... which is to say i have in my possession a device called, oddly, an "iPhone" - but I am no longer using it as a telephone. It is now merely a hand-held internet device, portable music player, GPS,audio recorder, bookshelf, storage device, game centre, clock, calculator, camera and pocket computer. Well, I say merely - that's a pretty impressive list, but it no longer accepts calls.
There was a time, oh, a hundred years ago, where the idea of being able to talk directly to someone a great distance from you seemed a positive wonder, and one which people lined up to involve themselves in. This is no longer the novelty it once was, but it's still fairly amazing. I can instantly communicate vocally with anyone I know, in seconds, just by dialing a few numbers into an omnipresent device which most of us carry.
But just because I can do it, does it also follow that I should?
The telephone's strength also happens to be its biggest weakness, and that is its synchronous nature. To have a successful phone call, two parties must simultaneously be engaged in the conversation. The practical upshot of this is that unless the call is somehow pre-arranged, one party is almost inevitably interrupting the other to innitiate the call - and in an age in which all of us complain at some time or another of being "too busy", this is a major pain point. I'm busy. I might be at work, or I might be cooking, or I might be listening to a particularly fascinating podcast, or I might be wrestling with an annoying programming problem, or I may have my hands full with tea and toast. I could be doing anything. As far as you know, I could be building a 1:1 scale matchstick model of the Taj Mahal, and I could be at a particularly delicate point in the procedure. I might be the modern Samuel Taylor Coleridge, off my tits on laudanum and literature, and you might be the prick from Porlock.
I am almost NEVER in a mood to be interrupted, especially when I don't know who's doing the interrupting. A couple of days ago, I was interrupted by no fewer than twenty phone calls, more than half of which came from sources not displaying CallerID. I answered precisely ONE. That, to me, is an unacceptable profit/loss sheet.
I cannot, of course, merely turn the device off. I use it to receive emails, twitter alerts, SMS messages and also use it as a portable music player. I navigate with it, and I use it to tell me where to find a good lunch. I record my bike rides with it. Turning it off means I lose those positives and more. Flight mode means no net based alerts and no SMS. The only thing I can sensibly do is divert all calls. Apparently, the iBone doesn't allow you to divert only calls without CallerID. I want to be constantly contactable, but I don't want to be constantly contacted. I want a gatekeeper, or some means to tell people when I'm available or otherwise.
With more modern variants on the synchronous voice call theme (such as Skype), I can set a presence indicator which allows a potential caller to see at a glance whether I'm amenable to receving a call. Without this kind of indicator, apps like Instant Messaging would have withered on the vine, because people are very intolerant of interruptions, but the antiquated telephone-call paradigm lacks such basic courtesy. Luckily, modern VOIP systems are slowly introducing presence indicators to the desktop and home phone, but as yet I can't do that with my cellphone.
As an added bonus to the mere existence of presence, Skype has optional video, and I can chat-message text across to you rather than the frankly absurd pantomime of trying to read out a URL or a GUID over a crackly phone line while the person at the other end hunts-and-pecks at their keyboard. I can also send files and pictures, and many of these VOIP technologies allow you to share a computer desktop, so I can see what people miles away are trying to describe to me. Do you know how often I've had to try and imagine what is on the computer screen of a person at the other end of a phone call as they attempt, haltingly to describe what they're seeing to a person who, through the application of an unsuitable communication method, is utterly blind?
"There's a thing. Above the whatsit button. No, not the start button, the other button. You know. It's one of those little pictures. It looks like it might have Santa Claus on it, or it could be a spider sitting on a marshmallow, well it's that thing and it doesn't work when I poke it with the clicky thing. No, to the right of that one. No, not my right, your right. What do you mean it's the same right?"
WHY AREN'T WE JUST DOING A DESKTOP SHARE RIGHT NOW? WHY ARE WE ON THE FUCKING PHONE?? WHY AM I STILL ALIVE TO SUFFER THROUGH THIS NIGHTMARE???
Yes, I've worked in technical support.
Worse, though, is the societal expectation that you WILL have a phone. All manner of interactions seem to require a phone number to be provided in order for them to reach a successful conclusion. I recently bought a $20 cable at Harvey Norman and was asked for my phone number.
"Because that's the policy. It's the warranty, you see,"
It's a fucking USB cable. I don't need a long term warranty. If it's faulty, I'll be back with the receipt in hand within minutes, believe me.
"It's the policy"
Fuck you, Harvey Norman. I bought the cable anyway, because the battery on my hand-held internet device and portable music player was running low, and it was the only shop in the town I happened to be in. This does not signal my approval of this absurd practice. I'm also looking at you, Cell Bikes. You don't need my phone number for a fucking inner tube purchase.
Likewise, any number of forms and vital documents seem to require a phone number for their successful completion. Many online forms have validation that will prompt you repeatedly to enter a number, and will whinge if it's not in a format that some unknown programmer deems acceptable. Here's the deal: I don't want you calling me. I've given you an email address, use that.
"Oh, but we need your phone number. It's policy."
I've recently, partly for giggles and partly as a protest, started providing false names to baristas when ordering coffee (try "Spartacus" and see if the rest of the line play along when your coffee is called). I'll be doing the same with my phone number. I wish I'd started years ago, which brings me to another thing...
...my bank occasionally calls me. I've blogged about this before. I tell them not to, then I immedaitely go off to my internet banking and check why they're calling, which is usually obvious (late payment, strange transaction or overdrawn on card). Soon afterwards, they call me again. I ignore them. It's a game we have. They call me, I reject the call. Which highlights yet another problem.
Phone calls are, if initiated without CallerID, inherently unauthenticated. When my bank calls me, they do so from an unlisted number. They could be anyone, yet they expect me to blithely hand over confidential information. Fuck you, my bank. Email me. You can email me a statement, just email me everything. I can examine the message headers if I need proof it's you. You could even use one of many well-supported PKI applications to sign the email. WOW, how about that? Encryption and sender/recipient verification in one easy package, and I can continue working on that matchstick model of the Taj Mahal into the bargain.
And then there's telemarketers and scammers.
Don't get me started on those fuckers. If there was a segment of the community upon which I could inflict arbitrary and unending pain, it's telemarketers. I almost wish that a hell actually existed, so that I could rest easy in the knowledge that it would be full of telemarketers and random clowns claiming to be from Microsoft and asking for my password. Here's my password, dickhead: G-E-T-F-U-C-K-E-D.
The problem seems like it might have a technical fix. I could change my handset to a phone which allows me to whitelist numbers I want to call me, and divert others (Android), or I could ask my telecoms provider to divert all unlisted numbers, though it's not clear whether they can do this. Or I could just learn to live with it. but I think that the problem is not technical, and it's not personal, but social.
The phone is so integrated into how our modern urban societies operate, that we've failed to notice what a collossal pain in the ass it actually is, and how glaringly unsuitable it is for many purposes.
I think it's time we admitted to ourselves, the telephone society, that we're clinging needlessly to an outdated method of communication best assigned to the dustbin of history, to be replaced by richer, more useful methods, which may or may not include a voice component, but which almost certainly won't be solely based on it. The society of the telephone is dead, long live the society of communication!
So, to sum up, having a personal mobile phone has become unsustainable for me, so I've diverted ALL calls to voice mail, silencing the tiny demon in my pocket for good. I now get an unobtrusive notification when a voicemail arrives, and I can listen to (or ignore it) at will.
I may, of course, turn the dread device back on at times when I might want to be contacted, and when I finally end up in my longed-for phase of career self-determination, I will obtain a second, business-only phone which I can leave at the office. But for now, email me, SMS me, Facebook me or send me a tweet instead. I can always call back if you're eager to hear my silky tones.