• Rob Butterfield


Updated: Mar 31, 2019

The dying art of phone conversation.

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I can’t remember the date exactly, but I can remember the moment. It was a Sunday morning, pre-Sunday lunch (Sunday lunch was a big tradition growing up in the Butterfield household), reading the papers while Mum put the finishing touches to what would always be a fantastic dinner. I would have been about 15, 16, maybe even 17, so late 70’s and I recall being fascinated by an article about the future of the humble telephone. The writer promised a day when we would all have our own personal telephones with a personal telephone number to match. No more sharing the phone at home, waiting for family members to finish their own business before you could call your mates. No more being shouted at by your parents for spending far too long on the phone chatting with your latest girlfriend. And what’s more these phones would be truly mobile – you would be able to use them anywhere, not just around the house but anywhere in the country, in fact anywhere in the world. No more keeping that coin safe for a late-night emergency call to your parents from a phone box when you’d missed the last bus or train. This was truly the stuff of the future and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t quite believe it or completely grasp the concept.

But sure-enough it happened, and it happened at a pace that was, for many of us, pretty hard to keep up with. Looking back now at such things as fixed land-lines, party lines (remember those?), reverse charge calls and even calling the operator seems incredible, almost laughable, when we consider the technology that we have at our disposal today. Technology that, in reality, we all take for granted.

I guess I was a fairly early adopter of the mobile phone. I had my first car-phone in about 1986 – I had it fitted to my company car, a black Cavalier SRi 130 (that stood for 130bhp, it was the powerful one!). I was a thrusting ad agency exec working in London W1. I even had a Filofax! From memory my car cost about £5k and to install the phone was about £1400 on top of that. Imagine that equivalent today on a £25-30k family hatchback! I hate to think what call costs and line rental were back then but the company were paying so this boy about town didn’t give a monkeys! The phone network was also relatively limited so calling was largely limited to in and around London – usually to phone the office to say I would soon be arriving at the office!

I got my first fully mobile phone when I started my own agency in 1988 – a Motorola ‘brick’ cellphone – it was the size of a small toaster, had a battery life of about 10 minutes and could only be used in areas with exceptional mobile network service, of which there were very few. But I was cool and very upwardly mobile. People would stare and point at me when I used it in public. Scally’s would call me a ‘fu**ing yuppie’ not realising that one day this item would be the essential tool for their next drug deal. There was no texting on it either – partly because there would have been very few other people to text to! I remember being at a family gathering and an uncle being fascinated by my newly acquired technology… “So, you can actually go to the end of the road and call the house, with no cable? Wow, Margaret, check this out, it’s amazing...!” (Names have been changed to protect the innocent).

But the rarity and scarcity of the mobile phone would soon end as it became not just a must-have business tool, but an absolute must-have personal accessory and, as that newspaper article predicted, it wouldn’t be long before everyone had their own personal phone and number. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but I guess those people won’t be reading this blog!

The evolution of the phone spurned a whole new language, or text speak as it’s better known, or should I say TXT SPK (and the spell checker on my laptop didn’t even pick that up!). We now live in a world where there seems to be a decline in good old English literacy and an ever-increasing acceptance of LOL, OMG, BFF and XOXO. A whole new version of shorthand has been invented and it’s being used by an entire generation as opposed to just journalists and secretaries.

So, the phone has become much more than just a phone; it’s got smarter, much smarter. Since the introduction of the first Apple iPhone and the subsequent abundance of copycat smartphones (android users will be cussing me, but facts are facts!) the ‘phone’ is no longer something we just make calls on. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that for most of us making calls is actually one of the things we do least with our phones. Mine is my mobile office, my access to entertainment channels and music. I have all my contacts, diary dates, notes and essential details on it. I shop with it, bank with it and use the sat nav app to get me from A to B. It’s my everyday camera and I capture and share far more of life on it than ever before. I also use it to communicate but mainly through social media and messaging services. And when I really need to, I’ll use it to call people too.

Suffice to say, everything is double backed-up to ‘the cloud’ but the very thought of losing my phone sends a shiver of panic through my body. I could replace it and retrieve all my data but my day to day life for that interim period would be seriously inconvenienced.

All said and done I personally believe that Alexander Graham Bell would be excited by the evolution of his ‘harmonic telegraph’ from 1876. With around five billion mobile phones currently in use around the world (that’s around 65% of the world population) we can be truly connected and that’s a wonderful thing. But despite that we genuinely seem to be talking less and less, preferring to communicate through any number of the many social media channels available to us. And perhaps that’s not such a wonderful thing.

Do yourself a favour today; rather than send that text or instant message to a friend or relative give them a call, have a proper natter. After all, it’s good to talk.

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