6 Oct 2009 9:00 am   //   Filed under: Over!, Technology

Death of the telephone

In 2000, I spent a semester as an intern for Accuweather. My job was to call radio stations and read them weather reports in my best radio voice. I often spoke through a clear connection called an ISDN line, which took the form of a black box with a few knobs and buttons, connected to a microphone and headset. A conversation with a radio producer across the country sounded as if we were in the same room.

It was so cool that I knew it was only a matter of time before everyone would talk to each other on high-quality digital lines. Calls would become more personal and intimate—Think of the whispers, the breaths, the inflection of a dry joke. You could play music for friends and family, or share the ambient sound of the birds chirping on your porch. I knew once people had tried it, they would never settle for a regular phone again.

As we now know, I was totally wrong! We’ve grown to hate our phones so much that we’ve reverted back to typing. It’s the revenge of the telegraph.

Think of the great strides in communication in the last decade—LCD screens, digital camera chips and streaming Internet video, to name three. Meanwhile, our phone calls have gotten steadily worse.

At least once a week, I have to struggle to conduct a phone interview with somebody who’s calling me with Skype or some other computer-based phone service. I can always tell when I’m on a VOIP call—the caller sounds as if he’s talking through a snorkel. It comes off as cheap and unprofessional, but increasingly, the people I talk to prefer making calls this way.

And let’s consider cell phones. Really: They suck. The mobile companies keep trucking out new features while sacrificing call quality. Digital cell phones sounded worse than the analog ones did, and smart phones sound worse than conventional digital phones. With all the data services the telecom companies are trying to sell, the voice call has become an after-thought. Networks are jammed and reliability is poor. Have you tried using an iPhone in New York City lately?

Gradually, our culture has adjusted to account for the underwhelming experience of making a phone call. I remember having two-hour-long phone conversations with friends, and conducting hour-long source interviews at the newspapers where I worked just a few years ago. But these days, I seldom make calls that last longer than a few minutes. People have shunned their phones and prefer texting, e-mail and social networking messages. Journalists conduct interviews by e-mail. People ask each other out on dates using Facebook. Socially, it’s easier. Phone calls were always a little uncomfortable, right?

I submit that this change happened not because typing is better, but because the experience of talking on the phone has gotten so unpleasant. We have to strain to hear each other, and we worry that our words will be misheard; phone calls have become even more awkward than before. We’ve cut our land-lines and begun using lightweight plastic things that don’t fit well against the sides of our head. We’ve grown accustomed to counting minutes, even for local calls. We’ve donned headsets so we can talk while driving, and turned our laptops into snorkel-phones so we can talk via WiFi at Starbucks. (Is that noise on the line, or an espresso machine?)

This is one of those ways where a small adjustment in technology could have had a radical impact on how we communicate. If phones had drifted toward high-quality lines instead of digital compression—gotten clearer and better, rather than smaller and cheaper—society would be different. We might have developed an improved command of the spoken word. Instead, we evolved super-fast typing fingers.