What’s wrong with using the phone?

I know it’s already been reported that younger people don’t use the phone. It’s said that they prefer to communicate in other ways, mainly via social media and its associated messaging services. They do this because they’re all linked in and continuously online so I guess it works.

I’m beginning to notice that older people are catching the habit too. They don’t ring you up, they send an email, or a WhatsApp. Sometimes they even send a WhatsApp to ask if they can call you. But it doesn’t work for them because they’re not linked in and continuously online so the immediacy of getting in touch by phone is lost and what might previously have been resolved in real time might take days.

My relationship with the phone began almost 70 years ago. I was living in my grandfather’s house and we had a phone, a big black Bakelite beast. There was no dial and to make a call you simply lifted the handset and waited for the operator. We were Connah’s Quay 125 and many of the calls we made were to other, similarly short, Connah’s Quay numbers.

Telephones were not as universal as they are today and when we moved to a new house, still in Connah’s Quay, we had to wait to get a phone installed. The forerunner of what’s now BT wasn’t exactly dynamic in responding to the need for new phones and I would imagine that even in the 60s fewer than a half of all houses were connected. This meant that if you had one you were always in demand with neighbours asking if they could use it and they’d generally pay four pence for the privilege. That wasn’t the incremental cost of the call but happened to be the standard charge for making a call from a phone box in those days.

Phone boxes were an essential part of the community infrastructure and using them was a ritual. First you put four pennies ‘in the slot’ which opened up a line to the operator. Then when you were connected the operator would ask you to ‘press button A’. If for some reason you could not make the call then you pressed button B and your fourpence was returned. Some users forgot to collect such money and a chance pressing of button B could net you a small financial gain. Such phones are of course no more but I remember coming across on in Hong Kong in the late 70s. I pressed button B and was rewarded!

Dial phones became ubiquitous in the 60s but you still needed occasional operator intervention. However first we got STD, subscriber trunk dialling, which enabled you to call anywhere in the UK directly. It wasn’t quite automatic though because phone numbers were still referred to according to the town so you needed a book of STD codes in order to make the call. Then after STD came IDD, international direct dialling, so that you only needed the operator when you wanted to do something fancy like reverse the charges.

Throughout this period and later I’ve had jobs with European and global stretch with the need to be in contact with salespeople and distributors all over. I spent much of my working hours on the phone: staying in touch, gathering information and prompting action. It worked but today I sense it’s not the same.

Others were similarly phone obsessed. When you travelled in the US you’d see banks of pay phones all over and as travellers got off planes they’d immediately call in either to talk to the office or to check voice mail lest something had happened whilst they’d been out of contact.

So that was it. A fully automatic global telephone system and that must have been in place in the late 70s. For what more could you ask?

Nothing really changed until car phones came along. The technology originated in the US in the 40s and became widely used in the Nordic territories in 70s and was still the preferred mobile telephone option elsewhere into the early 80s. I remember being in a salesman’s car in 1983 heading off for a dinner appointment. We were going to be late so he said we should ring ahead and warn the others. I groaned inwardly at the thought of stopping the car, finding a parking space and then a phone box from which to make the call. Imagine my surprise, and relief, when he simply lifted the handset from the box between the two front seats.

Of course mobile phones stayed in the car for some time simply because the batteries were so big. Although the networks grew through the 80s the phones remained largely in the car until the early 90s. The legacy of this era is the mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse.

We got our first mobile phone in the early 90s. I’m not sure we used it very much because the battery life was pretty rubbish. We had mobiles available in the companies I worked for in the mid 90s but they were still fairly clunky and it wasn’t until the end of the decade that I first acquired my own company mobile which was small enough to be conveniently carried on the person.

Mobile phones at the time were still just phones and the competition seemed to be which provider could supply the smallest one. There was also the issue of clam shell or not and some phones made a virtue out of a fold out microphone. The other twist was the US which ran a different system and not all phones could operate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Soon after 2000 cameras started to appear and that’s when my inner Luddite came into play. I felt that such cameras were inferior (correct) and that it was still better to use different devices for the two functions of using the telephone and taking photographs.

email on mobile phones also began to emerge at the same time, SMS messaging became popular and connections to the internet were offered. But it was all rather primitive, certainly in comparison with what we have today. I had a Blackberry for a while courtesy of the County Council and a succession of Nokia phones which allowed me to download and send email.

Everything changed of course in 2007 when the iPhone came along and provided easier to use and more functionality, an Apple touch screen user interface and integration with other applications, especially social media, on the web. Samsung et al launched competitive products soon after and since then it’s been Apple versus Android, bigger screens, more processing power and increased storage, and more sophisticated social media applications which have emulated telephony for generations of younger people but more about that below.

The mobile phone has changed communications and whereas in Europe and other advanced economies it’s been a natural development of terrestrial telephony elsewhere it’s been the first generation. Such countries have not developed extensive landline services and the mobile phone has been the enabler of a massive change in how their residents have been able to communicate. In the UK contracts continue to focus on phone time and SMS plus data but in Indonesia for example providers compete with the amount of data which they offer. I get along quite nicely on 500 MB/month. In Indonesia contracts are offered with up to 100 GB/month. The mobile phone is not just a phone it also substitutes for a home computer hooked up to broadband.

I got my first smartphone in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that my flirtation with Luddism is behind me. I still use it to make phone calls of course but I also use it to take lots of photographs, but it hasn’t replaced my DSLR, to check my email, to monitor some social media, to stay current with the news and to replace a free-standing satnav. I’m firmly in the Android camp and have only ever used HTC and Sony handsets. I own my own and am on a £6/month unlimited calls and SMS contract with giffgaff.

Younger people, especially the so-called Generation Y and the emerging generation Z, don’t see telephony as important for ‘synchronous’ communication. They are always on-line and use social media to stay in contact continuously with their friends and colleagues. Whereas I see a message sent by email or even WhatsApp as being one which may be read soon they see their equivalent as being one which will be picked up immediately. And whereas I find excessive communication as being ‘noise’ and interfering with the essential ‘signal’ of what I want to say they see it simple as a part of a continuous conversation which confirms that other parties are active, on-line and listening. It’s a different world.

It’s now 2020 and I use my smart phone extensively and most recently for banking and credit card payments. But I still use it as a phone because I know that if I get someone on the phone and ask a question I’ll get an answer. Or if I ask them to do something they’ll generally give me a straight yes or no answer so that I can move on confident in what’s happening.

Which brings me back to where I started. I’ll accept that younger people don’t use the phone in the same way but what is it about my peers? What makes them reluctant to engage directly but prefer to deal obliquely via email, SMS or WhatsApp? I’ve even got one colleague who sends a WhatsApp to ask for a phone call. At least that enable synchronous communication but the spontaneity has gone.

What surprises me though is that such behaviour is not limited to my generation. I do a little work with a successful local company and when you ask what its customers are saying about the impact of Covid on their businesses for example they say that they’d sent an email to ask but not yet had a reply. It’s strange that the pulse rate of business has slowed down even at a time when its speeding up elsewhere.

This behaviour reminded me of a time when I worked for a company which had been taken over by a large, aggressive and successful US firm. We were talking about a forthcoming important meeting. A senior manger from the US asked ‘will X and Y be attending?’ A colleague said he’d sent an email but not yet had a response. The manager then philosophised about what was important to him: being able to take care of his family, ensuring his company was well managed and successful, supporting new projects because they were the key to the future, and so on. ‘Now’ he said ‘will X and Y be attending the meeting?’ ‘I’ll call them right away’ our colleague said. Quite. There’s nothing like the immediacy of a phone call to get something done.

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