The Fall of Voice, or Text Strikes Back

Posted by Zealot on Aug 01, 2010

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phone rage The web has been buzzing over the weekend about a piece by Clive Thompson at Wired about the end of phone calls as we know them. He argues quite convincingly that we just don’t talk on the phone very much any more, as other ways to communicate have proven to be easier and cheaper.

He mentions as proof his shrinking phone bill, not in terms of cost of course, but in terms of the sheer numbers of pages it takes up every month. Where a couple years ago he would get a dozen or more pages of phone numbers dialed, now he gets only a page or two, if that. I must admit I have seen similar changes in not only my own but the phone bills of my family. We are using our phones more, but talking less. Can this be the moment when the written word, once assumed to be dying, will have its revenge?

Thompson makes the following point…

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.

Consider: If I suddenly decide I want to dial you up, I have no way of knowing whether you’re busy, and you have no idea why I’m calling. We have to open Schrödinger’s box every time, having a conversation to figure out whether it’s OK to have a conversation. Plus, voice calls are emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it’s so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one. (We apparently find voicemail even more excruciating: Studies show that more than a fifth of all voice messages are never listened to.)

I realized in considering his thoughts that he is exactly right. Looking at my phone right now the icon shows I have four voice messages waiting. One is from last week, the other three have been waiting there for better than a month now. Eventually when I have time I will call the number just to delete them, being careful not to actually listen to them. I hate voice messages, they always seem like they will be bad news or an unwanted intrusion. It is far more comfortable to send a text asking them what they want when I have missed a call then it is to listen to a voice mail, or if it is someone I feel the need to contact immediately just to call them directly back. Voice messages are like unwelcome guests; staying too long, smelling funny and never bringing the right kind of wine.

In fact written messages, be they emails or text messages or direct tweets are vastly superior to voice messages or random phone calls. Just think of all the things we can do with written messages that we can’t do with voice messages or phone calls:

We can scan for keywords. Is this message relevant to us right now? If it is a voice message we have to listen to all of it to the bitter end to make sure it isn’t important, but an email or text can be scanned for keywords. If they aren’t relevant or pressing, we can deal with them later. Voice messages don’t have that option, they are all or nothing.

We can stall without being rude. The kids are off with grandma, the lights are low, you finally got the wine open and your significant other is giving you “that” look? As Thompson noted, we have no way to KNOW things like that before we dial someone’s number. If the phone rings you need to answer it to find out if it is something important that you need to know (Uncle Abner was hit by a plane, The store is on fire, Someone shot a Serbian Archduke). Then when you find out it ISN’T important, you have to either be blunt (“Gettin’lucky, gotta go”) or make lame excuses to get off the phone while your significant other is giving you that OTHER look. With an email, a glance at the subject line will usually tell you if this is a vital issue or just an ad for viagra, which you really don’t need at that moment, God willing.

We can cut to the chase. People seldom understand how to leave a message. They put the essential part at the end so we need to wait in suspense. They wait to say “The tumor is benign” until the very last moment, prefacing it with several minutes of “Well, I just got back from the doctor. They said the tests were back, so I went over there. It was really hot so we had to park in the South Lot, you know, the one by the open canal. Aunt Miriam went with me, you know the one, the one with the handlebar moustache. It was really hot, so she ended up throwing up in her handbag during the walk. I think that was the handbag your late grandfather gave her when she got out of prison….” With an email or a text message we can get to the good news (or the bad news) right away by skipping down, then read back for the details once we know the score. We can’t do that with voice messages…or most phone conversations, since people tend to think saying “Shut the hell up and get to the goddamn point!” is bad phone etiquette (people who think that have clearly never met my family).

We can answer point by point. When we reply to an email or a text message, we have the original message right in front of us, and we can respond directly and concisely without leaving things out or being confusing.

Did you remember to stop by the house while I am away?
>> Yes I did
Were there any police cars standing around?
>> Umm..not that I know of.
The new cement on the patio looked dry to you?
>>Yes, but I am going to have to insist on having my own attorney after I send this hard drive to the feds.

With a voice mail or a phone conversation, you almost always lose track or leave something out, or just start yelling.

I agree with Thompson…let the phone call die with dignity already, we have moved on. As I have noted in previous posts, modern phones really aren’t well suited for all that talking anyway. Just a few years ago people were saying that voice was going to be the new key to all computing and communications. Applications that would read our email aloud, or transcribe our voice into text were going to be all the rage, as were voice commands to control your PC. Back then people were saying that the future was going to be spoken and the text was dead…but it seems that if that really WAS the future, then we are going back to the past as the written word is regaining supremacy. About damn time, if you ask me.

We are entering the post-voice epoch. The revolution will be txted. Now if you will excuse me, I have carrier pigeons to train.

Zealot (839 Posts) - Website | Twitter | Facebook


By day a department manager and writer for a major network device vendor...by night Zealot stalks the mean magnetic streets, striking fear into the hearts of bandwidth abusers and theme park mascots. Zealot has been involved with mobile devices for more than a decade now, starting off with dumb phones, moving to PDAs and then to smartphones, notebooks and netbooks with the odd PMP thrown in. Most of his mobile time currently is spent on a Treo Pro, Zune HD, Thinkpad T61, HP Mini 311, iPod Touch 3G, iPad 16G or a Hackintoshed Compaq Mini 704. He proudly groks the Geek community and considers himself a Neo Maxi Zune Dweebie (thanks Wil Wheaton!).

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  • http://twitter.com/mobilitysite/status/20055393476 mobilitysite

    Posted: The Fall of Voice, or Text Strikes Back http://bit.ly/btry32

  • http://www.svpocketpc.com Pony99CA

    Nonetheless, short of being there face-to-face, there's no more personal communication for most people than a phone call (until video callilng becomes more than a niche market).

    Also, if you combine voice transcription with visual voicemail, you can get most of the benefits of E-mail without requiring the sender to type.

    Finally, a real conversation has the lowest latency around. If something critical is happening, waiting for the next E-mail or text to arrive isn't fast enough.

    I think there's still room for voice. Maybe not as much, but it should not be left to die.

    Steve

  • msliberty

    Sometimes I just want to hear someone's voice. I don't need the spelling errors and abbreviated text — (ILY,BFF), I don't need someone Skyping me with morning frizzy hair and in a scrungy tee – I like the ole fashioned heavy breathing and real loud laughter…. but I must agree, I do very little of that anymore.
    msliberty

  • PocketBrain

    Mobile text communication will expand to fill its market niche, but never will it replace mobile voice communication. For reasons stated above, it does indeed have a place and it will be used where appropriate and practical, but it is ridiculous to suggest that we will no longer talk because we have learned to type. It does not supersede, but complements, mobile voice communication. Even the uber-fashion iPad has a Skype voice app. I still use verbal communication every day and am not considered a throwback.

  • PocketBrain

    Mobile text communication will expand to fill its market niche, but never will it replace mobile voice communication. For reasons stated above, it does indeed have a place and it will be used where appropriate and practical, but it is ridiculous to suggest that we will no longer talk because we have learned to type. It does not supersede, but complements, mobile voice communication. Even the uber-fashion iPad has a Skype voice app. I still use verbal communication every day and am not considered a throwback.

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