Communication breakdown

Let’s hope I don’t draw in too many Led Zeppelin fans with this heading, and I don’t mean ‘breakdown’ in the sense of being unable to communicate. I just think it’s interesting how the rules have changed. It’s mainly to do with the instant access we have to one another (I am partly spared this because my mobile phone doesn’t work in my home, so an instant instinct to speak to me, or text me, rarely bears fruit – and the same in reverse: I can’t do it).

The thing I notice about email (where I can almost always be contacted round the clock, since I obviously haven’t slept a single minute for ten years now) is that it is so easily mis-read. It has no timbre, no inflection, so the brain imposes one on it. Or maybe I mean what’s left of my brain. This happens in work emails, especially, where there is an inherent stress in the relationship between the two parties. A stray capital letter can look as if one of the participants has raised his or her voice. A sudden ending can look peremptory. A run of capitals looks like shouting. And so on.

Texting is more interesting, because the physical skill required for texting is so dependent on practice. My fingers are pathetically slow. It could be the same hand-eye problem which makes me so unmusical, but it’s more likely (a) my age, in that I can’t face the absence of punctuation, having said which, I can’t get my phone to use a capital letter at anything other than the start of a text, which probably means I don’t know how to use the phone and/or (b) my fingers are too big. I would quite like a law brought in to make the buttons on a phone bigger (same with all remote controls). Texting is (like messaging) so instant that the content of the text is usually dismissable as anything other than rudimentary communication. It’s because it’s thought of as off-the-cuff (poor use of colloquialism there). Yet increasingly (and always to amazement and outrage as yet), some major decisions are taken by text. Marriages are called off. Roy Keane, Sunderland’s late football manager, resigned by text (good thing, the resignation, if the sudden rush of goals since he went has anything to do with it: what fickle fans we are at Sunderland).

The landline phone (where one can be more leisurely, I guess because the cost is far cheaper) is entering a third phase. The first one must have been excruciating (in Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan, ‘Topsy-Turvy’, Jim Broadbent, as Gilbert, is shown having to shout down a late nineteenth century line in his home). Until the mobile phone, the second phase was slightly formal at first, but relaxed to a certain extent: only to a certain extent, because phones in houses were in public places, where anyone could listen in. Now landline phones can be picked up and carried about, and are taking on the property of mobile phones. As a means of communication, the phone throws me, because silences are a problem. Successive monologues or constant dialogue are all that are permitted. I think it’s increasingly hard to have a good phone conversation, because the rules of engagement have changed. (Interesting what else has gone, of course: party lines – no party! – and operators who listened in and sometimes chipped in.)

I used to look forward to the videophone. (The TV science show Tomorrow’s World promised it by 1980, but then they also promised free trains.) I know it’s here, either by interactive computer or handheld devices, but it hasn’t quite caught on. The answer, I think, is to start with the landline (as it were) version, and for the TV to be the main point of contact, to show the speakers each other as they talk. The body language is missing. And the more forms of communication there are in print and by voice, the more body language is the one to be devalued.

What I’d really like is a sensurround phone.

Or advanced telepathy, where the speakers inhabited each other. Now we’re talking.


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