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Modernity makes it harder to communicate face to face

Don’t get me wrong: telephones are great. They allow us to throw our voices far out, far beyond the reach of our homes, our faces, our eyes. But with all due respect, Alexander Graham Bell has ruined everything.

Sure, there were ways to violate the natural order before the telephone. There’s the letter, employed for thousands of years. The telegram, more recent but still the same sense of words – and just words – sent between two people who couldn’t speak in person. Then there are the special cases, like Histiaeus, a Greek tyrant who wanted to communicate so badly that he tattooed his messages on his slaves’ heads. Thankfully, that one never caught on.

They were ways to speak across the distances when we couldn’t see each other’s faces, ways of extending our networks of influence and information. But it was always a real, obvious disconnect. I’m not really here, these are my words but not my voice. But we’ve muddied the waters since then with technology, ventured beyond the dichotomy of Absent or Present into a strange flux where we still can’t grasp the rules.

I had a friend in grade school who had “Phonophobia.” He would not answer the home phone, even if he was the only one home, even if he was nearly certain it was for him. He wasn’t a shy person in real life. But the thought that he would have to engage with a stranger’s voice terrified him. I can relate. I hate phone conversations if I could be having them in person: we stop and start, we need to clarify our inflections, we interrupt, we are distracted, we are uncertain.

We have such great difficulty because we have ripped the eyes out of conversation.

To be fair, it has gotten better. At the start we had just the telephone (thank you, Alexander), a clunky bellbox on the wall that fed us the voices of loved ones through tubes across the country. It was a miracle of technology, though it led us to sacrifice the face, the posture, the gestures to demonstrate and the eyes to watch it all and flick again to each other’s faces, to constantly reaffirm that we were listening. But it was convenient. It was possible to wedge a phone in the crook of a shoulder and mix a cake, or fill out a ledger in the middle of a conference call. We were multitasking with greater convenience, a multitasking that only required our voice – and we could focus on something else with the eyes, the hands…and the brain.

Skype was the savior…perhaps. Widespread video calls allowed us to look each other in the eyes, or at least in the webcams. But the problem with Skype is that I can’t line up my screen. There is no screen – I’d buy it if I could find one – that integrates the webcam in its center, that lets me fool myself into thinking that I am truly looking at this person’s face, and not five inches down into a small box with their face. I can minimize Skype and position that box closest to the webcam, which helps. And then, while I’m minimized, I might as well put something else in the rest of the screen – maybe I should check my email – and now we’re back to where we started. The eyes are here, but not really.

I’m sure the future will have plenty for us. Virtual reality goggles that perfectly simulate eye contact, brain uplinks that connect our untranslated thoughts. But they will remain imitations of the tangible, messy, time-consuming real deal.

I question the logistics of a Skype conversation setup that allows me to “share screens” with someone but won’t let me look at the real them. I wonder at FaceTime, at video messaging, even at the miraculous pocket telephones we parade around like trophies, taking for granted how much (and how little) we can say to anyone at any moment. And as we walk to coffee or navigate traffic, we call those who matter to us. The contact is better than nothing, I will admit. And yet, we still struggle for seamless connection, our voices stumbling together in shared darkness while our eyes see two different paths.

And maybe the blame shifts depending on who you believe got to the patent office first, but I’m going to blame Alexander Graham Bell, for dragging us into confusion. It is a wonderful confusion, a miracle of technology and a true privilege to connect across the gaps. But I’m also going to thank him for penning the first telephone call ever, because he did it right. He did not say “Mr. Watson. I’ll stay here and you stay there and let’s talk.” He said:

“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

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