< The Future of the Phone


Friday, May 18, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Stelter says that despite broadband’s prominence, his phone is still more important to him, and that’s probably because he’s using the data functions on it, not because he likes to make a bunch of calls which, as you heard, he seems to find quaint.

Tom Vanderbilt recently wrote about the legacy of the telephone call for The Wilson Quarterly. Tom, welcome to On the Media.

TOM VANDERBILT:  Great to be here, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So, recent research suggests that the phone call, if it isn’t dead exactly, it, it seems to be dying.

TOM VANDERBILT:  Yeah, I think there’s various numbers of ways to look at this. The landline, for example, is on the decline in almost every industrialized country. My own landline, like probably many listeners, sort of sits there like a, a lonely outpost for, you know, robocalls from politicians and calls from your parents, and voicemail tends to sit on there for days. And so, obviously, mobile phones took up a lot of the slack left by this huge decline in landlines. But even with mobile phones it’s been found that the average mobile phone call, which I think was a leisurely three minutes a few years ago, is down to just a little bit over one minute.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Now, when the phone call was invented, some people were afraid of it and some people thought it was gonna save us.

TOM VANDERBILT:  I think it’s kind of set in motion this rather common pattern you see with technology. First there’s a period of trying to figure out what it’s for. Then come these sort of early pronouncements of either gloom and doom or sort of utopian wish fulfillment. The gloom and doom was sort of that the telephone was going to erode communities, people weren’t going to want to see each other face to face. And then kind of the crazy utopianism was that the telephone was going to be this harbinger of world peace; once we could all have this inter-network instant communication, we would reach out and touch someone, all the world’s problems would be solved.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You pointed out, in the piece you wrote for The Wilson Quarterly, that not only were the dystopian fears the same for the telephone [LAUGHS] as they were later for the Internet. Tell me how predation and identity theft and financial market volatility figured in.

TOM VANDERBILT:  As with the Internet, there was the idea that just the presence of more information more quickly would lead to more trades, more volatility. And, of course, now we’ve seen that with this ultra high speed Internet trading, with machines making trades with machines. With identity theft, you know, there was this thought that by establishing a telephone line you were kind of crossing this public/private threshold that had been there and that unwanted solicitors of various information could kind of hack into your home, [LAUGHS] for lack of a better word.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  One of the most surprising things I read in your article was that even though phone utopians thought that the phone would make it easier for us to unite across great distances, a couple of MIT researchers found that the more people telecommunicate, the more they move closer to each other?

TOM VANDERBILT:  Carlo Ratti, a researcher at the Media Lab at MIT, did a study looking at people’s mobile phone records, and then their location in geography, and found that the more you called someone, the more likely you were to spend time in the same area code or zip code in the next year. People talk about the mobile phone as yet another device that would fragment cities, decentralize them, but think about how, sort of essential the mobile phone is to urban life, just setting up meetings. We don’t worry as much about running late because we can contact somebody. It’s kind of another tool for urban life.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And journalists, of course, in the wake of the telephone, argued about what it would do to newspapers. You wrote about this thing called the Telephone Herald, which was described in a 1903 article, which would enable people to get their news by phone.

TOM VANDERBILT:  It was, in some ways, a proto-radio device. So the idea was you had this sort of horn on the wall that would blast an announcement, and then this kind of voice would come over the telephone wire telling you the events of the day in kind of a digest form, sort of like a, a Twitter feed, if you will, and you could tie in a telephone connection to an opera performance. We’d all be listening to a telephoned version of an opera. So again, we just didn’t really know what we were going to feel comfortable using the telephone for. And it wasn’t ‘til like, the 1920s that you started to see these ads from AT&T urging people to call friends.


I mean, in the beginning, you had these sort of pieces of furniture, and it had a big trumpet in the middle, and you would go to the desk to make your call. And then the phone gradually sort of entered the household. It got smaller, it got colorful. You started to see it in the kitchen, then in the, the bedroom. You know, the first phones were found sort of out in the pantry or the front hallway of houses, and then it gradually migrated into the house, into our daily lives, eventually into your pocket.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  We always imagined that video phoning would eventually replace the telephone, that people actually enjoyed talking on the phone and wanted to increase that engagement. But it turns out, as soon as people could get off the phone they did.

TOM VANDERBILT:  Actually, the videophone was really projected as far back as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” 1927.  For the whole century, this was always thought to be the way we, of course, wanted to talk, once the technology became available. Of course, now we do have Skype video conferencing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That’s true, but those tend to be for particular occasions.

TOM VANDERBILT:  Videophone, like you're saying, you know, I use it if I’ve been away from home for a long time and I want to see my daughter. It – again, it introduces all these other things that you just have to go through all sorts of other social niceties, if you were. I don’t need to hear eight people around my seat on an airplane tell the other person on the phone that they’ve landed, or, you know, you hear these banal things all day on the phone. I’m like, couldn’t you just sort of send a text about that?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Well Tom, thank you very much.

TOM VANDERBILT:  Great to be here, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Writer, Tom Vanderbilt. His article for The Wilson Quarterly is called, “The Call of the Future.”



Tom Vanderbilt

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Brooke Gladstone