Playing Telephone




In the beginning, phones were communal. If you lived in a small enough town and the operator liked you, you knew everybody’s business. In the city, you knew the intimate goings-on of everybody who shared your party line. A long-distance call was communal, too, everybody gathering around the phone, as thrilled as the audience for a high-wire act. Which, really, it was.

By the time I was a teenager, the phone had lost its novelty, but calls had not. Once my mom called to me that I had a phone call—from a boy on whom I had a silent crush—and I whooped in glee, such an outburst she hissed to shush me so he would not hear. In those days, young women had to toss golden apples in the path to keep the chase exciting.

Just six years later, I was more impressed by the guy who walked over to the campus office where I worked and asked me out in person.

Novelty so quickly palls.

Today, we make an appointment by text rather than intrude with a spontaneous phone call. We do not perform wildly creative (and often dorky) playlets on our answering machines. We silence ringers whenever possible.

At what point did phone calls, even from people we adore, become an irritant? It is always fun to blame telemarketers. They have made the most courteous of us rude; they have cooled our dinners, soured elation, interrupted hot sex. I now receive more phone calls from scammers and supplicants than from my friends. Which is disconcerting.

Also, though, we are overstimulated, overavailable, overbusy, and a long, meandering, curled-up-on-the-sofa chat seems an impossible luxury. Funny, how improvements so often subtract from life’s quality.

Funnier still, that we could have predicted it. In 1919, W.K. Haselden drew a comic strip for Britain’s Daily Mirror, showing a harried gentleman with the future’s “pocket telephone.” It rang while he was running for a train, juggling packages, or fighting his way through a rainstorm; it rang after he was seated, clad in black tie, at a concert; it rang as he walked down the aisle at his wedding.

Haselden nailed it. But he forgot that we would find ways to outwit such a device. I still remember the shock of freedom when I first allowed myself to let a phone ring. I had to tense the muscles in my arm to keep from reaching for that handset, its ring as imperative as a crying baby.

Then we came up with new technology to avoid those once exciting calls. Answering machines let us screen. Caller ID let us screen even faster. Bit by bit, we untethered ourselves.

And then we tethered ourselves all over again, but to a phone that did far more than connect calls.

“Your device,” my husband called it for years. “Your machine.” He will die with a flip-phone even if he has to have it custom engineered; he insists that phones should be phones. Full stop. Yet what makes My Phone (that is its name, invoked many times a day as I look for it, reach for it, recharge it) inseparable from me is everything but the calls. As cell phones slimmed and slicked, they slid deeper into our lives. The apps perform amazing feats, yet the quality of the calls sometimes suffers—which is why we are the last on the planet to hang on to a landline. Voices are clearer, the phone is easier to hold, the connection never drops or turns staticky. Best of all, the handset sits quietly in its cradle between calls, nurturing no agenda, capturing no data, utterly uninterested in the rest of our lives.

Ian Bogost marvels at how much goes wrong with the other sort. “In my experience, it’s no longer possible to answer the phone successfully,” he writes in The Atlantic. “Instead, this: Hello? … Wait, hello? Can you hear me? Okay, hold on. Ugh. Okay, okay, just a second. I have to get my earphones to connect. Damn it. Okay, never mind, I’ll just hold it up to my head. Hi, ugh, sorry about that.”

Phone designers have overcomplicated our phones, loading them with all sorts of features, and we add our own apps weekly. We are so hooked up—via Bluetooth, earbuds, CarPlay, Google watches—that there are a million possible glitches with every call. “Nothing really works, and nothing is truly broken either,” writes Bogost, “but instead these miraculous machines we invented take on their own lives alongside us.”

We wheedle with them, supplicants too dependent to set them aside when they fail us. We forgive them daily, as the landed gentry forgave their valets and housekeepers, because they are nearly as invaluable. We protect them with shatterproof cases and announce our purchase of a New Phone the way people announce new jobs or relationships.

In 1907, Proust wrote a piece in Le Figaro complaining that only when the excitement of the phone subsided did people turn to books. “First, one telephones a lot.” For him, the act was eerie: “It has seemed to me that this voice rang out from the depths that one doesn’t return from … alone and no longer tied to a body.” A distant, disembodied voice was far from a comfort; instead, it only reminded him of the person’s physical absence. And, Proust being melancholy Proust, it reminded him of our eventual, inevitable separation, by death, from all those we love.

Many years ago, when my mom had Legionnaire’s disease, her lungs collapsed so fast, she went from “okay, probably bronchitis” to near death, on a ventilator in the ICU, in the space of a day. Driving home from the hospital, I hit my voice mail and heard her voice from the day before, vibrant and reassuring, saying not to worry, she was feeling much better. I saved the message, afraid it might be the last time I heard her voice. But I still remember that feeling—at once warmed and chilled, connected again but knowing that if I reached out my hand, the person I could visualize speaking to me would dissolve into the mist.

The internet sometimes feels the same way. All these people making me laugh or think—are you really there? No wonder we sometimes feel we are in a simulation. Disembodiment is a conjuring. It felt that way when the voices of loved ones first floated from a clunky receiver, and all these iterations later, it still does.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.