Monday, 21 March 2011

An Ode to the Landline

FestnetzDon’t ask me how we got to talk about, but chatting to my wife about this and that turned me to mention the history of my relationship with a device called the “phone”.
Growing up in Israel, the first decade of my life was spent without us having our own phone line at home. At about the age of 7-8 we had a public payphone installed on our street which we could use, and indeed I used it a lot (and was often told off by adults who couldn’t believe a child could actually be operating a phone – he must be there to break it apart; given the entire street was sharing the phone, you can sort of understand their anxiety). Coming into my teens we finally got our own phone line at home (I’m sure you heard the trumpets going off at the time), but even then things weren’t as they seem: most neighbours had to share a single line between two or even three of them, which meant that only one neighbour could use the phone at any moment in time. Imagine the friction this can cause if one neighbour’s family hosts teens anxious for a chat, or another has a baby and likes to take the phone off the hook to avoid waking it up.
It took a long while – probably a decade or so – till we all had proper phone lines we could call our own. Let me remind you that all of this took place well within my lifetime, that I am not that old, that Israel is no technological backwater, and that I grew up in a suburb of Israel biggest metropolis. Yet it all happened.

Now let’s fast forward to this day and age, an age where having a landline no longer makes sense. What did we gain by having a phone?
When looked at this way, I argue that we lost a lot. Back before the age of the phone life was simpler and much more relaxed: you couldn’t coordinate paying a visit to a friend, so you just went and paid them a visit if you wished so. You couldn’t alert people of any changes to previously made plans so everyone just stuck to their plans and made things predictable for one another. Predictability also meant tranquillity, or rather reduced stress through reduced uncertainty; we took things easy back then.
Today? Today I need to book an appointment with a friend weeks in advance; if I was to see the friends I have on this continent on a yearly basis I consider myself lucky.
Obviously, the above comparison is terribly one sided. Phone brought up lots of benefits, probably too many to mention: we can now phone an ambulance and save the lives of people who need attention within less than ten minutes (say, heart attack victims). We can also communicate much more easily, which means we are more productive and can achieve more with our time.
That’s the trick, though: too much of the productivity gains provided by the landline (and for that matter, its descendants, the mobile phone and the Internet) are being abused in order to make us work more and be available to work even more rather than to merely improve the quality of our lives. Technology is great, but when self interest and greed are placed ahead of it – as they usually do – it serves for enslavement long before it makes our lives easier.

Image by Spuz, Creative Commons license

No comments: