Once upon a time, people had home phones. I don’t just mean phone numbers associated with the places where we lived. I mean clunky telephonic devices, with actual dials on the outside and actual bells on the inside; devices that were often mounted directly to the walls of the home and always at least attached to those walls by wires.
Those wires in turn connected to other wires, which linked your home phone to the telephone poles outside. Those poles supported still more wires, strung down each street like so much gargantuan grey tinsel. While it wasn’t much to look at, that tinsel performed a miraculous function: it carried all of the voices in the neighborhood without mixing them up or allowing them to collapse into cacophony. It also enabled a boy like me, sprawled over a green beanbag chair in his basement, to imagine his own whispered voice literally traveling down the wires, through the walls, out to the street, and eventually into the ears of the girl at the other end of the line.
In this respect, at least, all those wires accomplished something beautiful. They enabled a form of contact more intimate than any text and deeper than your average Snapstreak. We called it conversation.
Now, I know you still converse with your friends—via cellular calls and video calls and peer-to-peer connections. But the connection established through a call on the old home phone had a unique and special quality. Why?
For one thing, there was the constant risk of exposure. The home phone stayed in a public place, so you never really had complete privacy. A parent or (worse!) a sibling might pick up the line at any time, or simply sit down in the room where you were talking. This meant you had to actually whisper at times, or even make up secret codes with the person on the other end. It also meant that you were always running a risk to stay connected—a little like Romeo hiding in the shadows beneath Juliet’s balcony.
Plus, you had to fight for your time on the line. The home phone was shared–the one line into and out of the house. If you were hogging it to talk to your sweetheart, then your father and your mother and your brother couldn’t have it. So every moment on it was precious. You had to lobby for the time you got and sometimes threaten, cajole, lie, cheat, or steal. And the person on the other end did, too.
The first time I ever really knew a girl liked me, it was because I heard her lie to her mother to stay on the phone with me.
“Mom, pleeease,” she said, “let me talk a little longer. We literally just got on.”
In fact, we’d been talking for at least thirty minutes, about basically nothing. You can bet that, sprawled over that green beanbag chair in my basement, I smiled and blushed and breathed out a sigh of relief—all hidden from that girl’s eyes but connected, by wires, directly to her ears.
I’m not trying to suggest that our phones—or our lives—were better back then. Today’s phones are technological wonders, and life is both better and worse than it was “once upon a time.” What I do want to suggest is that better phones and fewer wires and many, many more apps don’t necessarily add up to better communication. The town tied together with gargantuan grey tinsel exchanged less information but dealt with a lot less noise. The teens scrambling for time on their home phones had to work harder to keep in touch, and so felt the time taken as that much more touching.
Things that are difficult, things that require risk, things that you have to fight for—such things are valuable. In the ongoing race to make everything more accessible and easier, we tend to forget this. We forget, for instance, that overcoming the barriers to communication—taking the time, putting in the work, running the risk—was once central to the act and carried its own significance. A few minutes on the phone, just listening to the voice of someone special, could be a sort of treasure. (“But soft! What voice through old black handset breaks?”)
Making contact more continual doesn’t make it deeper or richer. More broadly, making life easier doesn’t always make it better. What does make life better is the growing sense of real connection, via any device or medium. Even, I hope, a little blog post.