asked the caller to call back?) etc. Of course, when multiple people share a line on a phone with no caller ID, there’s other cues necessary to know who a phone is ringing for: the person on the other end of the line asking for them, for one.

And of course, this is all obviated by recent developments in phone devices: caller ID, caller-specific ringtones, and all of us having our own phone with us as we venture out into the world, pretty much all the time.

Except *my* phone. My Android smartphone does not behave as a permanent clear voice line to me, personally. It behaves as a gasping, fainting, some days mortally wounded, finicky underwater-tin-can-on-a-string voice connection to people who call in only to be dumped at the moment I try to swipe the touchscreen or press the apparently retarded “call” button to say hello to them. It acts as a constantly-on, poorly-placed art experiment in touchscreen interfaces, one which likes to flirt with how marvelously conductive the outer folds of my ears are, particularly when I’m sweaty, and which likes to treat the tiniest smudge on the screen as a reason to close windows or move icons around on its desktop. It is prone to fall into daylong reboot loops, out of which it will emerge when it “feels better,” whenever that is. This makes it far less reliable than the earliest computers I ever worked with. Some days it serves only as a paperweight.

As a result, when it is functional I use it mostly for what it is: a very tiny computer. In any given situation, no matter how sensitive, I would rather text, send email, tweet, chat, post to Facebook — it occurred to me today that I’d even like an IRC client on it — than use the damned thing as a phone. Its ability to transmit voice is more reliable when I use it as a modem, tether it to my computer, and use Skype.

(Simply admitting all of this has been cathartic. I recently ran across a scene in Carla Speed McNeil’s excellent Finder series in which the hero exorcises a poorly-behaved AI-enhanced student study aid — by encouraging the owner to smash it to pieces and get a new one. Apparently this is based on McNeil’s own experience with a VCR; someone gave her a new one and a sledgehammer one birthday, and she realized that she didn’t really need to stick with the old one given the problems it was having. In my family, where cars came back from the dead, where the motto was always “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” admitting defeat in the face of bad design or planned obsolescence is very, very hard. Thanks, Carla Speed McNeil.)

The effect of trying to speak over a device that crashes, cuts out, garbles sound, and uses my ear as an excuse to dial new numbers and rearrange my apps in the middle of a call has exacerbated any anxiety I have about calling people a thousandfold.

Send text messages, I tell people I’m trying to coordinate with. Don’t call me.

But it’ll be easier if we call, they say.

And they’re right. People are used to having face to face conversations where we can interrupt others before they finish a sentence, to ask for clarification, correct misunderstandings, stop someone from saying something we already know. In most cases, voice conversation is far superior.

Voice conversation face to face has always been superior to over the phone: even older phones cut out part of the upper register of human speech, dampening certain emotional overtones which add nuance to what we say. (I told this to the psychologist, and she was surprised; she’d never heard this.)

But given the state of things with our phones — not just mine — text messages suffer far less from data loss than speaking on a phone. I will get your full sentence, without any dropped packets or sunspots that make you sound like an alien bleating around a torturer’s mouthful of ant-addled honey.

And the DELAY. Don’t even get me started on the delay. Even if the rest of the connection was fine, the amount of delay on a cell phone is enough to insert unwanted pregnant pauses. And the inconsistent duplexing — both parties being able to hear each other at the same time — also makes it hard to interrupt the other person, or know when they’re interrupting you.

I *dream* of copper wires, miles of them, gleaming as they flow lissomely into my apartment and my handset. Of the bright tips of fiberoptic cable, reliably delivering messages like cheerful, precocious Girl Scouts. Anything but the inconstant air. When I have the money, I’ll spring for a land line. Maybe an old Ma Bell handset with a rotary dial.

* * *

I started writing this months ago, but phones keep coming up, and there is more to say. I finally gave up the rotten Samsung and picked up an HTC phone instead. The phone’s interface was a constant source of pleasant surprises; I often discovered it did things exactly as I’d secretly hoped the Samsung would, in far more intuitive ways. Small-computer satisfactions aside, it actually works quite well as a phone, too. I still use it for calls infrequently enough, though, that I don’t really notice how steadfastly it connects me to others, or how nonreactive it is to the pinna of my ear.

But I am also wrestling with my current use of various technologies for keeping in touch with people, and thinking I should spend more time on the phone, less idly “liking” Facebook posts. Particularly as I seem to be moving towards even more isolated work that makes face to face conversation even less likely on a daily basis.

An old friend of mine who has always seemed to maintain a high quality-of-social-life spends almost no time on social technologies. I think perhaps I should follow suit, and try for more phone conversations.

At the same time, I have been trying to refine some ideas with Jessamyn’s help. I was bemused when I asked to chat on the phone and she rebuffed me, saying the phone was like a disease she was trying to avoid catching. And I am not always as responsive to the one person who calls me most, a former student who has become a close friend over time; when she calls to talk, I feel like she’s intruding on my schedule, and am left to wonder whether I’m just generally getting old and inflexible, or whether that’s just how phones make me feel (and, by extension, if I might be making others feel the same way when I call).

How long will it take before our technology use settles in, and ways of using the phone become consistent across a large swath of people again? Will that ever happen?

Comments 2

  1. Mary wrote:

    Think a comment of mine was en-spammed?

    Posted 19 Dec 2011 at 9:09 pm
  2. gus wrote:

    Huh… I’m not seeing one in the backend, maybe it got lost in a page reload or something?

    Posted 03 Jan 2012 at 10:06 pm

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