Sitting here in my den, I have two ways that I can call you and two ways that I can get a call from you. One of them has been around since the late 1800s and still does pretty much what it did when it was invented. The other is virtually magic in a box — and that box isn't much bigger than a deck of cards.
One sits like a weird dusty antique on my desk. It's not pretty. No talented designer has ever bothered to make it museum-worthy. When it rings, I hear the same sound, no matter who is calling. It won't let me play Brick Breaker when I'm bored, it has no built-in GPS to remind me how to get to Temecula, it doesn't get text or e-mail, it has no apps and, as devices go, it's pretty much chained to the house. It can't even take pictures.
The other one does everything I could want and about a thousand more things I have no interest in. I can check the weather and my stocks. When I call friends in New York, it costs me no more than when I call my office, which is 10 minutes away. When my friend Jim calls, it plays "The Rockford Files" theme; when my boss calls, it plays a funeral dirge. I know who's calling without taking it out of my pocket. It links automatically to my car's Bluetooth system, so I don't have to worry about getting one of those onerous talking-while-driving tickets that no one ever seems to get. Unless I'm deep in an underground parking structure, I never miss a call.
So why am I suddenly nostalgic for my maligned, nearly obsolete land-line telephone, and why do I so often prefer it, when I'm here at home, to my newer, cooler gadget? I'm a guy who likes his tech toys: I love my iPad, my Prius was one of my smarter purchases, I'd give up sugar before I'd give up Quicken, and chances are good I'll be buried with my ever-present smartphone.
But my smartphone isn't always smart. When it comes to an effortless, nearly foolproof, reliable, high-quality device, I have a soft spot for my land line. The reason is simple: If I'm talking to you from my land line and you're on your land line, I can actually hear you. Perfectly. If we're both on our cells, chances are good that we're in for some frustrations, even in 2010.
It's not the cellphone's fault; it's the technology and circumstances that surround it. The air conditioning in your car will drown out your Bluetooth, and even if it doesn't, your Bluetooth will make you sound as if you're shouting at me from the far end of a high school gym.
The Bluetooth you wear in your ear is no better. In a few years, you'll go crazy trying to disguise your hearing aid, but today you'll wear a Zippo lighter with blinking LEDs on your ear as if Anna Wintour were touting them on the cover of Vogue. Things will go wrong while we're talking: You'll drive through a canyon, you'll be walking on the street and it'll start raining, your battery will go dead, you'll hit that weird dead zone between Playa del Rey and Manhattan Beach, or you'll be surrounded by skyscrapers. If airplane travel were as reliable as the average cellphone call, half of us would have died in fiery wrecks.
Our conversation will be shorter, more frustrating and, if we're lucky, we'll sound like half-deaf geezers ("What?" "Say that again, will you?" "Close your car window, damn it.") It's no accident that Verizon Wireless has as its slogan, "Can you hear me now?" A lot of times, we can't.
We have very little choice in the matter. Land lines are going the way of typewriters, soap operas and videotapes. Americans are dropping their land lines in favor of wireless at the rate of 700,000 a year; 25% of households have only wireless phones. Within 10 to 15 years, we won't be using traditional land lines; we'll use cellphones or VoIP via our computers (which, if you've tried it, is also not without its glitches). AT&T refers to land lines as POTS — Plain Old Telephone Service. If that assessment isn't a death knell, I don't know what is.
The medium is the message, and the way we communicate is changing as we morph from genteel land lines to multipurpose smartphones. Talking on the phone used to require a modicum of concentration (not much, but some). Talking on a cell is something you do while driving, picking out produce at Gelson's, walking your dog or waiting for lunch, while cutlery clatters all around you.
A land line can do so little, and even the most basic cellphone can do so much. But the problem with all those options is that people often choose the wrong one. There are those who rarely talk — they only text. Or people like those at my work who ignore their office voicemail for days, checking it only when someone texts them a reminder. My friend Rob was visiting from the East Coast, and as I drove to pick him up for lunch, he texted me his exact location. Of course, reading a text while you're driving isn't easy, and because we were both using cellphones, he could have called me and said, "I'm at Pico and Overland." (I pointed this out, and his meager defense was, "I'm from New York. That's not how we do it.")
If voice communication had been invented after e-mail and texting, we would have seen it as the grandest scientific advance since hair gel and HBO. We'd be chatting on the phone 24 hours a day. But in the weird way that the human mind works, newer is better. Texting is better than talking. Problematic connections are more desirable than reliable ones. Complaining about an indecipherable cell call brands you as someone who listens to Perry Como on vinyl. The woes of Bluetooth trump the boring predictability of a corded phone.
Bluetooth is ugly and frustrating; no wonder everyone likes it. Bluetooth alone has done more to destroy civil discourse than cable news and talk radio put together.
My land line and I may only have a few years left, so I intend to make the most of them. If you have a land line too, give me a call. I'm in the phone book.
You have one of those, right?
Stephen Randall is the deputy editor of Playboy.