But when it comes to taking phone calls and not making them, nobody seems to have admitted that using the telephone today is a different material experience than it was 20 or 30 (or 50) years ago, not just a different social experience. That’s not just because our phones have also become fancy two-way pagers with keyboards, but also because they’ve become much crappier phones. It’s no wonder that a bad version of telephony would be far less desirable than a good one. And the telephone used to be truly great, partly because of the situation of its use, and partly because of the nature of the apparatus we used to refer to as the “telephone”—especially the handset.
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On the infrastructural level, mobile phones operate on cellular networks, which route calls between transceivers distributed across a service area. These networks are wireless, obviously, which means that signal strength, traffic, and interference can make calls difficult or impossible. Together, these factors have made phone calls synonymous with unreliability. Failures to connect, weak signals that staccato sentences into bursts of signal and silence, and the frequency of dropped calls all help us find excuses not to initiate or accept a phone call.
By contrast, the traditional, wired public switched telephone network (PSTN) operates by circuit switching. When a call is connected, one line is connected to another by routing it through a network of switches. At first these were analog signals running over copper wire, which is why switchboard operators had to help connect calls. But even after the PSTN went digital and switching became automated, a call was connected and then maintained over a reliable circuit for its duration. Calls almost never dropped and rarely failed to connect.
But now that more than half of American adults under 35 use mobile phones as their only phones, the intrinsic unreliability of the cellular network has become internalized as a property of telephony. Even if you might have a landline on your office desk, the cellular infrastructure has conditioned us to think of phone calls as fundamentally unpredictable affairs. Of course, why single out phones? IP-based communications like IM and iMessage are subject to the same signal and routing issues as voice, after all. But because those services are asynchronous, a slow or failed message feels like less of a failure—you can just regroup and try again. When you combine the seemingly haphazard reliability of a voice call with the sense of urgency or gravity that would recommend a phone call instead of a Slack DM or an email, the risk of failure amplifies the anxiety of unfamiliarity. Telephone calls now exude untrustworthiness from their very infrastructure.
Going deeper than dropped connections, telephony suffered from audio-signal processing compromises long before cellular service came along, but the differences between mobile and landline phone usage amplifies those challenges, as well. At first, telephone audio was entirely analogue, such that the signal of your voice and your interlocutor’s would be sent directly over the copper wire. The human ear can hear frequencies up to about 20 kHz, but for bandwidth considerations, the channel was restricted to a narrow frequency range called the voice band, between 300 and 3,400 Hz. It was a reasonable choice when the purpose of phones—to transmit and receive normal human speech—was taken into account.