Longing for a landline

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I was listening to my local NPR station and heard a review of a book called Landline, about a woman who uses a landline phone to communicate with her husband in the past.

I don't know if I'll ever read the book, but something the writer said -- that it is different talking on a landline than on a digital line -- got me thinking. Yes, it is different, but not for the reasons that she gave (which had to do, I think, with fussing with the cord). It has to do with the ability of two people to comfortably speak over each other.

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

I'm not sure this is something that those who have always used digital phones have noticed, but when one person at the end of, say, a mobile phone conversation begins to speak, it immediately cuts into the other person's audio. I can't say how many times I've thought that somebody was finished talking and started to speak, only to realize that they had just paused -- or that somebody else in a conference call had just started to say something -- and that I've just cut them off. The result is usually an awkward conversation out of a bad sitcom: "Sorry, you go ahead." "No, that's okay, you go ahead." "Are you sure?" Etc.

The more old-fashioned landlines (also known at POTS, for "Plain Old Telephone Service" -- yes, really) allowed two (or more) people to speak at the same time, with all the sound (and occasionally, let's face it, fury) audible to both parties. If I accidentally interrupt the person at the other end, I can still hear the end of his sentence; if a siren goes off outside while I'm in the middle of a conference call, the digital system won't interpret it as the predominant sound and cut off whoever is speaking from another line. We can, if we want to, even speak simultaneously.

In other words, it makes for a much more natural conversation.

Now, I'm not in the least suggesting that we go back to some mythologically perfect past. I love my mobile phone. I wouldn't trade the ability to contact people when they are, or I am, away from home for a moment -- and we, as humans, are perfectly able to adjust our speaking patterns to allow for the digitization of conversations.

But sometimes, when I'm involved in one of those awkward "Go ahead," "No, you," moments, or somebody on a conference call accidentally knocks over a can and I completely miss my boss' last sentence -- then I wish that we could have the best of both worlds.

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