Telephones and the End of Intimacy by Ron Steinman

Telephones and the End of Intimacy — Ring! Ring!

There is something special about holding a real telephone, at least there once was. Cradling the phone with one hand, its hard plastic often cold to the touch pressed against your ear as you often struggle to hear the voice coming through from the other end. That experience is almost gone.

Go back in time with me for a minute. I once lived in a building with only one wall phone for all. Calls cost a nickel and sometimes lines formed for the users. The length of the line often limited how long a conversation lasted. Recall the party line, a phone system I grew up with because my family could not afford to own its telephone. In the small apartment house where I lived as a child, each apartment had a rotary phone, one that you dialed with your finger or a pencil. Each apartment’s phone had a separate ring to signal the call was for them. The curious picked up the phone despite the ring not for them, and listened in on the call for gossip, making the phone a source of free entertainment. Congestion ruled the party line, making it difficult to make a simple call. In case of emergency, the person with a problem would sometimes shout to everyone to clear the line so the call could go out to a doctor, the police, a hospital. In some rare instances, party lines still exist in rural parts of the country.

In this, the middle digital age, whatever there was of intimacy is dead. Well, almost dead. People use their smart phones to see an image, to get a burst of information, to hear music, to take a picture, get directions, check a rating, play games, find a restaurant, locate their friends, tell time because they no longer wear a watch, send messages and whatever else an app may provide.

Talking is passé. People now seem to communicate only in bursts of dots and dashes, pixels in uneven lines, in words on a screen in text messages, and even photos pinned to an anonymous wall rather than speaking directly to another human. Even email, as we know it is in trouble. Some say that email is dying and for them, it is not soon enough. Talking on the telephone presumes a familiarity with the person at the other end of the line. That is an almost dead social art. Mostly the closest we get to intimacy over the phone is when we receive a robot call from some distant location. I always hang up. Yes, we have Skype and Face Time, reasonable substitutes for the old fashioned hand-held device that still, for a few, serves as a mouthpiece to talk into, to see and a listening tool for hearing the other person. But make sure every hair is in place, and that you are not in pajamas. Make sure your background is neat, that your eyes are not too baggy and you do not become distorted at the other end of the call. If all things, and more I am sure, are in place, talk away until Skype and Facetime lose their cache and disappear, as did the old hand-held phone.


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