Tag Archives: telephones

Text vs. Talk

Nobody answers the phone anymore.  Not unless the call is from a member of that small, select group who qualify for as much in your life, and not unless call display tells you it’s them.  And maybe not even then.

Do you remember when you would unhesitatingly pick up the phone, not knowing who was calling, but confident that you would then be able to talk with someone you cared to?

file4421234854056Not if you’re among the technologically ‘native’ generations you don’t.  For anyone born from the late 80s on, texting rules.  A phone call is intrusive, burdensome to manage, and difficult to exit.  For my generation, on the other hand, texting seems like a throwback in technology, slow and cumbersome, like going back to the typewriter after enjoying the benefits of word processing.

Texting is all about control of course, carefully crafting, on your own time, a message that may appear casual but is in fact considered, strategic, probably revised.  A phone call is unpredictable, volatile even, and calling for that skill so prized by the Victorians—conversation.

But texting also directly reflects the hermetic quality of digital technology, that quality which allows us, in Sherry Turkle’s words, to be “alone together.”  Simply put, it’s more isolating.  The contact you make with another human being via texting is removed, with very real—not virtual—time and space set between sender and receiver.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, isolation can be a good thing, something that most of us don’t get enough of.  Isolation where it leads to the opportunity for quiet contemplation, for thought, for listening to near silence; this sort of isolation is therapeutic, spiritual shoring up which should be a recurring part of our lives.  I spent a couple of summers alone on a very isolated fire tower when I was young, watching for smoke rising from the wilderness forests surrounding me, but really just being with myself, being with myself until I had no choice but to accept myself, and then move on.  The experience changed my life forever; it may be the single smartest thing I’ve ever done.

But that isolation, alone with the wondrous beauty of the Canadian wilds, also regularly made otherwise fully sane, well-grounded individuals slip off the edge of sanity.  “Bushed” it was called then, and probably still is.  There were scads of stories, but the best one I heard personally was from a forest ranger who, driving past a towerman’s hilltop station one evening, decided to pay a visit.  As he drove the winding road up to the tower, he glimpsed the lighted windows of the cabin a few times, but, when he pulled into the yard, those lights were off.  Surmising that the man had just gone to bed, he turned around, headed back down.  But from the road now twisting down the hill, he saw that the lights were back on.

His suspicions aroused, he returned to the cabin, again found the lights off, but this time knocked on the door.  With no response, he let himself in to find the man hiding timorously under his bed.

We are social animals who need regular human contact, and the more social contacts we have, the more likely it is that we are happy.  A little time spent in the company of others was all that was needed by those afflicted like the towerman above, in order to return to a healthy mental state.   Because here’s the thing; too much isolation leads to the isolated avoiding, not seeking out human contact.  I can attest to as much.  After enough days spent alone, you no longer wish to associate with other people.  It’s too much effort, requiring skills that are too corroded.

Now there is obviously a vast, vast degree of difference between mountaintop and telephone isolation, but that’s my point; it is only a difference in degree.  The direction of the impact is the same, toward insecurity and deteriorated social skills.

Like most digital technology, there’s no going back.  Innovation has again created a need we didn’t even know we had.  I won’t be picking up my phone any more often in future, but engagement is the price I’m paying, and engagement is precisely what makes us more alive.


Future Imperfect

“You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.”

—A publisher who rejected John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which would go on to be described by Publishers Weekly as “the best spy novel of all-time.”

file000152304352 When it comes to predicting the future, we all make mistakes.  As we age, we hope to make them slightly less often, but, let me assure you, we never entirely escape the incidence.  Some of us, however, are in positions of authority which make the dimensions of our prognosticating blunders truly spectacular.  Infamous examples abound, especially in the cultural realm…

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

—Harry Warner of Warner Brothers, dismissing the idea of ‘talkies’ in 1925.

“Guitar groups are on the way out… The Beatles have no future in show business.”

—Dick Rowe, Decca Recording executive, snubbing The Beatles in 1962.

So too in the realm of technological future-telling.  Tim Wu, in his highly entertaining The Master Switch, recounts how in 1877 Western Union [Telegraph] was the most powerful information corporation on the planet, exclusive owners of the only continent-wide communications network.  The Bell [Telephone] Company was at the time a new and struggling tech firm with few customers and even fewer investors.  Such was the financial duress felt by Bell that the company’s President offered Western Union all of Bell’s patents for $100,000.  William Orton, Western Union’s President, declined the offer.  A company memo circulated a year earlier summed up Western Union’s take on the admittedly primitive Bell technology: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

Lest you think that the pace of technical innovation was invariably slower in the 19th century, it should be noted that, less than a year later, Western Union recognized the error of that take, and embarked upon a furious development effort of its own, commissioning a promising young inventor named Thomas Edison to come up with a better phone.  The effort would prove strangely inopportune (proving that luck too always plays a part in determining the future), when, just as Bell launched a patent-infringement lawsuit, it was discovered that Jay Gould, Robber Baron King mentioned elsewhere on this blogsite, was secretly buying up shares of Western Union, in preparation for a hostile takeover.  Western Union was suddenly obliged to view its telephone dust-up as a “lesser skirmish, one it no longer had the luxury of fighting.”  The company settled out of court with Bell on less than favorable terms, and Bell soon re-emerged as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which would become the most successful communications company of the 20th century.

file1251307481611In a ‘look back’ article published earlier this year, U.S. News revisited its own predictive report from 1967 entitled, “The Wondrous World of 1990.”  The predictions made in the 1967 piece range from wide misses—a manned Mars landing, a cure for the common cold—to the remarkably prescient—a “checkless, cashless” economy, an “automated” (Google?) car.  (A blithe addendum notes how, if the driver of the robotic car does not accelerate as instructed, “the [computerized] roadway takes over control.”)

More broadly, two prophecies stand out for me in the 1967 article, two points central to the themes of this blog.  One is a miss; the other a palpable hit.  The miss discusses how, “Production and wealth will rise faster than population, so that incomes will climb steadily.”  This in turn will mean that the typical 1967 worker, who was then putting in about 2000 hours a year on the job, would, by 1990, see those hours drop to 1700 or less.  “The four-day week will arrive,” trumpets the article.

If only they had gotten that right.

The hit relates to, “Underlying the transformation to come is a quickening in the tempo of development out of scientific discoveries already made.”  One Dr. Richard G. Folsom, then President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is quoted: “The magnitude of change will expand, even explode.”

That much they did get right.


The Social Good

Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay for The Social Network is, for my money, the very best of recent years.  Nothing better has been written (or at least circulated in movie form) since its release in 2010, and, prior to that, it’s the best since 2004’s Sideways.  Moreover, Sideways was able to operate freely within the unrestricted field of fiction, building upon more overt, invented characters.  The Social Network takes real people and history as its starting points, and turns a story without much visual dynamism, or exciting events for that matter, into a tale with great resonance for our age.

images-7It begins with a scene between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend from his Harvard College days, setting up what I think is the central question of the entire movie: ‘Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?’  I don’t mean to be flip or personally demeaning with this articulation, since I think the question encompasses far broader implied questions, all the way out to, ‘Is Facebook an evil force?’, or even, ‘Is the internet of overall benefit to humankind?’

Some have suggested that Zuckerberg so ardently pursued development of ‘The Facebook,” as it was then called, in a piteous attempt to overcome his nerdish status with his college coeds.  I don’t see this; Zuckerberg may not have been the Brad Pitt of the 2003 Harvard campus, but the screenplay is after a more nuanced, moral examination of his motivations and character.  As it adroitly points out in its final evocation of the Beatles tune, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” Zuckerberg saw the commercial and power payoffs possible in the expansion of Facebook from the get-go, and he so vigorously pursued expansion above-all—forgoing numerous opportunities for any early cash-in—because of that.

He and his Facebook honchos would disagree of course.  They had more altruistic goals in mind all along, they would claim, although no one should object to a hardworking entrepreneur seeing eventual financial gain from his efforts.  No, Facebook set out to positively change the world, to make our society more transparent and open, more supportive of the individual citizen.  The cause continues even today, with various Facebook campaigns purporting to ‘end loneliness,’ an admirable aim indeed.  As Charlie Chaplin once wrote, loneliness is “the theme of everyone.”

And in many ways Facebook has succeeded in changing the world.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a new medium now, serving almost one sixth of the world’s population, becoming the equivalent of what the telephone was to my generation.  My parents were never so generous, but I remember well the clichéd image from the 60s of the teenage daughter who had to have her own telephone line, such were the extended hours she spent in phone conversation with her friends each evening.

Zuckerberg has said that, “You only have one identity,’ and that may be true now, but it wasn’t always so.  In the past, it was far easier to reinvent oneself, if one needed to, by simply leaving town.  As others have pointed out, unlike the teenage girl’s phone conversation, your Facebook profile is neither passing nor private; there’s no more leaving the past behind if you’ve been a regular updater over the years.

But the change has not of course been evenly or fairly applied.  Just as with the industrial revolution, the accumulation of capital in the hands of the leading entrepreneurs of the day has occurred concurrent with many people losing their jobs just as many others land new ones.  One telling example pointed out by Jarod Lanier is Google Translate which has steadily poached from the work of air-breathing translators, progressively improving itself on the backs of these labourers, to the point where many of them are now obsolete.  And we may be sure no royalties were paid for the millions of translation samples pilfered silently, anonymously.

One of the more interesting moral questions posed in The Social Network script is whether or not Zuckerberg was guilty of stealing the idea for Facebook from that inherent in a software scheme brought to him by the Winklevoss twins, a couple of his Harvard cohorts.  The courts eventually said he was, and those cohorts too were then set for life, but Zuckerberg’s stated defense against the charge is particularly revealing: “I didn’t use any of their code!”  If only the moral question involved can be that narrowly defined.

The digital revolution has brought many benefits to many people, but again, just like the industrial revolution, there are painful adjustments involved, and those capitalists at the top of the new economic order will not be easily swayed to ensuring that they always do the greater good.  They will need to be restrained at times, on issues of privacy for instance, and no matter how fervent Mark Zuckerberg is in his belief that he is changing the world for the better, the change is neither guaranteed nor uniform.






It Started With the Telephone.


I once heard an elderly woman speaking about the arrival of telephones in the remote utopian community of Sointula, BC, where she grew up.  (The area had been settled by a group of Fins who rowed over to the village’s location on Malcolm Island in 1901, escaping the brutal drudgery of Nanaimo BC’s coal mines.)  The onset of phones in Sointula meant that no longer did one have to ‘drop by’ to communicate with a neighbour, a little ‘face time’ was no longer necessary.  Something indefinable had changed in her community with the advent of the telephone, mused the woman, wistfully; something was never quite the same.

The use of telegraph wires and Morse code of course preceded that of phones, but it seems to me that the telegram wasn’t guilty of the same social isolation.  It wasn’t in your home for one thing, and there was this other human intermediary involved as well, if only to tap out the dots and dashes that your brief missive was translated into.  The telegraph was almost a ‘public’ utility.

Nope, it was the arrival of phones that effectively began the physical separation of communicating human beings that we now see fully manifest in cyberspace.  Now we are all, in the words of author Sherry Turkle, “alone together” in a virtual world where your physical presence is only periodically, infrequently a part of the communication process.  Now we are all sitting in millions of tiny private theatres, connected, but only electronically, and usually not to our neighbours, maybe even not to our family.

We thought of it as ‘hermetic’ when the process first began evolving back in the 80s, when VHS tapes and ‘home theatre’ set-ups began replacing the social experience of going out to the movie houses.  We may have made slight ‘clucking’ sounds back then, shaking our heads in mild regret at the passing of the communal event, but the truth is I didn’t regret it, certainly not once larger format TV screens began appearing.  I didn’t miss the blaring of ads before the film, nor the people whispering two rows behind me, nor the cell phones chiming in the darkness.  But it’s different now; regardless of my original guilty intent, there is definitely something meaningful that’s missing these days, something to do with community.

The web has undoubtedly increased the number of communities on the planet, but the increase is of course in the number of virtual communities, and with the growing number and strength of web communities has come a steady erosion of real world communities.  The more we are an energetic member of Avaaz, the online activist association, or a regular voter on American Idol, or a frequent updater of our LinkedIn profiles, the less likely it is we are a contributing member of our real-world community, that realm of people just outside our front door.

And there is something qualitatively different about person-to-person communication; we all know this.  The full sonic range of the voice, the subtleties of the body language, the tactile wonder of touch.  It’s the difference between a spectacularly flowing 70 mm Omnimax, helicopter-shot image of a wild Rocky Mountain valley in summer, and actually standing in that valley, the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, smelling the alpine meadow flowers.  The first is indeed amazing, but the experiential gap between the two is nevertheless vast.

The web can be part of the solution of course.  MeetUp.com is a remarkable resource for putting people who share an interest—everyone from dog walkers to Spanish speakers to Drupal aficionados—in the same room.  But individually, it’s all just one more reason to disconnect daily, to go for a coffee, a beer or a walk with your friend.

It’s no accident that the words communication and community share so many letters.  In the final, genuine, ‘full-throated’ analysis, the two can both be reduced to electronic words, sounds or images and still be effective, certainly efficient, but they’ll remain digital, as opposed to real.