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The end of the culture of the telephone

This is an excerpt from this week’s edition of Noticing,’s newsletter.

Alexis Madrigal wrote movingly about the death of 20th century telephone culture in “Why No One Answers Their Phone Anymore.” A combination of more media options, a glut of robo-calls, and the transformation of the telephone technology itself, with caller IDs, individual rather than household numbers, and mutable ringtones have changed not just a communication medium, but a way of life. And it’s part of a pattern of shifting media use from real-time to my-time. (When this first emerged, I used to call it TiVo Time.)

I wonder though, whether telephone culture has died or it’s metastasized. Madrigal writes: “When you called someone, if the person was there, they would pick up, they would say hello. If someone called you, if you were there, you would pick up, you would say hello. That was just how phones worked. The expectation of pickup was what made phones a synchronous medium.”

Avital Ronell, a wonky writer/philosopher I read a lot back in my grad school days, writes in The Telephone Book (1989) about the always-on nature of the telephone as a key element of its mode of being. “Respond as you would to the telephone, for the call of the telephone is incessant and unremitting. When you hang up, it does not disappear but goes into remission…. There is no off switch to the technological.”

This is now basically our state all the time! Not exclusively on the telephone, but on at least one of the electrical vibrations of telecommunications, everywhere we go, every minute of every day.

So it’s almost as if we’re now always on the telephone. A ring is like a call waiting notification that we can acknowledge or ignore. And most of the time, now, many of us ignore it. But only on the rarest occasions do we ignore the entire electronic hum. That’s where most of us live now.

(See also: this 1927 documentary on how to use a dial telephone.)