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Companies Dropping The Phone?

The NY Times ran a story this week on a new trend in the way companies communicate with their customers over the phone: they don’t. Or at least a lot of tech companies don’t. That trend is fine by me; I’d much rather deal with a company on a website than be routed through endless and frustrating phone trees.

And if companies would stop calling me about switching my utility service or asking me to participate in surveys, I’d be even happier. The Mead message to corporate America: if you must send me spam, please do it by email.

And as for government, thank God for the web. The state and city of New York have their governance problems, but the web works much better than the phone when you are trying to get something done with them. Not only can New Yorkers get their drivers licenses renewed online, but New York city residents can now pay their parking tickets that way. The rapacity of government is still there: unlike every merchant in the universe, New York city charges a “convenience fee” if you want to pay with a credit or debit card, but dealing with government over the internet is almost infinitely preferable to trying to get answers over the phone or, heaven help you, by actually visiting a government office.

The more quickly governments around the country can transfer routine business to the web, the better off we will all be. It’s cheaper and, as government gets better at processing approvals and paperwork, the dead weight of bureaucracy that cripples so much entrepreneurialism in our cities and more urban states can start to go away. We’ll still need the DMV counter and such places for the inevitable glitches in the internet, and to provide universal service in a society where not everybody is either willing or able to move their lives online, but there will be fewer counters and shorter lines as we make the shift.

I don’t know whether readers are having the same experience, but the phone is fading from my life. There are still people I call, of course, and I much prefer my glossy and portable smartphone to the clunky old desk models we had when I was a kid. But those old phones, limited as they were, played a much bigger role in people’s lives than the gee whiz devices we use today.

The phone is much less important for business than it used to be. There are times when nothing else will do, but those times are becoming fewer. Email and Skype cover most of my personal and business needs these days; the land line seems like a relic and sometimes my cell phone just looks like a tablet with a slow internet connection and inconveniently small screen. I’m not sure even Siri can fix that.

For my parents’ generation, the phone remains the primary communications tool — though the Venerable Mead has gotten pretty adept with his email. The next generation in the family mostly texts; I can only guess what my great nephews will do.

The basic phone lasted for 100 years; the cellphone looks like it will have a much shorter reign. Google glasses? Implant chips? Virtual devices and nanobot clouds that follow you around? People are going to communicate, and they are going to want to do it quickly and cheaply, but that’s about all we know.

I still remember how many writers I knew back in the old days who fought the arrival of word processors. They were sterile, artificial, and lacked the good old fashioned honest feel of the typewriter — or, I suppose, the quill pen. If Hemingway could write with only a manual typewriter and a bottle of correcting fluid, that should be good enough for you, was the attitude.

Technophobia is going to be a less stylish and less sustainable affectation as the gadgets around us change faster and faster. I for one am going to have to fight my natural tendency to become crabbier and more cynical about gadgets as the years go by: there is nothing cool about being unable to use the tools of your trade.

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  • timmy827

    Few comments
    -Your government isn’t alone in persisting the fee model. Event ticket merchants are pretty good at maintaining ‘processing fees’, even when you order through a fully automated website and the tickets are emailed for you to print.
    -The cellphone may lose its primacy but I don’t think it will fade completely. It’s my primary link with my parents (who are the same generation as WRM) but also when I want honest-to-god conversations with my girlfriend or close friends my age.
    -Business communication is an interesting beast. I’m a software developer; sometimes the ability to paste code or program results in email is best, sometimes the back and forth of a phone call is more useful, sometimes instant messaging which combines aspects of both. Often you don’t know which one is going to work best until you start going, nothing is worse than calling a meeting for 5 people and subsequently realizing that emails between 2-3 of those are a far more efficient way for that particular problem.

  • An

    The phone is dead! Long live the phone! Phones are going to play a very important role in the 21st century, just not in its current form. By 2014 or 2015, smart phones will outnumber computers. Phones are getting cheaper and doing a lot more. By 2020, I expect a good 1/3 of all transactions being executed via your phones NFC (or equivalent) technology. You might now want to pay your mortgage with a phone but you could by that latte at Starbucks.

    There’s much been made over the past 10 years about the $100 laptop but we should be working on the $10 iPhone (or equivalent). Countries such as Mongolia have skipped over the whole landline phase of economic development, and went communicating via ravens to having a robust cell phone network.

    Speaking over the phone will be still important for business dealings and talking with friends and family, but thank god, we no longer have to deal with the bureaucracy. The one downside about this is all those lazy DMV workers will have to work somewhere, and I’m afraid customer service at Starbucks or McDonalds will go down the tubes.

  • IcePilot

    The structure to support the image will gradually disappear to 3D holo projection. Tablet to smartphone to wrist device to implants.

  • Kris

    “Virtual devices and nanobot clouds that follow you around?”


    “Hemingway could write with only a manual typewriter and a bottle of correcting fluid”

    The bottle of correcting fluid hardly had pride of place.

  • AAllison

    Professor, you took for granted one of the most significant aspects of the communications revolution, name the impact, primarily on AT&T, of the decline in POTS (the home phone). A 22% increase in basic service charge a few months ago caused me to switch to dry-loop (DSL-only), switch my home phone number to pay-as-you-go cellphone and gmail telephony for 2/3 of the cost.

  • C. Philips

    “… if you must send me spam, please do it by email”: Please reconsider and correct this. Marketers can’t call you so much as to make your phone useless–it would be prohibitively expensive. But they can, and will, make email useless.

    There are over 20 million businesses in the US. (One website claims 24.7 million in 2004.) Sending spam to every email address which has ever appeared on the web costs a few hundred dollars, far less than even a tiny telemarketing campaign or even direct mail to just the nearby community. Your email address doesn’t obviously tell them where you live; it is much cheaper to spam everybody. If each of them sends you only one marketing email per year, you get about one spam every second, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks per year. Your email will be completely unusable.

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