Douglas Coupland on how we fell out of love with phone calls
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Yesterday I found myself emailing to arrange a phone call with someone in New York. I suggested a number of times that worked on my end — could they perhaps choose one or suggest their own times? And then it dawned on me: arranging to speak with people on the phone these days feels a lot like arranging with a hygienist to get your teeth cleaned. It has to be done, let’s just get it over with. Nobody likes speaking on phones any more. When did this happen? Why did this happen?
I remember being on the train from London to Scotland in the late 1990s and there was a guy barking into his phone, exhibiting no boundaries whatsoever. My publicist said, “Listen to Yorkie over there. Looks like somebody likes the sound of their voice quite a bit, I should think.” These days, Yorkie is long gone. Speaking on a phone on a train these days puts a black letter “L” on your forehead. We’ve all changed.
My mother is convinced I have a secret phone with a secret phone number. I try to tell her that nobody speaks on phones these days, but she won’t believe it. My outgoing message on my cell is that I don’t check messages. I don’t. I haven’t checked voicemail in more than two years. People still sometimes leave messages. It’s their choice.
Gosh! I wonder if I have any voicemail!
I think the worst possible kind of phone call is the group phone call, where everyone calls in and where it feels as if your soul is being gently smothered by carbon monoxide.
Hi, it’s Gary, who else is here?
Who’s that then?
Rob, I can’t hear you.
I can’t hear properly. I’m calling back.
Wait . . . who was that?
I think Katie.
My line’s fuzzy.
Where are Pam and Jason?
I think they said they’d be late.
It’s Jason. Pam is phoning from somewhere else.
Rob, I can’t hear you properly.
I remember rotary dial phones. They were produced after the second world war in New Jersey by a US government-sanctioned monopoly called Bell Labs. The government thought communications were far too important to be left in the hands of raw capitalism and, to their credit, Bell Labs designed phones of stunning durability — just ask anyone from a household full of children back then. BTW, I’ve also noticed that nobody forgets their first phone number and everyone remembers the phone number of their friend early on in life. Perhaps no longer. Current phone numbers often resemble gene sequences in their length and complexity. Who’d want to remember one? Remember something that might come in useful instead, like pi.
I remember the first time I called somebody in Hawaii, where the area code is 808. By the end of dialling the zero I was in a kind of hypnotic trance owing to the relaxing and drug-like gentle buzz of the rotary dial. This was in 1985. I then wondered why Hawaii got such a long-to-dial area code and discovered at my local library that you could pretty much tell the geopolitical significance of the place you were dialling back in the 1950s and 1960s by the amount of time it took the rotary dial to dial the area code. New York, with the highest call volume, got the fastest-to-dial area code, 212. LA got 213; Chicago 312; Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 906.
Last month I was at a red light at the busy corner of Thurlow and Alberni in Vancouver. I was looking up someone’s number on my iPhone when a police car’s sirens went whoot-whoot and rarely in my life have I ever felt so undeniably busted by the law. Inside the police car were a pair of theatrically sullen cops: “PULL OVER.”
All right, all right. Fortunately, someone else’s misfortune elsewhere called the car away, but not before the fiercer of the two said, “That would have been a $400 ticket!”
This incident did precipitate, however, my observation, starting a few years back, that increasingly people waiting at red lights don’t move when the light turns green. Cellphones.
I’ve also noticed that cars tend to weave a bit more in traffic these days, especially on highways. Cellphones.
It appears traffic fatalities, after decades of decline, are now noticeably rising. Cellphones? Cellphones.
In Italy in the 1980s, public phones required that one buy gettoni, brass slugs used exclusively in public phones, yet finding gettoni for sale was always difficult, time-wasting and boring. Heaven help you if you had to place a long-distance call back then. You had to book an appointment, get a booth and then an operator would place the call for you. It was a lot like setting up a conference call in 2016.
In Scotland in 1987, I called my brother back home from a Glasgow hotel room and the bill came to £72 and I freaked out. The desk manager kept on saying, “But sir, your phone call was 300 pips long.”
“What the hell is a pip?”
“A pip is a pip, sir.” Ahhh . . . a tautology, spoken by Basil Fawlty’s clone.
In the end I got the price cut in half but still felt grossly overcharged. Travellers are often grossly overcharged because they have no form of redress. Take roaming fees. I’m a broken record on this subject: telecoms companies are still multiplexing ever more phone calls out of optical fibre they laid down in the 1990s. Roaming fees are essentially free money for them and even — quite conceivably — theft. Yet to hear telecoms talk you’d think they send every penny they can into R&D in order to give you the fine reception you doubtless receive.
A few years back, a Canadian telecoms company wanted to install 100ft-high cell towers in my part of town, and they were to stand for a minimum of 75 years. The company tried to quietly slip it through council, which failed, and, after this, local protests sprouted, along the lines of Soccer Moms Against Cancer. The towers never got built, and, as I knew would happen from research, the technology changed and 100ft towers were no longer needed. They just wanted to get it built and have it there for 75 years.
Why is it so hard to trust telecoms? As you can see in the arena of advertising, the other guy’s absence of trustworthiness seems to be every company’s main selling point. What a mess, and I do think cell telephony is one of the few forms of capitalism that is actually degraded with competition. Bell did a fine job with a monopoly and that’s maybe not just a coincidence.
The central idea of this essay is that nobody speaks on the phone any more. A corollary of this is that people once did. While I have fond memories of phoning people (phone call + cigarette = heaven), I’d never want to go back to it. Why dawdle or waste time when a quick text or two can do the trick? This is a trick question because you have to ask yourself, what are you going to do with all the time you saved by texting and not phoning? The answer: send more texts.
Sometimes you see little kids holding something up to their ear pretending to talk on the phone. It’s endearing because they want to be smart and grown-up, but how long will it be, once that child finally gets a phone, before they realise they don’t want to talk on one?
I fly across Canada a lot and sometimes I’ll be over Nowhere, Saskatchewan when my phone kicks in and I receive a pile of text messages. How does that happen — some magic antenna on the ground aimed in just the right direction? I once made a phone call when I entered one of these prairie data warps, and what was the first thing I said? “You won’t believe where I’m calling from!” And then I realised I was speaking on a phone and thus promptly ended the call.
In Madrid in 1995, I had to check for messages back home and learnt that touch-tone dialling hadn’t yet reached Spain. The hotel’s concierge kindly loaned me a plastic diaphragm that resembled a Starbucks coffee lid, which then clamped on to the phone, which then allowed you to enter touch tones. Talk about a transitional technology, but it worked. Thank you, Spain.
I remember having fun on the phone. Phones were once the only game in town. The experience of using one was far more charged than might now be imagined. But then, sometimes, only the phone will do. It was around midnight Pacific time when I found out David Bowie died; I spent the next three hours calling friends around the planet. Email didn’t cut it, so there you go.
Last night my mother was asking why don’t all of our fancy-shmancy devices allow us to have video phone calls, so I walked into the den and FaceTimed her. She freaked out and immediately pointed her iPhone camera to the ceiling: “I don’t want people seeing me! That’s why phone calls are called phone calls!”
I’m mixed on video calls like Skype or Google’s Hangout: Skype, because the image quality is so degraded and its rules for names and passwords — and actually everything about it — feel so over-complex. Hangout’s not so bad, but still, why take something nobody wants to do anyway (speak on the phone) and add the surplus bummer of having to be visible? Some press outlets are now asking people interviewed by their staff to do so via Skype so they can archive the call or interview on their website forever and ever and ever and ever. Who thought that was a good idea? Unflattering camera angle? Check. Bad colour? Check. Scratchy and wobbly sound quality? Check. Perfect storm.
There’s a joke I learnt growing up, and it’s fun for both kids and adults. Take a bent matchstick or small strip of foil or cardboard and place it over someone’s finger. Then you ask them to repeat after you: “Wing wing.”
Them: “Wing wing.”
Pause for three seconds.
You: “Wing wing.”
Them: “Wing wing.”
Pause for three seconds.
You: “Wing wing.”
Them: “Wing wing.”
Then you pick up the piece of foil and hold it to your ear and say “Huwo?” Mirth!
Douglas Coupland’s new collection of stories and essays ‘Bit Rot’ is published by William Heinemann (£20). A museum show of the same name is on at Munich’s Villa Stuck
Illustrations by James Joyce
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