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The Death of the Phone Call


The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know

May just be passing fancies and in time may go.

The movies sure, the radio sure, but the ...telephone? Andrea Peterson of the Washington Post notes with some surprise that president Obama's favorite comms platform, the Blackberry, was literally dying. The parent company laid off nearly half its workforce only last week. "That's bad news for the platform's most prominent user, Barack Obama." Not so long ago it was the symbol of wired power.

Obama's BlackBerry dependency was touted as a sign of modernity before his 2009 inauguration, to the point where it was a news story that he was allowed to keep the device post-inauguration. But technology that seemed cutting-edge in 2008 now seems painfully anachronistic. Obama was reportedly "befuddled" during an attempt to call a volunteer from an iPhone during the 2012 campaign.

But the phone call has been dying too. Most people now communicate by text or other types of messaging. In fact less than half of all Britons surveyed made a single call a day. By comparison young Americans send 88 text messages a day, a trend that if anything, is growing with each passing day.

Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer based in Atlanta, says the issue of phone aversion frequently comes up in her project management training sessions. One of her clients, a manager at a large utility company, recently had to teach his young employee what a dial tone was and explain that desktop phones don't require you to press "Send."

But if the practice of "ringing people up" is falling prey to the changing habits of the young, it is withering among the politically powerful for a different reason. It is declining because of the increasing difficulty of sealing a deal by achieving agreement within a small circle. The conference call -- the successor of the smoke filled room of the 19th century -- can't cut it any more. The accusation that Ted Cruz has killed the dialog between the political parties with his incendiary attack on Obamacare obscures the fact that the telephone deal has been declining for a long time in this age of diminished consensus.

In a simpler time not long ago a President simply needed to make calls to the right people to make things happen. He'd call the Prime Minister of Great Britain or the President of Egypt. The very ancient will even remember something called a Hot Line with which the White House could call the leader of the Soviet Union in case the boys got out of hand. That's how things got fixed.