Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call

It goes without saying that our form of communication is changing: according to Nielsen, the both the number of mobile phone calls and their length is dropping every year; in 2005, they averaged three minutes in length, dropping to almost half of that as of 2013.

Needless to say, this development has caused a lot of apprehension and concern — particularly older generations — who fret about the decline in social skills, friendships, and overall quality of life as people become isolated. But is this really the case? Is the changing of our medium of communication necessarily mean a decline in the quality or value of communication?

Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine presents a rarely-seen, somewhat positive view of this change: it’s not necessarily good nor bad, but simply is.

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.

Consider: If I suddenly decide I want to dial you up, I have no way of knowing whether you’re busy, and you have no idea why I’m calling. We have to open Schrödinger’s box every time, having a conversation to figure out whether it’s OK to have a conversation. Plus, voice calls are emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it’s so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one. (We apparently find voicemail even more excruciating: Studies show that more than a fifth of all voice messages are never listened to.)

The telephone, in other words, doesn’t provide any information about status, so we are constantly interrupting one another. The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously. (Plus, we can spend more time thinking about what we want to say.) For all the hue and cry about becoming an “always on” society, we’re actually moving away from the demand that everyone be available immediately.

In fact, the newfangled media that’s currently supplanting the phone call might be the only thing that helps preserve it. Most people I know coordinate important calls in advance using email, text messaging, or chat (r u busy?). An unscheduled call that rings on my phone fails the conversational Turing test: It’s almost certainly junk, so I ignore it. (Unless it’s you, Mom!)

What do you think of this assessment? Are the rise of “n


One comment on “Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call

  1. I actually prefer phone calls because both they feel more intimate and I can be myself.

    Whereas with these online connections, I feel sometimes that I have to both censor and limit myself to what I say. And I don’t like that, as I’m a forthright person.

    But the best form of communication is in person. And I despair that we are both losing that and losing it too quicky.

    Plus, I think these communication devices are a lazy way of communicating.

    So that is why I both stay away from most communication devices and do my best to communicate with people in person.

    Hope that both makes sense and that it helps.

    Take care and bye, :)!

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