On LinkedIn is a picture of British Prime Minister David Cameron in shirtsleeves at his desk at 10 Downing Street making a call to U.S. President Barack Obama to congratulate him on his second term.
It is part of a series of images of important people at work – there is Sir Richard Branson loafing around in swimming trunks on a tropical beach, and there is self-help guru Deepak Chopra, cross-legged and eyes closed, meditating in front of what appears to be a large stone egg.
The latter two images are slightly odd, but not nearly as odd as the first one. There is something arrestingly anachronistic about the sight of the Prime Minister at work, though at first I couldn’t figure out quite what it was. It is not the panelled walls or the antique side table. It isn’t his cufflinks or the formal navy tie. All are traditional and staid, but not exactly out of place in 2013.
And then I got it: It is the coiled length of grey, plastic-covered wire running from the thing at his ear to an object on his desk. The Prime Minister is doing what almost no one does any more: talk on a land line.
Until about a decade ago, the office phone was the symbol of white-collar work. It was the most important thing on any desk: Every photograph of every man in power would invariably show him speaking urgently into one. But now these clumping phones sit largely silent, their huge receivers left slumbering in their cradles.
Only the Prime Minister has an excuse for continuing to use this outdated piece of kit. If he wants to have a top-secret conversation with Mr. Obama, an underground copper cable is a better bet than a microwave. Anyone within range and with a couple of hundred dollars of spyware would be able to hear him saying into a mobile: “Congratulations, Mr. President.”
For the rest of us, the land line has little remaining purpose. Last week I visited the BBC’s main newsroom, where dozens of people were hard at work. The number of people I spotted on the office phone? Just one.
My own large grey Cisco telephone sits quietly on my desk and when it occasionally decides to ring, I don’t usually answer. The idea of picking up when I don’t know who it is at the other end fills me with mild dread. A red light indicates I have messages, but I haven’t listened to them for at least a year.
Just now I decided to see what I’ve been missing. It took a while, as I couldn’t remember my password, and then I found that more than 100 messages were waiting patiently to be heard – so many that the mailbox had declared itself full and was refusing to record any more.
The first voice-mail went like this: “Hi Lucy, this is Marcia. Just following up on an e-mail I sent. … ” I pressed delete. The second: “Hello Lucy. Just a quick call – I’m xx from yy, and we just wanted to update our contact details. … ”
And on it went. All either useless or duplicates of information I got by e-mail or text. By not answering the phone for a year, I have lost nothing, and gained much in terms of efficiency and control. It has allowed me to talk only to the people I want to talk to, at a time that suits me.
It sounds rather good. And yet I can’t help feeling sad for all the conversations that didn’t happen, and sad, too, for the switchboard that didn’t facilitate them. The Financial Times employs a third of the people to direct phone traffic it did a decade ago. No one asks now to be put through to a colleague in the same building, as they e-mail instead. And external calls are dwindling: The average number received on our main number between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. – barely 50.
A similar thing has happened at home, where the land line is even quieter. This has been good, as you don’t waste time answering each other’s calls. No longer do jilted boyfriends wanting to talk to Sylvia have to get past Sylvia’s mother: They now cut out the middleman. Boyfriends may prefer the new arrangement, but it’s worse for the family, as no one knows what anyone else is up to.
With the company phone, the same applies. The death of the land line may be better for us individually, but it is worse for the bonds between us.
The saddest thing is what the decline has done to the atmosphere in offices. There are no noisy phones giving their galvanizing rings, creating buzz and urgency. Sadder still, I no longer hear my colleagues arguing with their spouses and builders: Most dirty linen is now washed away from our desks. Once upon a time, I found these fractious calls annoying. But now that the door into the private lives of my work mates has closed, I wish I could open it again.