Telephony – Time to kill the call?

Sometimes the obvious stares you in the face for a very long time, without you noticing it. My colleague Dean Bubley truly surpassed himself recently by pointing out the non-obvious obvious: that the whole idea of ‘calling’ someone in the real world is typically rude and interruptive: ‘Hey – YOU! … Come here NOW!’.

Telephony merely replicates this etiquette error in virtual form.

Thus the very concept of a ‘telephone call’ is flawed from a modern standpoint. What was acceptable when telephony was the only form of real-time mass communication is no longer universally so. Which prompts the question: how can we transcend the legacy of telephony and reach something more appropriate to the modern era?

Hello, is it me you’re looking for?
The issue of what kinds of vocative words to use to summon attention is not new in telecommunications. When telephone calls were first invented, it was unclear how one should address the other party, either as the caller or callee. After all, it was improper for a gentleman to address anyone to whom one had not yet been formally introduced.

Alexander Graham Bell was keen on the word ‘ahoy!’ as a standard greeting, as if one were welcoming a ship through the fog of distance. And not once, but twice: ‘Ahoy! Ahoy!’

To the loss of modern-day telephonists, Bell lost out to Thomas Edison in the quest to introduce a new calling pattern. As Edison believed telephone lines would be held open continuously between office locations, you would need a word to summon those in the hearing vicinity of the apparatus. The word he selected to have people shout out was ‘hello!’. Note how the word ‘hello’ is a variant of ‘hallo’ which means “to shout, or to call with a loud voice.”

Telephony instead became metered by the minute and summoned people by ringing a bell. Yet Edison’s greeting not only persisted, but also entered the mainstream English language in the way we use it today; and the attitude of summoning people via ‘calling’ persists.

Don’t call me, I’ll not call you
A short interaction on Facebook between Dean’s friends exemplifies the issue of ‘calling’ in a modern context:

Ruth: Am I alone in really not liking talking on the phone? Or am I a bit weird? It’s just that someone phoning you on a mobile is a bit like someone leaping into the middle of your room yelling “Talk to me! Drop everything you are doing and talk to me RIGHT NOW!
Scott: I like voicemail. My phone is for me to talk to people when I want to. Not for them to bug me at their leisure.
Matt: ‎*nods* Asynchronous communication FTW!
Fleur: Totally agree. People should ask for permission by text or email before calling.

The underlying issue here is what I term the ‘rendezvous problem’. How can parties who wish to communicate via synchronous voice do so at a time and place that is mutually satisfying? It is not the idea of talking to other people they reject, but that it is being done entirely at the choosing of one party. What these modern urbanites are reflecting on is the absence of reciprocity in how an interruptive phone call is set up.

Power to the caller
In his 1992 book ‘Telephone Conversation’ sociologist and historian Robert Hopper gives this phenomenon a name: “hegemony of the caller”.

It comes in two forms. The first is that the caller entirely chooses the time of the call, and intrudes into the context of the callee. There is no presence or availability data to help guide the caller, and no native means of making an offer of a call (or request for one) without interrupting the callee. The callee cannot easily reject the call after answering.

The second form is more subtle. When the call is answered, it is assumed that the caller is in charge of the nature of the conversation. Having already chosen the timing, they also get to choose the topic.

Telephony is like a game of chess, with established opening gambits, middle games and endings. It is constructed in such a way that the caller always gets to play white and make the first move, and the callee black.

It is therefore unsurprising that telephony is increasingly seen as an anachronism by younger people, who are used to modalities which offer a far richer and balanced negotiating power for how, when and what to communicate.

Voice is evolving beyond telephony
Yet telcos continue to re-create telephony on new technology platforms as a kind of voodoo incantation to the gods of profit. This is what made our forefathers rich, so sure it will do the same for us?

Not for much longer.

We are at the beginning of seeing the patterns of telephony be challenged by new voice communications media. As voice moves into the Web, there is going to be an explosion of new ideas about how we should negotiate voice conversations and interact during them. Just as a one-size-fits-all SMS has been usurped by Facebook and Twitter and many other platforms, telephony faces the same fate.

Even if telco telephony services carry the audio medium, it isn’t hard to imagine the Internet being increasingly used to negotiate the set-up of conversations. One of the most interesting questions, therefore, is what replaces the ‘call’?

Time to transcend telephony
We can imagine what this world might look like. Let’s take the simplest case of seeing a buddy on your contact list. What are the alternatives to a ‘call’? Well, a single press might indicate a ‘conversation offer’ – “Alice would be pleased to talk to you soon”. That information would show up against Alice’s name in his contact list, and also appear in an activity stream for Bob to review at his leisure.

A double-press could escalate that to a ‘conversation request’ – which would act a little like a missed call, and leave a notification on Bob’s smartphone, “Please call Alice”. This potentially could include a subject line.

Then as the ultimate option, you could have a press-and-hold, and Alice could interrupt Bob with a ring. Again, this can be enriched with a subject. Perhaps Alice could receive a pop-up saying Bob is in a meeting, and be asked to confirm that she wants to interrupt at that moment. Or Alice can direct the call to a specific context like “Bob at Home” and it only rings if Bob is in that context.

Say goodbye to ‘hello?’
It’s exactly a hundred years since the first automated telephone exchanges went into service. Despite the weight of a century of cultural history and baggage, the way people have communicated via voice in the past is going to change in the future. Rudely interrupting people without them having control or knowledge of the purpose of the interruption is no longer fit-for-purpose for the 21st century.

It’s not a minute too soon to call time on the phone ‘call’.

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