The phone call revolution: Then and now

Dubai - Hanging up on communication? Sushmita Bose maps out the transformation of phone calls, from STDs to video chats


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 4:23 PM

The other day, on a family conference call, my father cribbed — for at least 15 minutes — how difficult it is to “get through” to near and dear ones “these days” and sustain conversations with them. Our call lasted for a little over an hour, so I thought it was a bit rich. I reminded him of the times, in the 1980s, when we got to speak to our grandparents on Sunday evenings, on an STD line — because they lived outside the city — where the charges were higher. We had a 10-minute window, and everyone would take turns to blurt out a few sentences, along the lines of: “How are you? Yes, I’m fine; yes, school/office is going good; yes, I miss you too.” By the time you spoke out this tranche, somebody else would snatch the phone from your hand and begin their side of the same story.

The reason why we spoke on Sundays was that call rates were cheaper on that day. And the reason why we spoke for 10 minutes was because even though the rates were (relatively) cheaper, they were not exactly inexpensive, and added too much weight to the monthly phone bills. But my grandparents never had a problem with that tiny capsule, and would in fact — my grandfather especially, always the ‘practical’ one — insist we get off the phone as quickly as possible to avoid expenses.

Cut to 2021. Everyone is perennially available on free calls or cheap calls or video calls, you don’t have to sit next to the telephone and wait agonisingly for it to ring at a pre-determined time, you can be mobile, be anywhere, in any state and talk at will — and yet we are not happy: that’s what I told my father.

He was silenced momentarily, so I decided to rub it in. In the old days, if someone lived in a different country, you’d have to wait for weeks to get a letter with updated information, most people weren’t rich enough to make transnational calls. My aunt, for instance, lived in London, and we would “hear” from her and her family (including her kids, my cousins, who I quite fancied since they spoke in clipped British accents) once in two months. It would take a month (give or take a few days) for our letter to reach her; even if she responded that very day (never usually the case), it would take another month for her missive to reach us. Yet, the day the blue aerogram arrived, stamped with the Queen’s visage, filled with meticulous details in fine handwriting (in small size so that more punch could be packed in), we felt replete: we knew everything we needed to know about their lives were unfolding… till the next one made its way a couple of months down the line.

Could it be, I continued, that the quality of our exchanges have been downgraded? We chat for hours on end, often every other day, and still we do not seem to have the latitude to engage meaningfully in an age when tools of communication have been served to us on an Instagrammed platter.

I’m not a sucker for self-help books, but whenever I’ve seen blurbs and snatches from tomes titled How To Be An Effective Communicator — or something similar — the thrust is on being to the point… get rid of the bells and whistles and cut to the chase. But the very ubiquity and ease that new-fangled tools of communication have offered us make us hover on the fringes on pointlessness: the means have become so expansive, there’s no end in sight. Articulated interactions are rarely fulfilling, so one never gets off a phone call or a video call feeling content — there’s invariably some form of distress or confusion or a feeling you couldn’t really get your thoughts across even though you spoke at length.

After the last family conference session, the one over the course of which my father talked about being feeling communicatively shortchanged, I called my brother — one on one — to pick his brains. “Maybe the information overload [from WhatsApp, Facebook etc] is getting to him [my father]… when you are constantly in the grips of stuff being thrown at you, with no lines drawn, or timelines drawn, that’s when you lose the plot: you don’t know how much you should imbibe, what your limit is… you instinctively seek more because you are always kept on the edge wanting to be fed more nuggets of useless trivia — constant gratification, isn’t that what they call it?” he offered sagely.

I believe my brother remains sentient because the only time he uses online connectivity is when he works. The rest of the time, he’s like the telephones of yore that were used for effective communication.  

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