Talking: An Obsolete Technology?

| July 11, 2011

A recent New York Times article discusses the declining amount of time spent talking on the telephone, a communication change that has occurred over the past five years with the advent of text messaging. According to cell phone companies, spending on text messaging is soon to overcome spending on talking minutes. In particular, this article cites the change in the workplace, where once active telephones and voice messaging systems have now been silenced; most communication now occurs over email, and if phone conversations do take place, they are usually pre-arranged over email first.

The argument could be made that text is a more efficient form of communication, because one can reread and edit what they want to say; additionally, text is a frozen artifact, able to be referenced at a later date, unlike speech which immediately dissipates. In spoken communication, there are also many features and aspects to a conversation that require more words, more energy than simply communicating facts. These aspects include greetings, adjacency pairs, phatic communication (“yeah,” “uh-huh”), and closing signifiers (such as “oh, the kettle is boiling” to begin the process of saying goodbye). For many purposes of communication, this conversational dance might not be necessary. Another aspect of texting and email is the dimension of time; one can choose when they want to respond, unlike the ring of a telephone, which demands immediate attention.

A critique of social networking is that it is dehumanizing (Lanier, 2010). It mediates social contact. But this is what technology has always done (see Andy van Dam). We text people so we don’t have to call them. We call them so we don’t have to go to their house.

There are so many multimodal aspects of communication that mediated technology will never replace. The characteristics of talking to someone in person, and seeing their gestures, hearing their tone of voice; that can’t be easily replicated via email or text, emoticons notwithstanding. It’s hard to imagine building strong friendships and relationships over text alone (although I’m sure there are exceptional cases). But I believe text—texting and emailing, specifically—will continue to increasingly dominate, especially in the workplace, and also in mobile phone use.