In the second season of the BBC soap-drama “Downton Abbey,” telephone service arrives at the house. The year is 1914, and not everyone is enthusiastic about the new technology. Struggling to conduct a conversation, an addled dowager countess finally gives up, turns to her granddaughter and asks, “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”
For all her fusty Victorianism, the dowager was actually 100 years ahead of her time. After a centurylong reign as the world's foremost communication device, the telephone — or at least the landline — has again become a source of dread and annoyance.
Data released last summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has tracked phone use for the last decade, showed that 40% of American households no longer had landlines and instead relied entirely on cellphones and all that implies. And while most people still make actual calls and use voice mail when they need to convey urgent news, there's an overwhelming preference for text messaging when it comes to everyday communication with friends.
Old-fashioned girl that I am, I still have a landline, though it rarely rings — and when it does, especially without warning, there's rarely anything good on the other end. Incoming calls generally fall into one of five categories: (1) alumni associations asking for donations, (2) credit card companies trying to get me to open new accounts, (3) robocalls asking if I want my carpet cleaned, (4) robocalls informing me of recalls on vehicles I never owned and (5) wrong numbers.
Friends or business associates do call on occasion, but they almost always email or text ahead of time asking if it's OK. I do the same for them. Anything else would be rude, literally alarming. Not to mention insulting. Calling someone without advance consent is tantamount to saying, “I know you have nothing better to do than wait for
the phone to ring so you can answer it.”
To leave a voice mail of any length — even just stating your name and your desire for a return call — is to force others to listen to you, shaving time off their lives that they will never get back. This must be why teenagers are so voice mail averse. They're aware of their own mortality. They want to use their limited time on Earth as efficiently and mindfully as possible — for instance by texting and hanging out on social media up to 11 hours a day, according to some studies.
Like U.S. mail, which, when you think about it, should be delivered not to our mailboxes but rather straight to our recycling bins so that we can all save ourselves a step, the telephone is something that was once associated with human connection but is now mostly a platform for the cheapest forms of advertising and money solicitation. The auto-dialed call from a telemarketer, with its telltale moment of silent static before an alleged human comes on and asks to speak with someone whose name has roughly the same vowel sounds and number of syllables as yours, is the telephonic equivalent of those mailed credit card solicitations that sit around for weeks while we mean to shred them but never get around to it.
In a viral video titled “Kids React to Rotary Phones,” children from 5 to 13 are seen examining 1970s and early '80s telephones with the same befuddlement the Downton dowager displayed. Confronted with the news that, in the era of those telephones, the only way you could talk with someone was if you were both home at the same time, an 8-year-old girl reacts with dismay.
“That's horrible,” she says. “Especially if you haven't seen them in a long time because you're super busy and you finally get to talk to them and they're not even home.”
But of course back then, “super busy” wasn't yet the culture's default setting. Before digital and mobile communications effectively tethered us to an invisible, infinite “wire,” even those with the most hectic schedules were usually willing to answer the phone if they happened to be home when it rang. On the other hand, it's hard to remember what else there was to do in the pre-digital age. Thank goodness that's over.