Monday, August 09, 2010

Love in the Age of Caller ID

If you're like me, you have learned to use caller ID to screen your calls. At home, we never answer any call that's from "unknown caller," "not available," "out of area," or a name and number we don't recognize. At work, I'm either able to anticipate the topic of the call or prepare myself for a wire-brushing, based on the identity of the caller. Caller ID has helped to make the telephone more useful, because it lets us decide whether to accept the interruption of the call. This is important, especially as we get ready for the enormous number of useless and inane robo calls coming in preparation for the November elections.

How we use (or don't use) the telephone was the subject of a fascinating article in yesterday's Washington Post: For Millenials, Love Is Never Asking Them to Call You Back" (online title, "Texting Generation Doesn't Share Boomers' Taste for Talk").

Author Ian Shapira sets up his article this way:

A generation of e-mailing, followed by an explosion in texting, has pushed the telephone conversation into serious decline, creating new tensions between baby boomers and millennials -- those in their teens, 20s and early 30s ... Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text.

All other things being equal, I would rather write and receive letters than make or receive an average phone call. It isn't that I don't enjoy talking with my family and friends, but that a phone call usually seems to arrive when I'm not expecting it, not prepared for it, and often can't think of what to say on the spur of the moment. When I write letters, I spend time thinking about what I want to say and how I want to say it, and I can always throw away a partially-written letter and start over if it doesn't sound right. You can't unsay the things you've already said in a telephone conversation, much as you'd sometimes want to.

Texting and, to a lesser extent, e-mail, are the new paradigm for communications. We also communicate via status reports on Facebook or 140-character tweets - impersonal to be sure, but allowing us more control over the information disseminate and the answer we provide. I thought it was fascinating when I attended a bloggers' happy hour last year and discovered that seven of the eight of us around the table had thumbs flying over the keyboards of BlackBerries, sending text messages in all directions...ignoring for that time the flesh-and-blood people sitting at the table. I don't recall anyone either sending or receiving a phone call during that time.

So, what does it all mean? Is it a sign of our growing impersonality and unwillingness to deal directly with each other? Perhaps. But it's also a sign of the evolution of communications that began with the introduction of the telephone. The decline of written correspondence (and the death agonies of the postal service) began with the ability to make immediate contact via telephone. It took less time to have a phone call than to write a good letter, and that time was available to do other things. But the telephone, in turn, eventually showed its own the classic play and film Inherit the Wind (a fictional retelling of the Scopes Trial), attorney Henry Drummond says, "Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.'"

Privacy and the charm of distance - pretty good arguments in favor of both traditional ink-on-paper letters and, perversely enough, texts and tweets...all of which allow us to pre-screen the information we provide and the answer we choose to return.

All that having been said, I doubt that any of us will cut the telephone cord completely. A call in honor of a birthday or Fathers' Day or Mothers' Day or some other such important event is still more desirable than an e-mail or a text message. But we'll continue to slowly evolve the way we communicate with each other...

...and I'll bet we'll eventually come full circle and start writing letters again.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - My son Matt put me on to the wonderful website Letters of Note yesterday...via Facebook. QED.



KKTSews said...

I'm forever chiding my 15 yr old that texting is an inefficient method of communicating some information. A conversation requiring back and forth, such as discussing what they teenage activitiy to enjoy over the weekend, may take an hour via text. Via conversation, it might also take an hour, but cover far more topics (boyfriends, new clothes, and oh-by-the-way what are we doing this weekend). It's a lost cause--just not in their pattern of acceptable behavior.

Mike said...

Written records are gong to last much longer than digital ones. 10,000 years from now no archaeologist is going to be able to see the 0's an 1's on a disc let along figure them out. Time to get out the stone tablet.

KathyA said...

I dislike the phone as well -- and believe it is a disruption. However, I won't be cutting the cord -- just not handing out my phone #.
I also tend to resent the assumption people have of others being always reachable. At least we leave the land lines at home!
PS I still write letters and love to receive them!

Chrissy said...

Have you seen these nutso contests with teenagers all texting faster than the next? I'm still hunting and pecking on my cell phone....