“It’s worse than what Father says about living at the mercy of the telephone” — Prince Caspian by CS Lewis (1951)
This sentence stayed with me ever since I read it, as a child in the 1980s. It was a revelation far stranger than anything in the novel’s fantasy world: an earlier generation had been unnerved by an innocent communication tool.
But with the rise of electronic messaging, the fear of phones returned. For many people under 35, an unscheduled phone call is now a micro aggression.
Calls, though, contain nuance and can spark serendipitous ideas. Messages are prone to damaging misunderstandings of tone, which writers strain to mitigate with emojis and exclamation marks.
Email is so unwieldy that one of the hottest unicorns to list in the US this year was Slack Technologies, a company whose main mission is to kill it. Its revenues are growing about 50 per cent a year and it reckons the potential market is worth $28bn.
Slack has a nice user interface, allowing teams of employees to exchange messages in a more efficient way than email. However, it only becomes really useful with ubiquity. And there is a proliferation of competing tools, complicating Slack’s quest and muddying life for office workers.
Google has its Hangouts instant messaging tool. Microsoft has Teams, its own copycat product to take over Slack. Facebook has Workplace. Then there are all the consumer-focused products from WhatsApp to WeChat to iMessage and the more secretive apps such as Signal and Telegram with disappearing messages.
In the early days of the telephone, callers were not able to reach someone on a different exchange. That problem was solved. It has been recreated 100 years later in the form of multiple different communication channels.
Despite its superior features, the phone’s decline seems certain to continue. This year the Financial Times ripped out its old Cisco phones, replacing them with a system from RingCentral, a US-based voice-over-internet supplier. Instead of handsets, journalists must now download to their laptops and mobiles the RingCentral app, which enables both calls and messaging.
This telephone-murdering company’s shares are up almost 250 per cent in two years, as corporate bean counters realise the cost benefits of dumping landlines. Now valued at $14bn, RingCentral has displaced 2m phones already and sees an opportunity to take out many more of the 300m to 500m installed in the workplace. It estimates there is a “$50bn market that is ripe for disruption”, which is a depressingly accurate phrase given the volume of dropped calls since the FT’s switch. To avoid this ersatz phone, employees here are even more likely to send a message. Another nail in the coffin of conversation.
There is a last hope. The downside of messaging is the frightening amount of toxic material sitting on servers and on individuals’ devices, all of it ripe to be leaked, seized or dredged up in discovery.
Sometimes, the content looks worse than it is. Three currency traders were acquitted last year on charges of market manipulation, brought after an unfortunate decision to call their electronic chat group “the Cartel”.
Cost savings from the decline of the telephone have to be balanced against multibillion-dollar litigation and regulatory costs generated by the rise of electronic messages. Phone phobia is bad for business.