The Day The Phone Call Died

The other day I had an actual telephone call on my cell phone.  Not an email, not a text, not a robocall from a telemarketer or scammer, not a social media interaction — an actual telephone call, where I spoke to real live person and we had a back-and-forth conversation in real time.  It seemed almost like a red-letter event.

Child talking on the telephoneI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the personal telephone call is dying a long, slow, agonizing death.  (Business calls are another matter, obviously.)  The process began with the decision of many people, Kish and me included, to get rid of our home land line phone because it had become only the source of annoying telemarketing and survey calls during dinner, and we figured we didn’t need it anyway because we had cell phones.  Then, with the advent of texting and email and social media, those became the preferred methods of communication.  Friends who used to touch base by telephone now do so by texting, often in group texts, or by responding to a Facebook post about a new job or new member of the family or new dog or new recipe.  It’s quicker and easier and viewed as less intrusive than placing an actual telephone call.  Others argue that these other forms of communication are more efficient than phone calls, because you can send pictures and attach documents and data.

It’s kind of curious that the number of phone calls are falling while the statistics show that the use of cell phones overall is increasing.  In short, people just aren’t using cell phones anymore for what used to be their principal purpose — i.e., making telephone calls — but instead are glued to their phones to check the news, reactions to social media posts, email traffic, and play games.

Will there be a day when the phone call as a communications tool actually dies?  That would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, but it seems increasingly plausible now.  I hope it doesn’t happen, because I still think phone calls are superior for certain forms of communication — because in a telephone call you can hear the other party’s voice, which through its tone, and pauses, and other non-verbal clues can tell you something about how the other party is doing and how they are reacting to what you’re saying.  Phone calls are a lot more personal than texts or emails, and I hope there is always a role for them.

Birthday Wishes

Today is my birthday.

It’s great to live in modern times because, among other things, it’s easier to wish people happy birthday, and in more communication methods and forms, than ever before.  I’ve received grossly inappropriate, unforgivably ageist cards from family and friends, Facebook congratulations from pals old and new and a post from UJ with a picture of us as toddlers, text message birthday greetings, and nice emails from clients and colleagues.  It’s been great to be the target of so many good wishes.

I’ve even received happy birthday emails from my optometrist, my periodontist, and the America Red Cross.  I suppose there’s a kind of message there, too.

C.B. Radio At The Dawn Of The Mobile Communications Age

Yesterday I was driving on the interstate.  I passed a series of 18-wheeler trucks and thought:  “Convoy!”

Convoy, of course, was the huge hit song that helped to spur a mini-boom of citizens’ band (“C.B.”) radio purchases and use in the 1970s.  Convoy told the story of the Rubber Duck, Big Ben, and other truckers as they rocketed across the country, using their C.B. radios to dodge Smokey the Bear and other law enforcement personnel.

For a brief instant in the ’70s, people thought C.B. radio was cool and went out to buy C.B. sets.  Of course, the idea of suburbanites in their sedans intruding on the world of the interstate trucker was pretty pathetic, and the boom died almost as soon as it started.  Does anyone — truckers included — use C.B. radio anymore?

I think there may have been something beyond the brief flirtation with something new, something deeper at work in the brief popularity of C.B. radio.  I think people thought it was cool to talk while you were driving, and to communicate with people all around you without being tied to a land-line phone.  C.B. radio had its limitations, but it helped to pave the way for cell phones, smart phones, texting, and all of the other instant, portable communications that dominate modern American society.

10-4, Rubber Duck!

Cleveland’s Free Stamp

Another piece of modern public art that I really like is Free Stamp, a large painted steel and aluminum sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.  For years, Free Stamp has graced a small park along East Ninth Street in Cleveland, just south of the expressway that separates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum from the rest of downtown.

Why do I like Free Stamp?  Because this is a whimsical sculpture that will inevitably grow more interesting as time goes by.  When the sculpture was created, paper was the preferred medium of business, and ink pads and stamps that said things like “Paid” and “Handle with Care” were used routinely.  Of course, in the business world you wouldn’t need a stamp that said “Free,” so the sculpture was a bit of a joke.  But now, as paper has gone the way of the Dodo and electronic transmissions are in vogue, I doubt that any business buys or even uses stamps anymore.  And that is what will make this sculpture even more interesting in years to come.  What will people who grow up in the age of email and the cloud, and in the ages of even more advanced communications forms to come, think when they see this giant sculpture, and will they even dimly understand what it is supposed to be?

The Appeal Of Texting

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that texting is now a more popular form of communication for American teenagers than cell phone calls.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who has kids.  Kish and I have long recognized that texting is the most certain way of reaching Russell, who just celebrated his 22nd birthday, and I imagine texting is even more prevalent among younger people.

Why is this so?  I have a few theories.  First, I think texting is a preferred mode of communication because it is short.  You type a quick message and send it off, and that takes care of that person for a while.  No one expects an in-depth text conversation.  A few “LOLs” here, an emoticon there, and you have satisfied your communication obligations. It’s easy and quick.  Second, texting is highly controllable.  You don’t need to have a long phone conversation with someone that could degenerate into awkward silences, or God forbid a boring face-to-face discussion.  If the texting interplay becomes dullsville or uncomfortable, you just stop doing it.  Third, it plays into the general, decades-long trend of American culture that has seen us go from a highly social, interactive society filled with fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, and book clubs to one where people would rather have time to themselves and interact through technological devices or internet games.

Texting will stay popular until another quicker, more removed, more technological form of communication comes along.