Sure, we have technology at our fingertips 24-7 with the advent of the smartphone, but did we lose something valuable when we largely did away with the landline?
That’s the idea posited in a piece in The Conversation by Barbara Keys, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne. Keys says her research shows that the old-style telephone system fostered a feeling of “community, intimacy and connection” that modern communications technology lacks.
“This suggests that we have lost as much as we have gained with our high-tech gizmos,” she suggests.
Her research is around how political activists used communication systems then and now to mobilise themselves. But plenty of her findings are applicable to the everyday, much of it around the importance of hearing a voice rather than receiving a message in text.
Calling someone on a landline took far more effort than just the push of a button. Deciding to stay in one spot long enough to have even a short conversation was the norm, rather than talking as we walk, shop or, worse, go to the toilet. Making the effort to sometimes have to look up a phone number in a phone book. Dialling the number on a rotary phone, getting one number wrong and having to dial again. And hanging on to what could be a heavy handset, effectively tied to the spot, while you nattered.
Then there was the sometimes lovely, sometimes fraught, anticipation of ‘will he/she, won’t he/she’ call me in romantic matters – there’s little guesswork involved when one can immediately see whether another person has seen their message, as is possible on messaging apps. And the opportunity to hear a long-awaited voice on an answering machine, rather than a garbled voice-to-text missed-call text message, that usually requires a few minutes of deciphering.
“Those calls were about much more than sharing information,” Keys writes in The Conversation. “Calling on a landline phone was a labour-intensive form of communication, but it provided immediate personal contact, an opportunity for genuine exchange, and an emotional depth that written communication lacked.”
Speaking into a handset rather than relying on any number of messaging apps to communicate even trivial information helped connect us in ways that a quick text message can never do, the academic argues. And the lack of this human voice contact in online discourse helps foster the often cruel and narcissistic behaviour seen in online-online gatherings, such as social media groups.
“The generation that has grown up on smart phones, which have become devices for avoiding talk, lack empathy and struggle to form friendships based on trust, according to one study,” Keys says.
Of course, online communities can be tightly bonded, even though the members may be many thousands of miles apart. And they can bring valuable solace to people otherwise cut off from human contact. But taking part in those communities requires relatively little effort compared to what it took to form a ‘community’ in the past.
Keys admits that landlines came with many problems – missed calls, bad lines and dropped connections were a few of the. As she says, “you can bond over the phone, but you can also argue”.
“But the rise of smart phones – which Americans check eight billion times a day – has not meant that we communicate better,” Keys concludes.