When was the last time you had a decent phone conversation, on a phone call? When did you stop trying? In a span of less than 20 years, the habit of talking to people on the phone has been more or less eradicated.
We used to do this all the time. For business, we would call up a company and talk to a person. For pleasure, we would call up a friend and talk to them, indefinitely, voice to voice. Technology advanced and killed it it all.
The cordless home phone was convenient; you could walk around talking on it, with audio that was only a little bit cruddier, and with only a few new kinds of glitches. The speakerphone was aAwWfFuUlL; it’s better to spend all day on a reply-all email meltdown than five minutes cut-ting in-to and out of the flow, while a whole room clatters in your ear.
But the cell phone—that was considerably worse. The cell phones took out the sidetone, the warm surrounding sound of your own voice played back through your earpiece, which created the whole audio context for the call you were having. Suddenly that was gone and the call wasn’t something you were on together, but something you had to push through your mouth speaker while the other person separately shoved their part of it through your ear speaker. You couldn’t really hear what it sounded like. People lost track of their own voices and started yelling.
That was only part of it, though. Meanwhile you weren’t even yelling at a person, necessarily, anymore. A decision was made, across the public and private sectors alike, that you weren’t worth talking to. People got fired from the job of listening to what you needed and telling you how to get it, and the space where they had been became a robot vestibule, leading to a branching labyrinth of doorways controlled by robots, through each stage of which you could only pass if you sat through the instructions and pressed—or shouted, with robot-friendly pronunciation and articulation—the correct sequence of passcodes. Your time and attention are now wasted for the sake of saving someone else’s time and attention, or, rather, saving the money that would once been spent to pay for someone else’s time and attention. Remember, that person got fired.
At the same time, the incoming calls have all become robots too, lying and insincere robots trying to scare you about your credit card and rip you off. Some of the robots are faking human speech patterns, hesitating and then welcoming you, as if they’re making a connection, to keep you on the line. Sometimes at the end of the pause there’s a living person, connected through a bulk-calling machine, reading a script, to try to rip you off.
It may be the case that people don’t go to their parish churches or join bowling leagues with their neighbors like they used to but it’s probably also the case that a significant part of the alienated and corroded mood and character of contemporary American life is established by the fact that most of the time, when your phone does ring now, it’s a robot trying to scam you. Or a person working for a robot trying to scam you. Why would anyone believe in a mutual civic project or care about the state of our commons when the stranger you hear from most regularly is Heather from Cardholder Services?
Everything is a scam, everyone is trying to rip you off. The thing you still call your “phone” is removed from your ears and locked in on your eyes, keeping them there with bright colors and update numbers and pull-to-refresh interfaces. You give it your whole attention now, too, but your attention is chopped into attention-pieces by the fraction of the second. It’s taught you to attend, that way.
When I’m feeling conspiracy-minded, it occurs to me that the rise of the smartphone and the mobile Web and unlimited texting came along to break the habit of telephony just when people might have been concerned about the effects of holding a radio transmitter next to their skulls all day long. It’s not that cell phones were causing glioblastoma, or that anyone knew that cell phones were causing glioblastoma, but if you wanted to not to have to think about it, a good first step would be to make it so people weren’t transmitting anywhere near their brains anymore. Put out devices with a form factor that didn’t have a visible ear-thing or mouth-thing. No more telephone. Barely anyone would notice it was gone.