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Using your cellphone for talking? That's so 2007

So, the brain trust at Research In Motion has popped out a new BlackBerry. This is all over the news, since we're told that the new BlackBerry is a very important smart phone indeed.

"It's a really special product because so much new goodness has been added to it," Mike Lazaridis, RIM's president and co-chief executive officer told reporters at its launch in what, apparently, is a real quote.

What sets this particular phone apart, it seems, is the fact that it has both a touch screen and a keyboard. This means that it can be both stroked and prodded, which are two very popular things to do with a phone these days. Talking, not so much.

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Meanwhile, across the way, Apple's new iPhone 4 has caused a media sensation because it was said to drop calls. Curiously, though, customer surveys are showing that buyers are actually very happy with the phone. Why? It could be that the whole dropped-call affair was overhyped. Or maybe, just maybe, it didn't matter that the iPhone drops calls. People want to do many things with phones these days, but actually calling each other isn't one of them.

Welcome to the age of the phoneless phone. The New York Times reported that in last year, U.S. cell networks carried, for the first time, more data than voice traffic. Surveys from firms such as Nielsen are showing that, after peaking in 2007, the length of cellphone conversations have been shrinking. After a century in the sun, a consensus is emerging that the telegraphy part is better than the talking.

We'll text our thumbs off, we'll e-mail novellas, we'll send pictures of ourselves, we'll tweet, we'll light up our phones and use them as flashlights in what may be a form of semaphore. We just don't like to talk to one another through little black boxes.

There are two reads on this. One is that smart phones are rendering people more insulated and less social. (That criticism may not be entirely as crotchety as it sounds.) But instead of bemoaning the decline of talk, we may be better off asking why exactly we thought talking on the phone was a hot idea in the first place.

Much has to do with romance. As the sole supplier of telecommunications for half a century, phones accrued an awful lot of cultural baggage. For so long, they were the implements of "phoning home," and as such they were weapons against modernity: tools that could reconnect families despite the vast distances of the modern diaspora, and the separations that come with a hurried, jet-setting world. They were the most humane thing about technology. (And, lord knows, the telephone companies were smart enough to market them that way.)

But the truth is that while phones were the best we had for a long time, they have always been profoundly anti-social and alienating inventions. There is nothing natural about listening to a disembodied voice coming from a speaker. Phones cut off every non-vocal cue we rely upon in conversation, from facial expression to posture to context. They're torture for people who are more expressive than verbose. You can comfortably sit in silence with someone in person, but on the phone, it's completely excruciating.

I polled around online for text-happy young adults, and came back with a list of grievances against phones: Phone calls are an invasion of personal space, hijacking your immediate attention and holding you hostage until the end of the conversation. They're inconvenient. They're fleeting and don't leave written transcripts.

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And let us not even start on voice mail, that anachronism that costs you three minutes to check, only to pick up a message informing you that Reginald called and would you please call back, which you already knew because you can see that he called, and presumably not for the purposes of not speaking with you.

Imagine if some inventor in Silicon Valley came up with a new online service that made a loud noise come from your kitchen wall, or your office desk or possibly inside your pants. When this gadget went off, you'd expected to drop everything and pick it up, to hell with whatever else you were doing.

If you failed to answer a certain number of times, the person on the other end would be entitled to start leaving aggrieved messages about why you're not picking up. ("Jerome! It's your mother! Answer your pants!") It would be, I predict, the kind of service people would complain bitterly about. Kids these days! With their things that ring!

Sure enough, like people who emerge, blinking, from bad relationships, smart phone users today are realizing that perhaps talking on the phone is not worth all the emotional weight we had formerly ascribed to it.

The fact that the phone has so many intensely personal uses has overshadowed the fact that it has even more uses that are intensely impersonal, from verifying movie times to sharing short, inane snippets of gossip.

In the end, the slow decline of phone talk is nothing to bemoan. There are times when you want to hear the sound of someone else's voice, and times when you really, truly don't. Here's to having the choice.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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