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Goodbye, telephone

Times are tough. We had to let our butler go yesterday.

Well, he wasn't really our butler. "He" was a pleasant, cultured British voice that prompted callers to our land line to leave a message. His sudden unemployment came about because he we had no more work for him. Very few people were calling us on our tethered telephone and we weren't using it for many outgoing calls either. The only people who called us on the landline, it seemed, were our parents and telephone marketers. It seemed a waste of money to pay for something that we came to realize we didn't need.

We're hardly unique here. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least one out of five American households does not have a traditional landline phone and among those that do, one in seven receive calls only on their cell phones. The CDC stats are two years old but they show a trend towards fewer landline phones so one can assume that he number of people ditching their phones has increased since the CDC published its study. (if you're wondering why the the Centers for Disease Control is researching telephone use it's because they rely heavily on telephone surveys).

We planned the transition carefully. All our friends – and organizations and companies with which we have dealings – received an email a month in advance alerting them to the change and letting them know what number to call in future. Parents received both the email and a phone call. For the past two weeks we've been deliberately ignoring the landline when making calls. We were ready, but still, we experienced a thrill of apprehension and elation when the line went dead yesterday.

You can blame – or thank – technology for our home telephone's redundancy. When we do want to reach out and touch someone (in the slightly creepy words of that old telephone ad) we can use our cell phones or computer. Skype and Google have made long distance calls inexpensive or even free. And, perhaps surprisingly, we just don’t need vocal-based distance communication as much as we used to. Telephones used to be used for a variety of purposes – to find out people’s news or let them know our own, to order products, organize meetings or social outings, sort out logistical problems, pay bills or donate to charity, sell things, etc. New technologies have lessened those needs. Email, text messages, Facebook. the World Wide Web and Twitter are in many ways better ways to communicate, whether to plan a trip to Europe or to meet your friends at a local restaurant.

I know there are arguments for keeping that old telephone. You can find a whole bunch of them on the website landlinephone.com. What if the Internet goes down? Well, our Internet connection is with Tellus, who also used to supply our landline, so if the Internet went down, then the landline wouldn't work either. Supposedly, cell phone calls are more expensive, but with the few calls we make from home each month (even fewer now that we use Google Voice to call non-local folks), we’re still well within the hours provided by our plan. And what about cell phone reliability? We've never had a problem with that in our West End apartment and mobile reliability is increasing all the time.

One thing does bother me slightly. We no longer have a "family" phone number that people can call. They can call me, or they can call my partner – but they can't call "us". Sure, they can call me and ask to speak to her afterwards (or vice versa) but there is a subtle shift there. What it means on a society level for families versus individualism, I don’t know, but with the disappearance of family phones, some of the serendipity of calling a household and not knowing who will answer will be lost.

But I don’t think I'll miss the landline. It’s just a telephone, a technology that served its purpose and is now becoming less relevant. Communicating with people is important, what we use for that communication less so. But I do miss our butler. It was hard to let him go. But with his manners and breeding, I’m sure he’ll find a job. If you're interested in hiring him, just call and leave a message.

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