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Life Without a Cellphone -- Part 4-C: Um, Okay? (Patchwork Oscillation)

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Click here for the previous part of this series and here for part one.

As I saw it, there were four primary methods of communication current and necessary (apart from the grotesque: talking to a person in front of you and the easily forgotten: the mailbox in your lobby), each to a different degree: voice conversation, voicemail, text, email. My use of all four would hopefully decrease with the withdrawal of their central venous catheter. So it would be for apps as well, though I still had an iPad. Facebook, instant messaging, Twitter, the like -- all could be done without or used only as occasional diversions, like your hit of meth to take the edge off after a particularly unsatisfying or satisfying episode of Breaking Bad. If all went well, my deconstruction and untangling of communication would have the pleasant side-effect of simplification -- whatever that might eventually come to mean. First, however, came neurotic complication.

My starting point, from which all else tortuously flowed: While I didn't want a cellphone, I took it as axiomatic that I needed to maintain the ability to make calls from my apartment. And also that I needed some manner of voicemail or answering machine -- perhaps one that I could check remotely perhaps not -- for a doctor to use for appointment confirmations, for example. Also, as friends would no longer be able to text me with a "just called u," an answering system would give them a way to leave messages without needing to pull up email (and, on my end, I would decrease my need to check email). These concessions pointed to a landline as one of my portals to the normal dimension.

The landline had other merits. First, it is a reliable method of communication. For all the harping I hear about the need for cellphones in case of emergency, I am surprised at how quickly people are willing to part with a more dependable option, one that will work when an actual emergency knocks out power or overwhelms the cellular network, in the place you are most likely to be alone (maybe with your family but away from help) on a regular basis and for long stretches of time.

Second, there is the quality issue. Perhaps it has long been forgotten, but consumers -- and so phone companies as well -- used to care about the voice quality of their calls, not just ask if you could "hear me now," as if that binary success were sufficient. The genius of the just-alluded-to Verizon ad campaign, where a man goes to place after place and confirms that the person on the other end of his cellphone conversation can still hear him by way of his catchphrase -- "Can you hear me now?" -- was that it nourished and solidified a shift in consumer focus from "how do I hear?" to "do I hear?" -- to a digital question for a digital era, a yes or a no with yes being a horrid and over-compressed sound that disappears intermittently and has frequencies lopped off from top and bottom leaving just enough audible for the tidbits amidst eardrum-ripping howls of amplified breezes to filter through.

Is there not something degrading about the faint, wrinkly, scrubbed-away voice we have come to accept as a person talking? Something that corresponds quite nicely with the summarily quick texts and tweets that now must encapsulate our thoughts? With the lo-fi music and five-inch movies that satisfy so many? These diminished methods together a phalanx busy rendering us in-and-out information-conveyer-belts? Yes, we gather up the what, we absorb what notes sounded, what story told... but the rest... The easy veneer of communication... is there not something in all this silently and gradationally evacuating humanity? Or, if I am to avoid questions of what is and is not integral to humanity: Technological progress pushing us back to the tune of less sophisticated conversation, towards digital grunting?

Though perhaps digital grunting is not a step back, maybe our new shorthands represent, in fact, an increase in sophistication, a packing of more information per communication unit, and maybe selfie conversations are worth thousands of words -- so let me rephrase the previous paragraph's final sentence: "...pushing us towards less nuanced conversation?" In other words, why listen to the textures of a laugh when you can glimpse an "lol" instead?

(The audio quality of a cellphone conversation is a function of sample and bit rates, quality of electronics, reception, frequencies discarded, etc. etc. [Most of these are self-explanatory so just a note on discarded frequencies: There is now evidence that higher frequencies once thought unnecessary are actually integral to our understanding of one another.] Sound quality will improve -- though in my uninformed opinion a return to analog-landline quality is not your horoscope -- with the coming adoption of wideband audio codecs ["HD Voice"] So, I am happy to be writing this section now, when I can, rather than resorting to a historical rant, still declaim against our ongoing easy acceptance of a downgrade in human-speech quality as a price for shiny new toys.)

Third, a landline conversation required two parties to be home (or at offices or phone booths), unoccupied, and each with a measure of privacy beyond an earbud cocoon. This was when one might withdraw to a bedroom to take a call about homework, before one felt comfortable staring diffusely into the ether and announcing to the public at large that their boyfriend's genital warts are actually not that gross. A return to the landline might reestablish some of these frictions. (This third item and the upcoming fourth are, of course, extreme versions of the truth.) (Also, this third item is a historical note, not a qualitative judgment.) (But the upcoming Fourth is both.) (Tangent: Can we draw a direct line from public cellphone usage to over-sharing online?)

Fourth, I didn't remember any landline disruptive anxiety disorders in my past. "Back in the day," it was easy enough to ignore a ring and acceptable that you would call back at your earliest convenience because there was still an understood pretense operating which let everyone believe that, if you didn't pick up, you might not be home or could be in the shower or were busy or otherwise just somehow unable to get to your phone -- not that you were maliciously ignoring someone. (You might even have had a brother pick up and say you were in the bathroom. Or he might not even have attempted an explanation, instead tossing out a: "he's not here right now. Can I take a message?" Today, of course, where could you possibly be without your phone? Certainly no one would believe that the phone isn't with you as you sit on the toilet.) (Ignoring people was the entire purpose of using caller ID. Even with cellphones this at first held true. Now, on the rare occasions when one's cellphone actually rings, caller ID might excite or it might elicit a groan, but one picks up in either case. As for the call's modern equivalent, the text message, which essentially has caller ID built in -- does it go unrequited for long? Device will not be ignored.)

That the called were busy and not ignoring us, even if we knew they were ignoring us, was the lie we all told ourselves, akin to, "Oh, it's not me. She probably just doesn't like handsome men." As soon as the phone could go everywhere and gained multiple methods of response of varying discretion and speed, this pretense became impossible to uphold. The caller-texter-tweeter-emailer-gchatter-facebooker née caller could no longer be ignored. It didn't matter that the phone could not actually go everywhere and that no method of interacting with phone is actually discreet, just that these became its new mythology, the impressions it left of its purposes and abilities. (Implied here is that attitudes regarding email similarly shifted after the introduction of the Blackberry and subsequent on-the-go email-capable devices as additions and/or substitutions to computer email access.)

So, it would seem that a landline would furnish the friction I'd been fawning over. I would bring back the past and tell people that I wasn't getting rid of the phone, just of its ability to function outside my home. But -- cueing the promised reconsiderations -- behavior has changed. Device addictiveness and the just-described mythology have greatly augmented communication incidence -- far more than even increased access to communication devices can explain. Others now expect to reach me whenever possible, to reach out at any time and with far increased frequency. They would simply transfer their assaults to my landline. The "I'm busy" pretense is gone. The need for the caller to be home, free, and in private is gone. A landline would mean either hearing my ringer on a loop or turning the ringer off and seeing a voicemail light incessantly shining come-hither blinks in my direction. Would I just end up throwing the contraption in the closet and taking it out as needed? Or keeping it in a desk drawer? If you've seen The Conversation, picture me as Harry Caul. If you haven't, then picture me as Gene Hackman opening a drawer to answer a ringing rotary phone that is never supposed to ring. Ah, of course, a rotary phone; I would need to get an old-style, no-electric-plug-needed phone anyway -- just like Harry's -- if I were to be able to use it in real emergencies. No more blinking voicemail lights. And, given the fact that do-not-call lists do not work and friends would not hesitate to call, I would probably quickly begin keeping the phone mostly disconnected -- so no ringer to worry about (unlike Harry...which would hopefully magically imply that my end would not mirror his -- especially since I cannot do much with a saxophone). What about receiving calls? It is telling that my starting thoughts (see paragraph two) focused just on making calls and receiving voicemail.

But... if simplification was an end I would welcome (see paragraph one), shouldn't I funnel all initial communications into one point of contact, one gateway peephole for me to peer through semi-regularly, when messages and to-dos had formed a pile worthy of interruption, with other services used only as necessary? And, given its versatility and current centrality, isn't email, rather than the phone, the logical conclusion to play the role of primary portal? After all, I could theoretically go many days without checking my missed calls or having a verbal phone conversation or texting but, in the course of regular day-to-day living, it would be harder to ignore email (and the unseen overseeing intractable forces that use it) consistently.

Should I still get a landline? It had other shortcomings to consider. Many modern services have features -- e.g. account recovery, money transfers, creating user profiles -- that require the ability to receive texts in order to verify that one is who one says one is. The landline would not work for these procedural matters. Additionally, the landline as we know it, connected to copper lines, is on its way out. The phone companies are eager to replace it -- either with service over fiber-optic lines, which requires electricity to be up and running, or with unwired home phones, which seem to be little more than cellphones tethered to a house, offering poor voice quality and also requiring working electrical lines; so it would be short-sighted of me to get a copper-based landline anyway. But, remember, I had taken it as axiomatic that I needed the ability to make calls from my apartment...

Google Voice then? Or a number from Skype? These software phones would give me the ability to make calls and receive texts and voicemail (receiving calls, however, which both systems were capable of, presented its own set of problems. When would I remain logged in? When would I unmute my laptop? etc. When and even whether to receive calls, after all, were still-unsettled matters.) If I got one of these services, however, I definitely wouldn't want a landline of any kind, despite its aforementioned -- perhaps temporary -- advantages and despite it being a standalone device rather than a program I would have to go onto a computer to access, as having both software phone and standalone device would mean two services and two phone numbers to bother with -- it would mean additional connectivity -- and I was looking to simplify here. Of course, Google Voice and Skype have their own downsides...

I didn't want the procedural-texting ability (e.g. receiving an SMS from Gmail necessary to recover my hacked account) to be combined with the calling ability (e.g. phoning my mother to explain that I did not, in fact, send her a salutatory link to an exquisite panoply of protuberant penes, assorted vein-age), both because I was weary of giving my number to random corporations and having it enter the marketing-list circuit and because I did not want to receive calls -- personal or not -- while I happened to be taking care of something procedural. But this would again mean having multiple numbers (one for calls and one for texts) and thwarting simplification. Maybe that all sounds frivolous -- and I'm not even sure if it make sense... so let me restart the paragraph: I was hoping to stop texting with friends and family altogether -- to eliminate one channel of communication completely -- and a software phone would not further that end unless I thwarted simplification and got two numbers, one for receiving texts to verify my identity to identity-less algorithmic inquisitors (e.g. Facebook) and one that I used for calls (with the luddite-tolerant warm-blooded souls in my life, for example) which somehow lacked the ability to text.

I was concerned as well that every trip to the computer's software phone would yield me yet one more occasion to submit to the gravity of a Gchat hole... or to float off into the inexhaustible expanse of the Internet. Any activity on a content-delivering electronic device, after all, is a gateway to endless other activities that that device has on offer. I might also forget to log off the service and then be caught unawares and receive undesired calls and texts whilst checking email or writing or hanging out. Or, with the software phone just a click away, with friction again eliminated, I might not be able to resist turning it on. In fact... in a way, whenever I was home or whenever I checked email on anyone's computer anywhere or if I had my laptop with me and was within range of public Wi-Fi at a park/walked into an Internet-beaming coffee shop/neared an Internet-beaming anything, I would essentially have a giant cellphone of sorts at the ready -- which would be an explicit middle finger to my whole mission statement. Besides, I'd already started to have strange, subtle yearnings... prepubescent teenage desires, barely perceptible, never in words, just feelings that I would only later come to recognize as longings to repress home Internet. What exactly would this mean? How would I access email (and whatever else one does online)? I did not attempt an answer to or even consider these questions. But I heard the whispers, my burgeoning insanity nudging me away from the VoIP numbers offered by Google and Skype.

So, where did that leave your hapless protagonist and his First-World problems masquerading as Third-World problems that the Third-World doesn't even have? I end abruptly here to manufacture suspense, just like on the television.

Click here for Part 4-D of this series

 
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