June 4, 2011

“Fass dich kurz!”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the price we pay for each telephone call we make determines the quality of the call and its contents.  And by ‘quality’ I don’t mean whether the connection is successful or if the line is scratchy.

Let me elaborate by drawing a comparison.

In the old days, when domestic telephones used to be situated in hallways and before multiplexing made its appearance, telephone users were more cautious about making a call.  If they did eventually decide that, yes, the call was necessary, they made sure they got off the line as quickly as possible.  By today’s standards, the cost of making phone calls then was much more expensive.  With charges determined by call duration and geographical destination, short local calls were cheaper.  And if you had a lot to say to someone who lived on another continent, then write a letter.

In my first job I worked in an office where every telephone was plastered with stickers reminding people to ring after 1.00 p.m. when off-peak calls were cheaper.  You were only justified in making morning calls in life-or-death situations.  Mornings were always blissfully quiet, but the afternoons erupted as all the telephones went crazy and rang non-stop.  Try telling your office workers today not to make calls during morning hours.

My supervisor remembers making telephone calls as a teenager (again in her home’s hallway) and having her father shout at her to be brief.  Anecdotal evidence shows that this is by no means an unusual experience in the early twentieth century.  In those days, time really was money.

Now that I think about it, making phone calls in the earlier decades must have been very much like using Twitter: you had to be short and succinct to get your message across in as few words as possible.  No waffling on for hours on end.

Most people choose to pay a flat rate for their telephone connection, mobile or landline.  Quite often they get the whole package – telephone, internet, television. 

When you’re talking on the telephone, your mind is free of the torment of the ticking clock.  You can talk for two minutes or two hours, the price is the same. 

You no longer have to think twice about whether the call is really essential or not.  You can ring someone up to be purely sociable, to catch up on gossip, or just because you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do and want to ease the boredom of a long train journey (and have no reading material to hand).  Those bores that use their mobiles to drone on in public places about their inane existence are well known examples.

The comparison
Now I come to my point about call quality.  If the cost of the telephone call is cheap, you don’t give a second thought to lifting up the receiver.  It doesn’t seem such a waste then to use the telephone for trivial reasons.  With timed, expensive calls, on the other hand, you really question the necessity of making that call.  Anyone who has ever had to make an important call from a public phone box with just one 10p coin will understand the implications.

Perhaps there is an element of technological determinism here.  The nature of our telephone network (and its pricing structure) shapes not only our communications practices but also our attitudes towards that network.

I’ll finish off with a salutary lesson for ardent telephone users.  Last month Amtrak officials threw a woman off a night train after passengers complained that she had been speaking loudly on her phone, for 15 hours.  I’m left wondering – what on earth did this woman find to talk about for 15 hours?

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.