Something odd appears to be happening with telephones. They are a much more prominent presence among us these days and concurrently we spend much more of our time using them, but somehow, we seem to spend less and less time actually talking to each other. Some folk seem to want that; many seen not to have noticed.

Not too long ago we expected a human being to answer our calls though it might have been an operator at a large business or a secretary for someone important. When calling a friend or relative, we expected them or some family member to answer. Now we are constantly hearing about the progress we’ve made in communicating, so why does it seem to me that I am only ever trying to talk to a stupid –and arrogant- machine?

And the worst of it is, the stupid machines that do actually answer telephone calls now don’t converse at all; they just impose a multiple choice, push-button or voice-activated intelligence test if it is a large business or prompt you to leave a recorded message in hope of a call back if a smaller one. No conversation; no human contact. Even Internal Revenue agents answer only some 20% of their calls. In the cases when a business is calling you, that too is frequently a recorded message. Personal calls routinely end up as recordings or text; telephony is no longer a personal relationship. We hear repeatedly of everybody’s addiction to their phones, but how much of that usage is human conversation? Would you bet that average folk today speak to each other on their phones as often as their parents did? Or are we increasingly separated by our improved communications?

There is some support for that idea; apparently, the sales of dumb phones are rising enough to attract attention, though that may also reflect rising smart phone prices. And it is true that we can find plenty of callers anxious to converse, if we are open to advertisers, fund raisers and scammers though even these often enough stoop to recorded messages. That of course, reduces our readiness to answer incoming calls, explaining why so many are answered by recordings. It seems that, the more we improve our communications, the less we wish to use them personally. Perhaps it is a good thing that we have so far, failed to evolve telepathy…

While some of this appears to result from the combination of the new tech with normal human behavior, it also clear that it serves the purposes of certain interests. Business management must find machines less expensive and easier to supervise than people and government remains inherently paranoid in the presence of any communication; any American who doubts that last has but to contemplate the NSA. Both of these parties obviously share an interest in communicating with and snooping upon us and rather less interest in facilitating our private communication. It probably should not surprise us to see the regularly published laments over our children’s’ device immersion and direct social deprivation: progress has its price and the social media, its profits. The full cost of our quantum leap forward  in communicating bay remain to be appreciated; Governments everywhere display expanding direct or proxy supervision of the internet and cell phones. Less discussed but no less significant is the fragility of the physical system: a relatively modest natural disaster or human sabotage might effectively disintegrate modernity for millions of people overnight. And nor has Murphy’s Law been repealed in our universe; we may find in some other way that we have been building the latest Tower of Babel. But never mind, we’ve always done things like this and we’re still going … for now, anyway.   

About Jack Curtis

Suspicious of government, doubtful of economics, fond of figure skating (but the off-ice part, not so much) Couple of degrees in government, a few medals in figure skating; just reading and suspicion for economics ...
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  1. Kenneth T. says:

    Yours might be a phone – mine is a mobile computing device. I almost never use a computer, (except at work) unless it’s my small nearly everything device (and yes there is a phone feature).

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