Saturday, July 31, 2010

Don't Talk To Me

It's not that I'm antisocial or anything, but I seem to be talking less. I don't mean in person. If you bump into me at the store or we go out to lunch, we'll chat and catch up on family and current events and the strange and silly things that are in the news. Sure, they'll be times when I'll be quieter than usual, others where you probably wish that I would just shut up. But be it big concepts or small talk, you'll have no doubt I'm not mute.
Remove me from your physical proximity, however, and it's a different story. More and more, my exchanges with others involve me tapping my fingers as opposed to flapping my lips. Be it email or texting, these days my connections with those across the office, across town or across the country are just as likely to be done by typing and responding as they are by speaking. I can joke, negotiate, argue, discuss, weigh in, plead, be sarcastic, fawn, kiss up or just shoot the breeze without the wind ever crossing my vocal chords, save a groan or a chuckle strictly for my own benefit.
I'm hardly alone in this change. Cellphone industry group CTIA reports that more than 822 billion text messages were sent and received on carriers' networks during the last half of 2009, amounting to almost 5 billion messages per day at the end of the year. On the email side of the house, estimates are that every day 247 billion messages are sent, though much of that is acknowledged to be spam. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, voice calls have declined 15 percent in the past two years, while the average length of call decreased steadily from 3.13 minutes in June 2007 to 2.03 minutes in June 2009. So not only are we talking less and typing more, we seem to have less to say when we do actually connect to a live person.
In fact, more and more it seems that texting is serving a dual roll. It both replaces talk, as well as serves as the precursor to it. How many times have you gotten a message that says, "Can u tk now?" or "R u busy?" Rather than just dial up someone and interrupt them, forcing them to have a conversation they aren't ready for, we use text to tee it up. In an always on, always connected environment, where anyone can be reached anytime, we use text to make sure that "on" is when we're ready for it, and not before.

Even when we feel we must call, the dynamics have changed. Used to be if you tried to connect and didn't get through, you left a message with a secretary or family member. Then voicemail became widespread, and we quickly adapted. Even if we got a live person, we would ask to be put into their VM box, so our message came through as we intended it. Yet now we've evolved past that, to where our kids tell us never to leave them a message. Rather, if they don't answer, we are instructed to hang up and text them. After all, why waste time calling in to hear a message when you can read it quicker? I confess that my favorite feature of my Google Voice account is that it transcribes every voicemail and emails them to me, enabling me to never have to listen to messages at all. Unlike Nipper, I don't pine for my master's voice.
But with this shift in mechanics comes the realization that the very nature of conversation... or rather these electronic exchanges that pass for conversation... has changed. While the substance may be the same, the very act of separating the riffs themselves from the instantaneous retorts they engender renders the whole give-and-take differently. Introducing the element of delay, even for just the few seconds it takes to read and thumb type a response, subtly changes the beast. Exchanges read more as scripted repartee than as emotional point counterpoint. Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche had a song that described it best: "Two Way Monologue."

So maybe it's time to radically rethink our phones. For when you consider how we use them these days, a new design is probably called for. Instead of speaker and microphone with keyboard appended, perhaps we need to reverse the equation. After all, speaking for myself and as Jimmy Buffet wrote, if the phone doesn't ring, that'll be me.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is amazed how much he now texts. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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