I was about to give my children a lecture in what we used to call “telephone manners.” Remember those? What set me off was the way they ended their calls: No “Goodbye,” no proper termination of the conversation, just a distracted drifting-off and pushing of the “end” button. To my 20th-century ears, it sounded rude.
But I stopped myself. Watching more closely, I realized that this was not etiquette, but technology: Their conversations weren’t ending, but moving seamlessly into some other medium. Moments after pocketing their phones, our children shift their attention to an instant-messaging thread, a 4chan or Reddit talk, a Minecraft server, an SMS dialogue, or a Twitter or Facebook meetup. Or they drift into the frame of a Skype screen they keep open and running all day, peering into some other kid’s bedroom across the ocean, even when one of them is off at trombone lessons.
When communication is basically free and unlimited, why hang up? It no longer makes sense to have a “call,” a “letter” or even a “Skype session” with a beginning and an end – instead, you simply keep all those channels open.
We all communicate this way now, to some degree or another – it’s just that previous-century people pretend it isn’t happening. We say “Goodbye” or “Sincerely,” as if calls and letters were still discrete things separated by periods of silence and distance. But our correspondents are rarely more than one screen away.
“Goodbye” was, in fact, an unwelcome product of old technology’s limitations. I’m reminded of the scene in Mike Leigh’s movie Topsy Turvy in which theatrical entrepreneurs Gilbert and Sullivan, making a telephone call circa 1885, wrestle with the way to end this new thing: “Goodbye, Mr. Gilbert. I am going to hang the telephone now!” “Goodbye” was an alien intrusion. In previous centuries, most letters didn’t end so formally; they assumed that a conversation was continuing. It was new technology that created the need for hangups and goodbyes – and even newer technology has now made them obsolete.
The end of “Goodbye” has changed our world in ways we’re only beginning to notice.
It has changed policing and spying. A dozen years ago, I attended U.S. terrorism trials in which prosecutors struggled with the fact that their young terror suspects were now hatching plots across numerous devices and communication channels, so that asking a judge permission to wiretap a single telephone line no longer made any sense. The result, shortly afterward, was the legislation (Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and similar legislation in Canada) that allowed the U.S. National Security Agency and its international partners to bulk-collect raw data from many online and mobile sources.
As Edward Snowden’s leaks have usefully shown us, these powers were excessive and have been abused. We need more restrictive intelligence laws, regulations and oversight – but that doesn’t mean we can return to the old methods. The basic fabric of communication has changed, and “listening” will never again be a simple ear on the door or bug on the line.
It has changed journalism. I may still pretend to write a “column” or read an “article,” but increasingly, the way people consume news, opinion and analysis is by following streams of communication coming from favoured figures whose prose and imagery is constantly sent through variety of always-on formats. (It’s happening more than you think: The column you’re reading is actually a continuation of several Twitter and Facebook dialogues that began Wednesday, and by the time you’re finished, it will have shifted to other channels.)
News media are learning, often the hard way, that it no longer makes sense simply to reproduce the old forms – distinct stories that have beginnings and endings – online. The journalist has become a trusted handle connected to multiple live streams of information, whose output is more a fabric emerging from a loom than a set of carefully cast blocks. News outlets are struggling to catch up with this reality.
It has also changed statecraft. Fifty years ago this August saw the launch of the first Moscow-Washington hotline, which allowed, with considerable difficulty, the first direct communication between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. It used encrypted teletype machines. Five years passed before a message was sent on it.
Today, if two nations say “Goodbye” (as the U.S. and Iran have), it’s no longer a formality at the end of a cable, but a concrete, menacing act. When you are connected through scores of channels at all times, silence becomes a calculated provocation. Nowadays, everything is a hotline, and it’s always a crisis.
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