Editor's Choice

Muerte al voice mail

Tyler Cowen linked to this NYT piece about the incipient demise of voice mail. When I clicked on it, I was astounded by what appeared in my tab as a description of the article: "For some, voice mail is losing its allure." For some? Its allure??? Who are these people who like voice mail?

The article notes, "In an age of instant information gratification, the burden of having to hit the playback button — or worse, dial in to a mailbox and enter a pass code — and sit through 'ums' and 'ahs' can seem too much to bear." But that's a burden in an technological regime, I would think, and has nothing to do with "the age of instant information gratification," which ordinarily I'm rather concerned about. I think we feel obliged to consume too much of experience as information and process it. But on this subject of voice mail, I'm completely in sync with the techno-optimists who regard change as inherently positive. If you yearn for voice mail these days, you are hopelessly nostalgic for something that was actually detrimental and inefficient. I'm almost to the point where I have a revolutionary fervor about eradicating voice mail, and regarded it as somewhat treasonous when someone leaves me one or checks their own, thereby encouraging the continued exchange of information by that moribund medium.

I am heartened, then, by this:

Research shows that people take longer to reply to voice messages than other types of communication. Data from uReach Technologies, which operates the voice messaging systems of Verizon Wireless and other cellphone carriers, shows that over 30 percent of voice messages linger unheard for three days or longer and that more than 20 percent of people with messages in their mailboxes “rarely even dial in” to check them, said Saul Einbinder, senior vice president for marketing and business development for uReach, in an e-mail message.

I would have though that the end of voice mail would be celebrated by everyone, and its disappearance would go altogether unlamented. The article sets up a time frame that partially explains where its coming from -- in the 1980s voice mail was an innovation that must have seemed liberating; it ended the tyranny of presence. It made makeshift solutions to communications overload, like call waiting (an invention that never should have been), obsolete. But email should have ended the tyranny of the spoken word several years ago -- and I can't wait until all incidental mobile-phone communication is conducted through texts. No more frivolous speech acts!

For Charlie Park, 30, a Web developer in Williamsburg, Va., a text message is more efficient and — equally important — more respectful of the recipient’s time.

“You never send an e-mail that says, ‘Hey, e-mail me back!’ You’re always sending information,” he said.

I would hesitate to equate information delivery with "respect" -- that makes humans too much like mere data-processing machines -- but in my mind, this trend toward text is returning the sanctity to conversation, so that it requires all parties to be present and attentive and committed to a leisurely, reciprocal exchange of ideas. If talk doesn't rise to that level, let it be text.

The article ends on a sentimental note (a daughter's loving voice mail for her father), and the privileging of voice for communicating emotions. Not to go all Derridian, but the idea that presence is in the spoken word, and only distance is in l’écriture is a somewhat pernicious bias.I discover more about what I think by writing then by talking, there's no reason why that wouldn't be true about emotions. Somehow it almost seems easier to contrive emotions when speaking than when writing, where it takes careful, arduous artifice to produce an inauthentic emotion.

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