Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Happened to Phone Calls?

This simple device was once the primary means of electronic communication in the USA.  It was supplanted by cell phones and today, by text and e-mail.  Why does no one talk anymore?

I get an e-mail from a client.  "Is it OK if I call you on the phone?  How about 3:00 tomorrow?"

How weird.  We now make appointments for phone calls.  At one time, you just picked up the phone and called someone.  Today, things are different.

If you are of a certain age, you remember a few things that younger people might find weird:
1.  When you called someone, you let the phone ring 10 times, so they had time to get it.  Today, when you see this in an old movie, it is hard to suppress the urge to say to Jimmy Stewart, "pick up the phone! Before it bounces to VoiceMail!"

2.  In the olden days, you didn't have to dial the area code with every call, just the last seven digits.  And sometimes, just the last five digits!   I am not old enough to remember getting the operator on the line for every call - but my parents did that.

3.  Answering machines were a newfangled invention and everyone hated them.  "I hate talking to those machines!" folks would say.  Or people would be nervous making the recording for the machine.  Folks felt they were being "on stage" and got stage fright.  I kid you not!

4.  Before answering machines, if you called someone and they weren't there, it just rang.  After 10 rings you hung up and called them back later.  No instant gratification, no messages left.  Life was slower back then!

5.  For some reason, they used two-letter codes for the first two digits of a phone number.  So, for example, my old phone number of 655-3253 was OLeander 5-3253.  As in "operator, get me OLeander 5-3253!" which you might hear in the old movies.   Or you might give out your phone number as OL5-3253.   Why this was better than just the digits was beyond me!

6. Dial phones took forever to dial!  Can you imagine dialing 911 back then?  That dial would spin around so slowly.  But of course...

7.  We didn't have 911 back then.  You dialed "O" for Operator and someone answered on the first ring.  "Operator!  Get me the Police!" was what you would say.  And the Operator could also connect you with directory assistance, repair, or place long distance "person-to-person" calls.  Today, you get a recording when you dial "O".
Yea, it was a simpler time back then.  Slower.  Perhaps dumber.  But today, we have instant communication, which in some instances is better.  I can compose an e-mail and sent it to Slovenia, and they can get it the next morning and reply - without using stamps, waiting weeks for letters, sending faxes, or trying to call overseas.

Of course, this often means we send MORE messages rather than carefully consider a single message.  When you lower the cost of a communications channel, the bandwidth gets filled up pretty quickly.  It is like Boyle's law - only for data, not gases.  Data expands to fill the available bandwidth of a given channel.

And texting and instant messaging - favored by the younger generation 10:1 over voice communication - takes this to the logical conclusion.  A lot of data transmitted back and forth, but most of it trivial or outright noise.  How R U?  Fine, U?  Kewl!  ;)

For a brief time, between the years of 2000 and 2008 or so, talking on the cell phone did supplant talking on the landline phone.  And in fact, the number and length of calls probably went up.  As "unlimited" minutes plans came into being, more and more people starting talking, well, in an unlimited manner.  And usually, this was among people of the lower classes.

And you've seen these sort of people before, but less and less so, today.  You are in Wal Mart or some other store, and you see some lower-class person with a cell phone glued to their ear.  They are talking on the phone when they enter the store, they are talking on the phone while they are shopping, they are talking on the phone when they check out.  They are talking on the phone on the way to the car.  They are talking on the phone while driving away.  You would think the cell phone was part of their body.

And oftentimes, all of their talking is one long continuous phone call that lasts an hour or more.  And since they are yakking loudly on the damn thing, you can't help but "overhear" one side of the conversation.  And it is not really anything important - just the sort of trailer-park gossip which has now been elevated to high culture in our society.  "No, really, she said whaaaaat?  That bitch!  I hope he slapped her down good!" - that sort of thing.

Perhaps it is because of that image that texting is taking over.  Yakking on the cell phone, like smoking, is increasingly viewed as a lower-class activity.  And people are status conscious above all else.  And this is fascinating to me, as when cell phones were first introduced, they were viewed as an upper-class item, as they were expensive and the plans were dear.  Many folks, back in the day, would mount fake cell phone antennas on their car (often 3-4 of them!) in a trailer-park mimicry of what they were seeing on the rich folks cars.

But now, cell phones have worked their way down the food chain, and just like naming your child "Mercedes" it has no class left whatsoever.  So texting, I guess, seemed like a more discrete and better way of communicating.  And after all, since texting plans cost extra it seemed like a natural status symbol to be furiously working your hands in your lap - with your cell phone, of course.

But just as Lurleen at Wal-Mart has nothing important to say in her hour-long phone call, and just as she is loud and annoying to others and dangerous behind the wheel of a car, texing is falling into a similar pattern - and rather quickly.  Text messages rarely have any real content - they are just short, often cryptic and meaningless messages - ambiguous messages that are the hallmark of passive-aggressiveness.

And quickly, texting is working its way down the food chain, as plans are coming down in price (a real joke on the consumer if ever there was one - phone companies were charging EXTRA to send a few ASCII characters - consuming negligable bandwidth compared to voice!) and now Lurleen is texting in Wal-Mart instead of yakking.  And she is doing it while driving, with predictable results.  Even truckers are texting these days - I've seen it, usually as they wander out of their lane and threaten to crush my car.  People are indeed, truly idiots!

It goes without saying that latching onto these latest fads is really just a huge waste of your time and money.  Yakking for hours on the phone about trivia is not really enhancing your personal or business life.  You can't make money by texting.  And spending $100 or more a month on a cell phone plan isn't really 'saving' you money, even if they phone company claims it is offering you some discount.  Unplugging from this latest-and-greatest crap is one key to personal financial well-being as well as emotional well-being.  You ain't missing anything by not having the latest electronic toy, unless it is a pacemaker!

But of course, these communications cycles get shorter and shorter over time.  The era of the standard phone call lasted a Century.  VoiceMail and Faxes maybe 50 years.  Talking on the cell phone, maybe 20.  Texting, less than 10.  What's next?

Well, it is hard to put a name on it, but "Smart Phoning" seems to be the Next Big Thing - as phones become more sophisticated and are increasingly linked to the net.  You can access web pages from cell phones, and even record and send pictures and video, far easier than before.  The novelty of walking-and-talking has worn off.  The novelty of sending short messages with emoticons from your phone has worn off.  Perhaps sending video, photos, and HTML is the next big thing.

Or who knows?  Maybe people will start talking - really talking - to one another.

I'm ready.  I still have my dial phone!