Hanging on the telephone

The pandemic has turned our social lives into software.

I got a frankly rude notification on my phone recently, telling me that my screen time had increased precipitously in the past weeks. “No shit!” I said to my phone.

Collectively, we have found ourselves in the midst of medically necessary self-imposed isolation during an era when more people are living alone than at quite possibly any point in human history. It’s difficult to quantify this kind of thing, but the percentage of American adults living alone has more than doubled in the past 50 years, taking a sharp leap after steadily rising throughout recorded history. That makes all of us, especially while limited to our homes, overwhelmingly reliant on one particular possession above all others: our cell phones. According to Pew, 96 percent of Americans have mobile phones, 81 percent of us smartphones. And telecommunications companies are reporting surges in usage since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

I got my first cell phone when I left home for college in 2005. I don’t remember what brand it was, but it was one of those boring gray bricks with a beige screen like a calculator. I wanted a flip phone, for their resemblance to Star Trek communicators, but those were top of the line at the time, and my family wasn’t the type to splurge on gadgets. Besides, I didn’t expect to be using it for much, other than calling my parents. But that year, I unwittingly participated in a historical transition in human communication: I sent and received my first text messages. This was back when you had alphanumeric keys, where to get “C” you had to press “1” three times. So to say “hey” you would have to punch out 4-4-3-3-9-9-9. I thought it was a pain. This will never catch on, I said to myself.

It’s probably a typical sign of a social change, rather than a personal one, that I not only got used to it, I didn't even notice it was happening. I got so used to texting, in fact, that like most members of my generation, I began to consider any other form of telecommunication a nuisance at best and an affront at worst.

“Short message service,” or SMS, is now nearly 30 years old. The first text message was sent on December 3, 1992, by an engineer at Vodafone, and said “MERRY CHRISTMAS.” Texting stalled out for nearly a decade, while telecom companies figured out how to reliably charge money for it. Once that was taken care of, it hit a boiling point. In 2000, Americans sent 35 text messages a month; in 2002, 250 billion were sent worldwide.

The sudden dependence on texting required the reorganization of certain social processes, in both business and leisure. “Younger workers may have mastered technologies that some of their older colleagues have barely heard of, such as photo and video sharing apps Instagram and Vine,” said a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “but some bosses wish they'd learn a more traditional skill: picking up the phone.” After hours, too, socializing and dating became in large part conducted by SMS. As courtship shifted from verbal to textual, questions like how many days to wait before calling someone became more or less obsolete. No more waiting by the phone; your phone was in your pocket.

Observers all the way back to Plato have agonized over the consequences of substituting various forms of technology, from the stone tablet to the smartphone, for IRL verbal conversation. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face-to-face encounter — the direct meeting of self and other — was the foundation of ethical responsibility. In a more deterministic understanding of social life, the experience of another person is a visual and tactile event, which triggers neurological effects like release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with the feelings of love and trust.

This isn’t to get too dramatic; the effect on me is probably limited to making me more accustomed to already-existing tendencies towards introversion — hardly a recent invention. But technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and these advanced tools of communication seem instead to be making communication more difficult. Sherry Turkle, an MIT clinical psychologist and sociologist who studies the effects of technology on human relationships, has pointed to some research on the question:

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

It seems undeniable that technology has taken some effect. The aversion to real-time interaction carries over to our behavior as consumers, resulting in the dominance of services like Amazon and Seamless that bring the need for human contact to an absolute minimum. The most earnest (or least self-aware) Gen-Xers and millennials now consider phone calls an act worthy of sainthood.

But if social patterns follow the development of technology, they’re moving faster than ever. In fact, the preference for texting, which I had always thought of as a characteristic of youth, could be on its way to obsolescence. Anyone I know who is even a few years younger than me — take, for example, Noah Kulwin of The Outline — bizarrely places calls to me sometimes. “What happened? Are you okay?” I say when picking up. It’s usually nothing serious.

The advancing capabilities of smartphones facilitated this shift. Texting was one thing, but it was just a few years later that you could start sending photos. Among other things, this facilitated the rise of the dick pic, a phenomenon which has felled powerful men and possibly influenced the outcome of national elections. With the release of consumer smartphones in the 2010s, we eventually became able to video chat, to record front-facing videos for social media, and so on. The generation growing up with those technologies — coming to be called “Generation Z” — is not going to experience the same limitations that mine did, when SMS was the latest innovation. “For groups of college students and high schoolers, texting is out,” says MEL magazine. “Their go-to method of communication is FaceTime.”

Members of the youngest generation now reaching adulthood are sometimes called “zoomers,” a play on “boomers.” Fittingly, the video conferencing service Zoom has come to dominate social life in the year 2020. It fits a precedent that historian of technology Robert Kargon has described. “What I've found as a historian is that emergencies, for example like World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, they tended to accelerate rather than necessarily innovate new kinds of relationships, new kinds of ways of life," he told NBC News.

If the quarantine is letting genies out of bottles, one of them might be an even greater adjustment to telecommunication. I myself, as well as plenty of others I know, have participated in psychotherapy sessions and office meetings on Zoom. People are scheduling Zoom happy hours, or, on the other hand, 12-step meetings. Universities are conducting classes with it. I’ve seen friends posting selfies on Instagram showing how they’ve dressed up for Zoom dates with people they met online. If these things start to feel normal — which they very well might, depending on how long we need to stay indoors — why should anyone stop doing them?

We probably can’t tell yet just what we’re missing out on when we transfer social life from the real world to the virtual. Plenty of technologies attempt to emulate natural processes humans have engaged in for our whole history. But can they ever be complete substitutes? For example, as far as we know, the meal replacement smoothie Soylent, beloved by Silicon Valley, provides all the nutrients our bodies need to survive. But what about what we don’t know? Can human knowledge account for everything that makes up a substance, and what our body does with it? When it comes to something as complex as communication between sentient beings, we have little to no idea, and no psychologist, neurologist, or astrophysicist would claim to know the whole story.

For now, it’s a moot point. Zoomers may well end up becoming more well-adjusted than millennials, more comfortable with conversation and the face-to-face encounter. But without any alternatives, we’ll all have to get used to virtual stand-ins, and fast. At the very least, our pursuit of a substitute proves one thing: by whatever means we achieve it, we need to know that other people are there.

Last night, I exchanged text messages with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, even before the quarantine began — we share an introverted personality that often leads to one or the other of us cancelling plans. How are you holding up? I asked him. I’ve barely noticed, he said. In my day-to-day life, I often feel the same way. But I don’t think either of us will remember it as an evening we spent together.