I don’t care for whom the bell tolls, as long as it’s not for me
Since Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone in the 1870s, it’s shaped human behaviour. And not always in a good way.
Readers of a certain age may remember that scene from the 1979 movie When a Stranger Calls, when the awful realisation dawned that the stalker was phoning his victim from inside the house. Shivers ran down our spines and the hair on the back of our necks stood up in shock and horror.That’s how I feel every time my phone rings.
This may have something to do with having grown up in the long-ago days when there was just one family phone, usually a black Bakelite instrument so heavy that it seemed to have its own gravitational field, and which squatted somewhere in the middle of the house.Prior to the advent of the answering machine, the tyranny of this telephone was total: if you didn’t get to it before it stopped ringing, you could catastrophically miss that all-important call – which, depending on the person waiting for it, could be anything from hot gossip to a potential romantic interest, a job offer, or news of a big win.
The era of the answering machine tethered to a landline was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of telecommunication: it put the human who owned the phone front and centre, via call-screening, as he/she waited for the answering machine to kick in, to hear if he/she wanted to pick up or not. The answering machine could be interrupted for those in favour, or left to record the impotent bleatings of those not, which could then be immediately and mercilessly erased.Fast-forward to the days of smartphones, and the tyranny has returned tenfold, like some particularly toxic demonic presence, stronger than ever. Other than by caller ID (which is often just “private number”), the only way you can “screen” incoming cellphone calls is by letting them go to voicemail, then, afterwards, dialling into voicemail yourself to find out who it was and what they said.But maybe that’s moot, because the function of the smartphone is, anyway, no longer just to keep us connected to specific others (mom, best friend, partner, work, doctor) during civilised hours of the day, leaving us plenty of time to sleep, read, get together for meals and otherwise comport ourselves as normally functioning creatures. Now, it chains us zombie-like to the entire rest of the world literally all the time.
Its function has changed in another way, too: its use as an instrument via which to talk to people using speech has diminished significantly. Now, text messages, emojis, gifs, videos and photos do the same job, and often more pertinently and entertainingly.A downside of that is that the cellphone, given how rarely it rings as a prelude to a spoken conversation, has resurrected that abiding fear of most people and all parents: the phone that rings after 10pm (or a little earlier or later, depending on what the individual considers a “civilised hour“ to be). Because, as we all know, a phone that rings late at night or early in the morning heralds only bad news or an emergency of some sort. Nobody in their right mind would dream of texting news of a serious illness, a horrible accident or a death.And then there are the cold-callers. In the days of the landline, these annoying salespeople shrilled their way, uninvited and unwelcome, into living rooms all over the country just as ordinary folk were settling down with a well-earned glass of wine or cup of tea after a hectic working day, in order to try to sell them something they didn’t want or need and almost certainly couldn’t afford. This gave rise to an entire subculture of “how to deal with cold-callers”, which ranged from slamming down the receiver to blowing a whistle into it and lots of other methods in between, many of them involving enthusiastic swearing.Today, in the era of automation, cold-callers aren’t human. So your phone rings, you check the caller ID (sales companies have wised up – it’s often an actual cellphone number, which may fool you into thinking it’s someone with whom you may want to have a conversation) and you answer it. There’s a second of silence, then a click, and then – astonishingly – a prerecorded voice assails you: “Good day! Do you have adequate house and car insurance? If not, you may be interested in our …”
What I want to know is who actually listens all the way to the end of one of these prerecorded cold-selling spiels? I can only imagine it’s someone who might text news of a serious illness, a horrible accident or a death.