Phoning it in

by Rob Horning

13 February 2007


Several bloggers have recently noted a dread of having to talk on the phone. Matt Yglesias wonders if this is “a common psychological profile to blogging’s early adopters” and Amanda Marcotte argues that “the phone simply fails to live up to the internet as a form of remote communication. The advantages of the internet are that you have more control over when you speak to someone. In chat, if they’re online, sweet, you can talk to them. If you’re busy or distracted, log off and no feelings hurt. Email is casual but can be performed on your time. The telephone has none of the convenience or privacy of the internet, but it doesn’t really have the intimacy of in-person conversations.”

I also hate the phone; it’s ringing jangles my nerves like nothing else, particularly because I’ve saddled myself with a principled opposition (loosely based on Kant’s categorical imperative) to letting it ring through to the answering machine. I can fully relate to Marcotte’s point that phone conversations are not sufficiently immersive enough to stop one from, say, playing Freecell at the same time and missing two out of five words the other person says. Maybe being overly habituated to getting information through reading augments that problem; it may take words on a page to get me to really concentrate and focus, and it takes an interlocutor being in the room with me to enforce my attention. Phone conversation also rewards arbitrary space filling;  getting a call can sometimes feel like being a television that a bored person’s turned on, looking for distraction.

The problem with phone conversations, I think, is that they promise presence but produce absence. Phone talk is pseudointimacy that mocks real intimacy. A phone conversation delivers another’s unique voice to you, but it’s a faint shadow of really hearing them. With other forms of immediate long-distance communication available, what the phone as a medium now communicates (and with such force it tends to drown out whatever is being talked about) is the specificity of the person’s voice, and how that voice is not there in the room with you. This prompts me to want to use the phone exclusively for making plans to see people in person in the very near future. Otherwise the fungible written word will have to suffice.

The phone can easily and unfortunately be deployed as a means to control other people. But perhaps online communication may end up providing us too much control over conversation, making it something that is so completely on-demand that it will eventually become solipsistic. No one will ever be able to force you to discuss something you are not interested in, but perhaps should be—instead you may be able to use online communcation as a screen, tossing off postponing or superficial e-mails that seem to attend to such matters without really bearing down on them. “Real” interepersonal communication may require some actual sacrifice at some point, some reciprocation and compromise (for better or worse, the phone demands these). These are perhaps the building blocks of commitment to a specific audience. But online presence management seems to promise the eradication of these nuisances. You’ll be able to have conversation only when it suits you, and you will pop online and be content to talk to whoever happens to be out there. The online population is so vast as to prvide any number of people who might relate to you, or at least hold up the mirror in which you want to see yourself. The specificity of the other person may come to be fully irrelevant, leaving you typing for your own sake, for the pleasure it gives you to read your own words regardless of who it is prompting them. Hell, at that point you may as well be blogging.

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