Last night on a whim I asked folks on Twitter if they had a home phone – you know, a “hard line” – the k ind of communications device that used to be ubiquitous, but seem increasingly an anachronism these days. The response was overwhelming – only three or four of about 35 responses, about ten percent, said they did, and most of those had them due to bad cel reception or because it makes people feel safe in case of an emergency (the “911 effect”).
The reason I conducted my unscientific poll on the home phone came down to my own experience – my home phone (yes, I have one) rings quite rarely, and when it does, it’s almost always a telemarketer, despite the fact that we’re on the “do not call list.” All of our friends and family know if they want to get in touch, they need to call our cels. Of course, our cels don’t work very well in the hills of Marin County, California, which creates a rather asynchronous sense of community, but more on that in a bit.
I set about writing this post not to bury the home phone, but to celebrate it. The home phone is relatively cheap, incredibly reliable, and – if you buy the right phone – will work for years without replacement. Oh, and far as I can tell, a home phone won’t give you brain cancer.
In a perfect world, the hard line should have become a platform for building out an entire app ecosystem for the home. And yet….it didn’t. Thanks to its monopoly nature and the resultant lack of competition, basic home phone service hasn’t changed much in 20 or so years – we got voice mail, call waiting, and a few other “innovations,” and that’s about it. It’s a dumb technology that is only getting dumber.
Now, I understand why the hard line is dying – mobile telephony is much more convenient for the consumer, and far more profitable for the telephone companies. Mobile phones are not a regulated monopoly (at least, not quite yet), so there’s a lot more innovation going on, at least at the platform level.
But I’m not sure we’ve really thought about what we’re losing as we bid adieu to the home phone (and I’m not talking about 911, which is a mostly solved problem). That one phone number – I can still remember mine from my earliest days growing up – was a shared identity for our family. When it rang, it forced a number of social cohesions to occur between us – we’d either race to answer it first (if we thought it might be for us) or we’d argue over who should get it (if we didn’t). An elaborate system of etiquette and social standards flowered around the home phone: how long a child might be allowed to stay on the phone, how late one could call without being impolite, and of course the dread implications of a late night call which violated that norm.
In short, the home phone was a social, shared, immediate technology, one that existed in rhythm with the physical expression of our lives in our most formative space: Our home. But it’s quickly being replaced by a technology that is private, mobile, asynchronous and virtual. Today, my kids don’t even look up if our home phone rings. But they’ll spend hours up in their room, texting their friends and chatting over the Internet. In other words, the loss of the home phone has sped up the phenomenon Sherry Turkle calls “being alone together.” We may be in the same physical space, but we are not sharing the same kind of social space we used to. And something is lost in that transition.
We may yet might decide there’s value in what the home phone once represented. I believe smart entrepreneurs will see opportunity in the “hard line,” and might help us rediscover the benefits of sharing some of our communications bounded once again in real space and time.