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Tom Vanderbilt on The Call of the Future

Tom Vanderbilt on The Call of the Future

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Vanderbilt ponders the birth and death of telephone calls @ The Wilson Quarterly.

In 2009, the United States crossed a digital Rubicon: For the first time, the amount of data sent with mobile devices exceeded the sum of transmitted voice data. The shift was heralded in tech circles with prophetic fury: “The phone call is dead,” pronounced a blogger at the Web site TechCrunch. Writing in Wired, journalist Clive Thompson observed, “This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social network messaging.” And the online news network True/Slant declared a paradox: “We’re well on our way to becoming an incredibly disconnected connected society.”

Where the world’s wires once hummed with the electrical impulses of people talking, that conversation, in the digital age, has been subsumed by all the other information we are exchanging. “At this point, voice isn’t even a rounding error in network operators’ calculations,” Stephan Beckert, an analyst with TeleGeography, a telecom research company, recently told me. To underscore the point, he sent me a chart showing “switched voice” as a thin wedge, gradually squeezed to a nearly invisible nothing by the oceanic thrust of “Internet” (and a smaller stratolayer of “private networks”). It looks as if the world has gone quiet.

There is one significant caveat here: Placing a voice call, compared to streaming The Hangover 2 on Netflix or uploading a video clip of your friend’s latest freestyle BMX trick to YouTube, consumes virtually no bandwidth.

And so the phone call is hardly dead. While it is true that land lines are in sharp decline in every advanced industrial country—the most recent and, presumably, final time land lines saw an increase in use was, ironically, during the adoption of dial-up Internet in the 1990s—in many of those countries the decline has been more than offset by an increase in minute-per-month levels on mobile phones. Even on Skype, the explosively expanding Internet phone and video chat service, some 85 percent of calls still go to the “PSTN” (the public switched telephone network, composed of the infrastructure for land lines and cell phones).

Still, there are signs of an ongoing cultural shift. Even as the number of wireless connections increased from 286 million in 2009 to 303 million in 2010, voice usage on those phones decreased. And our calls are getting shorter. While in 2003 the average local mobile phone call lasted a leisurely three minutes, by 2010 it had been trimmed to a terse one minute and 47 seconds.
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