Commentary: Please don't get rid of the landline
Technologies like the iPod come and go without so much as a shrug. But the death of the landline signals a distinct social shift, say the Financial Times’ Juliet Riddell.
LONDON: Last week I tried ringing my parents. “You have dialled an incorrect number,” the robot-voiced woman said.
It was definitely not incorrect, not something I could ever get wrong. It’s not even on speed dial: I enjoy pressing the familiar, familial numbers.
How weird, I thought, there must be a glitch.
A few days later I asked mum about it. “Oh yes, we got rid of the landline,” she replied with detached casualness. “We were paying a lot for it and just getting spam calls.”
That’s it? A randomly ordered numerical sequence, recitable at speed and etched into my memory, gone just like that?
My parents have had the same house and phone number since I was born. Dialling that number was a portal to the fixed physical place of home. I felt a strange sense of loss. I was mourning digits.
Not everyone feels the same, evidently. In the UK, landline use has fallen by two-thirds since 2010, according to Enders Analysis/Ofcom. And given that only 17 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds ever use a landline, the future of the home phone number is hanging by a thread.
It appears that the landline is going the way of the Walkman, typewriter, quill pen, Bop It! and all those other technologies once so deeply embedded in people’s lives.
Eventually they will be used only by eccentrics and nostalgics, and displayed as exhibits in cultural museums. My 10-year-old ridicules them as “those banana phones”. So what exactly are we losing?
THE FIRST GASPS OF FREEDOM
For me, from about the age of 11 onwards, the landline was an umbilical cord that allowed me to stretch a little, to experience my first gasps of freedom. I would drag the battered, coiled cord from the hallway under my bedroom door, just far enough away that if I sat on the floor with my back to the wall my parents wouldn’t be able to hear – or so I thought.
All those long conversations, the hours spent planning and replanning: “OK, see you at Camden Town station at 7!”
Which triggered 15 further phone calls to corral the rest of my friends, who’d check with their parents, and then ring back, by which point the original time was all but moot: “We won’t make it for 7, see you at 7.30!” And on it went.
At the risk of sounding prematurely ancient (I’m 42), I’ve seen technologies like the iPod come and go without so much as a shrug. But the death of the landline signals a distinct social shift.
The shared telephone in the kitchen forced us into awkward conversations with each other’s parents, taught us to navigate difficult social situations, to speak in different registers.
There was the excitement and dread of the call or missing the call, the shout up the stairs from my sister, begrudgingly thrusting the phone towards me, “It’s Katie, again!” Or worse, the gleeful, “Your boyfriend’s on the phone!”
Dad could be a fierce and occasionally mortifying gatekeeper.
“Hi, is Juliet there?’
“Yes,” he would reply. Long pause.
“Can I speak to her?”
“No”, he would say, matter of factly. “Call back when she’s finished her GCSEs.”
A PHONE CALL WAS AN ACTIVITY IN ITSELF
Mum, on the other hand, loved the chat, the forced intergenerational communication that the smartphone is silencing. Now, as a parent of a pre-teen, I could do with some snatched moments of communication with my children’s friends or even the odd accidental eavesdrop.
Remember, too, the intimacy and focus of making a phone call when you couldn’t also be shopping or getting on the bus? Receiving a call could be a treat, a surprise, an evening activity in itself.
My sister and I have been plotting. I think we’ll ask if we can resurrect the landline. Dad forgets to carry his mobile around and mum often doesn’t pick up.
We are also missing the simple fact of calling “home”. I don’t want to have to choose which parent to call; I want the serendipity of not knowing who will pick up, and the equality that brings.
Surely new technology can sort out the spam calls. Come on, Hollywood’s greatest line was not “ET, phone ‘mum mobile’.”