Plenty of people don’t lament the passing of the family phone. Michael Muller, the 27-year-old son of Cheryl, the artist in Brooklyn, says he enjoys the constant proximity of a cellphone and prefers texting over calling, which he says people only use when they want to “extract an answer.” “Text is so much easier to take as much time as you want to think about it,” he told me. If he has kids, he’s not sure he’ll get a landline for his family to share.
Even in its infancy, the telephone wasn't always celebrated. Its rise prompted a London editor in the late 19th century to ask, “What will become of the privacy of life? What will become of the sanctity of the domestic hearth?” Some viewed the phone as supernatural (they struggled to understand how sound could travel through wire) or impractical (aboveground phone lines in the early days were often highly obtrusive). When people first shouted into phones, they felt awkward, as though they were performing.
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Even as the family phone recedes into history a century and a half later, we can preserve the togetherness it promoted in other ways. Rosen, the psychology professor, says that “creating special family time is really critical,” and Turkle writes of the importance of device-free “sacred” spaces in the home. The family phone was hardly a necessary ingredient for family bonding.
And perhaps the spirit of the family phone can live on. Margaret Klein, an educational researcher living in New Jersey and a mother of three girls, ages 6, 9, and 11, has tried to ease into giving her daughters their own phones. Her girls share a stripped-down cellphone with no internet access, and call it “the family phone.” When her oldest went to a ballet program in Manhattan this summer, she brought it. Klein’s 9-year-old has used it a few times to text her camp friends. But “it always goes back and lives in its place at the end of the day,” she tells me—right next to their landline in the living room.
Indeed, even as smartphones have taken over, some people stand by their landlines. “I mainly want to keep it because it works when there is no power,” says Peter Eavis, a New York City–based journalist in his 50s and a father of two. “And as a veteran of 9/11, an actual NYC blackout, Hurricane Irene, and Superstorm Sandy, it gives me comfort.”
But Eavis’s landline is on its way to being an anomaly, and a generation of children who never had one are coming of age. Eventually, for those who enjoyed—or at least grew accustomed to—the sound of a communal phone ringing in their homes, a moment of silence will be in order.