June 24, 2011

When phone calls could be trance-inducing

Via Steve Sailer, here's an article from last year by Virginia Heffernan, mourning the analog phone call. She explores how the changes in engineering have disrupted the intimacy of the phone calling culture, for example the more frequent dropped calls, the chewed-up sound quality, and with tiny handsets the vanishing of "the awesomely strange sensation, via the mouth- and earpieces, of being inside someone else's accent, intonations and sighs, ear canal and larynx and lungs."

What was it about analog phones that allowed a conversation to last "hours upon dazed hours," that's missing in the digital age? It's not just the fact that people don't call each other anymore, or that the dazed feeling had simply beeen transferred to the realm of texting. No one gets mentally lost for hours in texting -- it is the choppiest and most attention-requiring form of communication ever invented. There's something about cell phones that won't let you lose your self-consciousness.

For all the reasons she goes over in the article, digital voice calling breaks the feeling of intimacy needed in order to shut off your mental spotlight and just go with the flow in a conversation with someone you trust. On top of that, though, is a basic ergonomic factor -- namely, how damn uncomfortable it is to hold a cell phone next to your head for more than ten minutes. The pinnacle of common phones, the Conair Phone, offered a handset designed to be cradled by the human hand, that could be supported between the ear and shoulder if you needed your hands free for a moment, and that could still fit snugly next to your mouth and ear when you were laying down and not even holding it at all, only letting it rest on the bed or pillow.

Other analog phone handsets, like the barbell-shaped ones, let you grip them, but that is still tenser than cradling. And because of the barbell shape, they wanted to flop with the mouth and earpiece pointing down, so you had to apply a little extra pressure to hold it the right way. But that's just hairsplitting.

Cell phones, however, hurt the hand if you talk for awhile. The rounder-shaped and larger-sized smart phones can be cradled more so than the earlier microscopic and razor-slim cell phones, where you had to squeeze its sides with your fingertips, an incredibly tense pose for the hand. But they still don't take up enough space to be supported only by cradling; squeezing and gripping is still necessary. And because of how thin they are, you find yourself flexing out the palm-side of your lowest knuckles to prop it up better. You also tire from having to hold it higher up than the analog handset, which most people held near the mouthpiece, and you can't support it on your shoulder or when lying down. It's not painful, but these many little inconveniences make it harder to just blank out your mind when talking.

Texting is even less suitable. The utter irregularity of exchanges prevents a rhythmic alternation between partners, or even of a steady stream from one of them while the other listens for awhile. It is like trying to dance along to the on-again / off-again racket of construction on the street outside. And texting allows everyone to indulge their inner upper-hand-gainer and leave a text unanswered for awhile, in order to appear like you have more to do in that instant than just check your Facebook again. This adversarial striving for dominance may have its place in the beginning of a relationship, to determine at the outset who is less desperate to reply to texts than the other. But once a relationship has been cemented, constantly playing petty games like this erodes trust.

During analog phone calls, there was no contest to see who could wait the longest before responding to what the other said, since you couldn't pretend to be occupied with something else -- you were giving them more or less all of that span of time. When you're texting with someone, though, you assume that they're doing all sorts of other things in between responses, which totally kills the vibe of two people trying to connect, whatever wonders it may work for making plans, getting information, etc.

Not being a girl, I never used to walk around the house with a phone attached to the side of my face. But I still miss the analog phone culture. Long phone calls were still needed to maintain the bonds of friendship between guys, although there wasn't a whole lot of yakking -- it was like hanging out on their couch, not really gossiping or having to say much, but just making a costly display of your commitment to the friendship. Sometimes my friends and I would just tune into the same TV show and watch it together over the phone, only speaking here and there if something was funny, painfully stupid, and so on. And occasionally there are times when you need to help one of your buddies through something, or they have to help you, and how could you let go and lay it all out there without a sense of trust and turning off your self-consciousness?

Then there were phone calls with girls. I don't remember making a habit of talking for long stretches over the phone with my girlfriends -- why not just meet and talk face-to-face? But sometimes it was impossible or inconvenient to see them, and a nice long phone call could still allow you two to drift out of conscious awareness together. You don't enter (or exit?) that mental state with just any old person -- sharing that experience proves to the other that you trust them enough to dial down your self-monitoring, and they prove the same to you. Only in adversarial or at-arm's-length interactions do you really police what you say.

And of course what better practice was there for the test of calling the girlfriend than talking to your chick friends over the phone? I only had about three who I called at all, but one was pretty close, and we could easily leave the rest of the world behind for a couple hours talking about who cares what. This experience through phone calls is more important in guy-girl friendships because hanging out in-person is less common there than if it's two guys or two girls. And the trust created is especially needed when the friends are boy and girl, given the justified suspicion girls have that their guy friends may be trying to get them in bed.

On a side note, one of a teenage girl's most important ways of establishing trust and warmth on her side is to giggle and laugh, and those sounds just do not come through in digital. If pieces of speech go missing through poor sound quality, we can reliably go back and fill them in to recover the meaning. But a giggle does not have some specific meaning like a word does -- it's more like the reflex girls have where they reach out and touch your arm to heighten your closeness. Having her variety of non-speech sounds garbled by cell phones is like being touched by some phantom hand of hers that was only partly there.

Although its role is minor, the disappearance of analog phones probably contributes to the very lukewarm emotions and even suspicions that Millennial boys and girls have toward each other, whether in the area of dating or just friendship.

This raises an interesting question -- if the cell phone technology as it exists today and at today's real prices had existed back in 1984 when Virginia Heffernan was lost in the phone culture, would anyone have bothered with them to the extent they do today? I'm sure they would've kept them for emergencies, and used texting for making concrete plans and asking specific pressing questions. But people were more social, trusting, and uninhibited back then, so I doubt they would've allowed cell phones to replace analog phones. (The same goes for internet usage.) Perhaps only once people's mindsets had already shifted in a more sheltered, suspicious, and self-conscious direction could cell phones have taken over rather than complemented analog phones.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."