Death of the Telephone

Experts say the phone call is a relic of the past.

Even though everyone above the age of 6 seems to carry a phone around with them experts say that the phone call is a relic of the past.

Pamela Paul, NYT: “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You

In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”

“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.” Though the beast has been somewhat tamed by voice mail and caller ID, the phone caller still insists, Ms. Martin explained, “that we should drop whatever we’re doing and listen to me.”

Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent. The reasons are multifold. Nobody has assistants anymore to handle telecommunications. And in today’s nearly door-free workplaces, unless everyone is on the phone, calls are disruptive and, in a tight warren of cubicles, distressingly public. Does anyone want to hear me detail to the dentist the havoc six-year molars have wreaked on my daughter?

“When I walk around the office, nobody is on the phone,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. The nature of the rare business call has also changed. “Phone calls used to be everything: serious, light, heavy, funny,” Mr. Burnham said. “But now they tend to be things that are very focused. And almost everyone e-mails first and asks, ‘Is it O.K. if I call?’ ”

Even in fields where workers of various stripes (publicists, agents, salespeople) traditionally conducted much of their business by phone, hoping to catch a coveted decision-maker off-guard or in a down moment, the phone stays on the hook. When Matthew Ballast, an executive director for publicity at Grand Central Publishing, began working in book publicity 12 years ago, he would go down his list of people to cold call, then follow up two or three times, also by phone. “I remember five years ago, I had a pad with a list of calls I had to return,” he said. Now, he talks by phone two or three times a day. “You pretty much call people on the phone when you don’t understand their e-mail,” he said.


Receiving calls on the cellphone can be a particular annoyance. First, there’s the assumption that you’re carrying the thing at all times. For those in homes with stairs, the cellphone siren can send a person scrambling up and down flights of steps in desperate pursuit. Having the cellphone in hand doesn’t necessarily lessen the burden. After all, someone might actually be using the phone: someone who is in the middle of scrolling through a Facebook photo album. Someone who is playing Cut the Rope. Someone who is in the process of painstakingly touch-tapping an important e-mail.

I’m skeptical that phone usage is actually down, given that everyone on the highway on standing next to me in line seems to be talking on one. But I agree with the sentiment that uncoordinated  phone calls are annoying disruptions. The telephone is a great way to catch up with friends and family who don’t live nearby. But, for the most part, I’d rather schedule a time to call.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I went to buy a cell phone somtime back. I told the salesman that I didn’t want texting, I didn’t want internet access, didn’t care about the camera or music playing capabilites. I just wanted a phone. He probably thought I was an old fuddy-duddy and sold me the cheapest phone in the shop.

    But the reason I want a cell phone is for emergencies only. If I am driving the back roads and have a break down, I want to be able to call for help. And the other emergency too – when my wife sends me to the store to get something that isn’t available. If I buy something else, it’s wrong. If I don’t buy something else, why didn’t I call? I tell y’all, that cell phone has saved my life numerous times.

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    I was going to say that I use the phone all the time, until I realized I only use it for work which requires it. To communicate with friends and most of my family, I use it as a text/chat/portable email device.

    Only when I’m calling my mother or grandparents is it usually used as a phone.

  3. james says:

    I guess I’m really a dinosaur…I don’t even have a cellphone…..of course I rarely get phone calls……..but I love the conversations on oovoo, logitech, & skype (video calls)

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve had an AT&T iPhone for years, so I long-since gave up making phone calls.

  5. Brett #2 says:

    It’s probably a generational thing, James. Most of the twenty-somethings are texting in lieu of voice calls (aside from Skype and other VoIP calls), but older people still frequently use voice calls, and most of us twenty-somethings still use voice calls when talking to our older parents. had an article about this from last year.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    People who write these articles tend not to have real jobs.

  7. epistorese says:

    @Alex: If you guys don’t have real jobs, then how can you get annoyed at the “annoying disruption” of phone calls? This past month, I switched my phone service (in Korea) from regular monthly service to “pay by the minute and text message” service. My phone bill is only half of what it had been, including a $12 base charge (which most Koreans feel is confiscatory).

  8. mattb says:

    Like the “death of email,” “death of TV,” or any other death of X, these article always like to imagine a world far simpler than it is.

    Since the media “explosion” — which depending on how your arguement can begin with either the printing press, the phonograph, the telephone, movies, the radio or TV — we have been constantly reshuffling our media use, but rarely ever abandoning any *general* technologies.[1]

    What happens is that, as each new communication technology comes to be accepted, that reshuffles the way we use current technologies. So text messaging has led to a “premium” being placed on “voice” time.

    Low value (incidental) communications are now expected to be carried out via text. You need to *have* a reason to call (as it’s come to be understood as more disrupting for you and the people around you).

    But, in many respects that shift is no different than how the value and rate of mail has changed based on email.

    [1] – Specific tech (8-track, beta, laser disk) definitely do get abandoned.

  9. james says:

    Our technology has brought clinical impersonalization……a by-product of this ‘modern’ technocracy is the loss of our sense of caring and awareness of one another……we really just don’t want to be bothered………until we get older, we don’t realize the importance of relationships, I don’t get as excited about a text message or email as I do at the sound of a sibling or one of my children’s voices

  10. Alex Knapp says:

    @epistorese –

    In my day job, I use the phone all the time. For a variety of reasons, it’s a much better tool than email. Not the least of which is that most people can’t write worth a damn.