Oú est le Téléphone?

When I grew up, people had a very different relationship with the telephone. Inthose days, a phone wasn’t a little vibrating brick constantly buzzing for attention in your pocket. Instead it was mounted on the wall, a permanent, stable fixture of measured communication. Each home had one phone line, generally controlled and monopolized by the teenager of the highest social standing at the time.

Things have changed quite a bit over the years. First came the tabletop telephone: their long coiled cables offering us a new found freedom to enjoy conversations somewhere other than the kitchen. It wasn’t long until the flashy handsets of the new and exciting cordless telephone arrived on the scene. Initially limited in range, it didn’t take long for technology to advance, and soon people could happily wander outside in their yards whilst talking to grandma, 350 miles away. 

As time passed, it wasn’t just phones that progressed: their features and options multiplied. Soon call waiting did away with the ever annoying busy signal, voice mail replaced the red blinking light of the answering machine, and multiple lines allowed family members to regain some peace and harmony.

When the first cell phones arrived, they were commonly tethered to the posh automobiles of “movers and shakers”, or connected to the type of cumbersome suitcase easily mistaken for a bomb. It was easy to understand why such contraptions weren’t a staple of the “must have” Christmas gift list. But the mere fact that the mobile phone now existed put the notion in our brains: how great would it be to have a phone with us all the time? Just imagine: no running to answer the ring, no missed calls, no scrounging for change at a dingy pay phone in the wrong part of town.  

Eventually cell phones became an affordable reality for the masses. Communication flourished, as did the speed and efficiency with which we could get things done. Plans could be organized; people could be reached anywhere, any time, and suddenly the pace of life accelerated many times over. While this newfound communication made life more fun and efficient, it didn’t come without a cost.

That cost was defined in a new paradox: as efficiency is increased, demand increases alongside with it. So, while upgraded communication allows us to do more in less time, suddenly, more is expected of us from those on the other end of the line. It’s not as if we’re able to catch up in the game of life: get a lot more done, in less time, and be further ahead than ever before. No, the game of life increases its pace just as quickly. 

In the past our work lives commonly ended at 5 or 6 pm and that was that: with work done, our lives were ours again for the evening. Now we can be reached all day, every day, and are expected to respond. We then apply the spirit of this unending communication to our personal lives.  In the days before answering machines, we might call someone and if no one answered, well, that was it: they weren’t home, and we’d have to try again later.  In our current climate, a call unanswered becomes a cause of stress: is the recipient of our communication intentionally avoiding us? If we leave a message, we expect a prompt response. What reason could exist for anything other than a prompt response?

With the advent of texting, things have become even worse. We send a text; we expect an immediate response. Many of us become irritable if our demand is not met. On the other side, we receive what feels like an unending barrage of texts and messages from an ever-widening range of sources, all expecting a prompt response. The inevitable by-product of all this efficient communication? Stress, stress, and more stress.

As we struggle to manage this paradox of increased efficiency/demand, we may find ourselves longing for simplicity to ease our burden and alleviate our stress. We will never return to those charming days of a single telephone mounted to a wall, its rotary dial sparking our thoughts to recipients near and far, just as we will never return to the days of tapping telegrams or delivering letters on horseback. The point isn’t to regress, but to better manage what we have. Our systems allow us to communicate instantly and broadly to entire populations across the globe, or to video chat with family members a few miles away. Managing this potential requires honesty and reflection: how dependent have we become on our modern lines of communication? Are we controlling them, or are they controlling us? Are we able to switch off, unplug, and enjoy a moment unfettered by the constant hum of digital communication? What boundaries do we need to set to ensure the demands of technology aren’t outweighing the benefits it provides?

Setting a healthy balance will always be a deeply personal task: what works for one will not necessarily work for another. But it is an important step to take. For everyone who is feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, or lonely even in the age of massive online friend bases, take a moment to assess your relationships: are you getting more x’s and o’s than real life hugs? Are you online communities enhancing your real world relationships, or substituting for them? How much power does technology hold over your life, and what can you do to get it back?

It’s good to remember what the telephone is for: it is a device that allows us to connect. Connecting with one another is one of life’s great challenges and one of life’s great rewards. The information age has placed a great power into our hands, and with that power comes the responsibility of managing it well. Otherwise we will lose the rewards all these effective means of communication have to offer.

Taking the time to manage the ways you interact with the vibrating brick in your pocket is a crucial task in today’s ultra-linked environment.  While another task may be the last thing we feel we need, this one is well worth completing.

Your analog brain will thank you for it.