For what I now realize was quite a long period of time, from 1987/88 when first I lived on my own to about 2007 or so, the phone occupied one of the main leisure practices of my life; and when I say phone here I mean a device whose sole purpose was the enabling of one's mouth to speak into some kind of receiver and hear another party of some geographical distance do the same in kind.
At some point a consensus was reached by the majority of the world's population that it was better to communicate by typing tiny characters into tiny keypads ending up as tiny partial phrases that it was to use one's physical voice.
I believe this consensus reflected the unstated, possibly semi-conscious and innate preference of the majority. It revealed that most of the world did much like the prospect of speaking on the phone, and that the phone was for them a stopgap or placeholder measure until this preferred typing came along. I shall return to this societal decision later but for now suffice it to say that I was always a phone person.
In Chuck Klosterman's book The Nineties (whose very book cover is one of the many retro models of phones from that era) he lays out in his usual factual yet humorous way what the phone was for so many people for more than one generation:
"If you needed to take an important call, you just had to sit in the living room and wait for it. There was no other option. If you made plans over the phone and left the house those plans could not be changed - everyone had to be where they said they'd be, and everybody had to arrive when they said they'd arrive. Life was more scripted and less fluid, dictated by a machine that would not (and could not ) compromise its location. yet within these fascistic limitations, the machine itself somewhat mattered less. It was an appliance, not that different from the dishwasher. The concept of having a new phone every year would have seemed as crazy as installing a new toilet every other Thanksgiving."
The images I collected for this post reveal the way that commercial film and television depicted the phone: usually the comedic or suspenseful potentials of having this one applianc that was shared by an entire household or even city, inside a household it was almost always mounted on a single wall, the last case was a running theme on one of my favorite 1970s shows Eight Is Enough.
Then there were the aesthetics of public phone designs, particularly in New York and Los Angeles.
These facts are shot through with value and by value I mean, pace Klosterman, not something objective like the solidity of the phone itself, but rather the very subjective and irreducible preferences and tastes of so many people, not unlike having a preference for movies based on superheroes and thus ensuring a formidable and intractable persistence of studios making such pictures today.
Or a preference for chocolate or vanilla flavors in a desert. I could get outside of myself very easily and state a hundred reasons why humanity opted to text rather than talk: that it sustains the beloved illusion and fallacy of multitasking, that it is faster or more convenient, that it is less private and therefore less invasive, and so on. I have no idea; these are mere guesses on my part. But surely there is a little truth to that short list.
I dearly loved these phone calls over those decades that comprised the era of the phone's dominance. Some of the people on the other end were lovers, who, for one reason or other, were not in the same city as was I. Sometimes these more intimate conversations would go on for hours. Many other times it was simply much needed discussion of intellectual ideas or events of the day with like minded should who were so disposed.
I think we can say fairly certainly that the 90s were the last era of the phone in the sense that we mean by phone when it is not a form of portable pocket computer.
We can see now that it was the phone rather than the sex that future historians might hold most important about that book and historical real life detail, that this was a story reflecting what in the future will be an entirely anachronistic technological epoch in the way we now regard horses and carriages in 18th or 19th century fiction.
Of course many say that video calls are just the contemporary form of of a similar impulse. This can't be because the requirements, sensibilities and aesthetics of actually seeing a screen of another person has a whole different effect that if all you have is just another voice. Aside from this podcast, I have shockingly little experience with this contemporary technology. I am always amazed when I hear accounts of people having video calls for work every day and for long hours at a time.
It is one of the personal ironies that during the current time of Covid when I was most isolated I probably had fewer speaking phone calls in two years - since this is not something others are wont to do - that I had in any one week over the 80s and 90s. It is important to realize too that rates were very low in the 1990s, possibly due to the Clinton telecommunications bill and the general economic prosperity of those years.
The phone was one of the few ways that I now realize was ideal to communicate with another person, as the complexity of three dimensional volume and space was not present to detract from my ability to give attention and focus on a single thing at a time.
But if we extend our vision a little further outward from the phone and to a nod back to psychologist Steven Reiss, what we are really discussing is the power of preferences and, in addition, emotions about our preferences.
We might have preferences and feel that that they hold for others as much as they do for ourselves and we might hold preferences and not even be aware that they ARE preferences which amounts to the same thing. When you are living in an era, and all of us find ourselves in one era or another - if we are in a given society - you are being held captive to the preferences of the dominant psychological types of the era and you are incredibly lucky if your tastes are more or less synonymous with that majority. And of course many people wish they didn't have the preferences they already have and try to abandon them or develop new ones.
We have emotions about our emotions!
Preferences are also intimately connected with both skills and incapacities - the latter not something that is easy to openly mention. It can't be accidental that as a musician I would prefer the phone for speaking. But I can't know for sure, and, as deeply analytical as I am, it might not matter to me as much as you'd think. Though it is interesting sociologically - if only because it determines what our devices in general will turn out to be and what will or will not even be funded.
I can only guess that for possibly billions of people the choice of text over talk must be connected to a possibly innate preference on their part and I don't think this preference is conditioned or artificially created in them. It might be the authentic reflection of a number of things in the human psyche, possibly quite innocent desires like speed and comfort or the prevention of pains of certain kinds. (Shyness or fear about speaking to begin with, never mind in public? The fact that one excelled at typing? The dominance of the human thumb?)
And it is only in the full force and stream of History that we find out what we humans like or not. I have no a priori attachment to any rule book that has been prewritten from the cosmos. I have enough distance in that sense even from my own preferences, while still continuing to hold those same preferences. The best thing to do is to be consciously aware of them and think philosophically out loud about them in forums like this one.
Though how society is structured might service one majority or another in truth all of our preferences are as manifold as we are. Someone will say that they "think in pictures" and can reconstruct the world on a page. Others will have a feel for prose and prefer to write. Still others prefer to use their body physically to express themselves and not talk much at all.
So many of our problems would subsist if we recognized our real differences.
A slogan from a phone advertisement from the 80s or 90s was "reach out and touch someone." I do think there is something like a universal need for connection. Yet our preferences for HOW MUCH connection vary much more widely - and wildly - than we care to admit.
This podcast is, among other things, a way for me to connect to the world and the things in the world that I love in a way that suits my temperament. One listener said it sounded like those old phone calls that we used to "have from twenty years ago."
When we are talking about aesthetics in terms of this podcast, then I want all of the preferences to be represented.
I want there to be discussions of the expressions of matters of the ear as well as the eye, and writing and bodily movement. It is as vast and diverse as the universe itself as I feel that, as many episodes as we have already created, there is still abundant mystery about what is to come in the future.