What we're reading: The death of the phone call

A vintage rotary telephone. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The rise and fall of the phone conversation — from the normalizing of "hello" to all of the other formalities taught to kids who grew up with landline telephones — is revisited in a new piece from The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal.

The big picture: Picking up was once commonplace in a home for a ringing telephone. Now, people avoid phone calls and conversations at all costs, for reasons that include alternative options and the rise of telemarketer spam.

The backdrop:
  • The reflex of always answering the phone, something that was so ingrained into people who grew up in the 20th century, is now gone. Madrigal writes: "In the moment when a phone rang, there was an imperative. One had to pick up the phone. This thinking permeated the culture from adults to children."
  • In the telephone's infancy, there were no voice mails, no caller ID, and not even a *69 feature to use to dial the last person who rang. Not too long ago, avoiding a call could mean missing something important — at least until the person called back.
  • But as communication options became more abundant, the need to answer every call has dissipated. Madrigal writes: "Texting is fun, lightly asynchronous, and possible to do with many people simultaneously. It’s almost as immediate as a phone call, but not quite ... So many little dings have begun to make the rings obsolete."
The spam

Spam phone calls have also led more and more people to avoid answering the phone. As years have gone by, robocalls from unknown numbers have become far more frequent.

  • Telemarketers were the spam calls in the 20th century, but they have since been replaced by automation and bots who don't take days off.
  • The FCC has been trying to block robocalls, but there were more than 3.4 billion placed in April 2018 — more than ever before.
  • In modern times, answering a call from an unknown number becomes a guessing game, and sometimes people don't bother guessing at all.
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