Over on Tech Broiler, my ZDNet blogging colleague Scott Raymond offers up the view that smartphones are turning us into idiots. I agree. But for me nothing highlights this idiocy more than the lavish number of ways that we have to communicate, but how poorly we put these different streams to use.
Phones used to be simple. Someone called you, and the phone rang. If you were nearby you picked up the call (or ignored it ... but that's a by-product of the widespread adoption caller ID and the ability it gave us to screen calls - probably the best phone related invention ever). If your phone rang and you weren't there, tough. I believe that this was both the phone system at its best and where the whole idea went horribly wrong. Imagine if I was developing a new communication medium today. Ask yourself this - Would you want just anyone to be able to set off a $#@*&#& irritating racket in your home or office at any time of day? I don't think so. Sure, it could be a klaxon or a fog horn or something even more irksome, but the Pavlovian feel of the bell just annoys me on a fundamental level.
Hang on ... my phone is ringing ... I'll be back in a minute ...
... OK, I'm back. Where was I? What was I doing? Ahh yes ...
Then came the answer phone. Great. No longer did people feel the need to be in to await calls. The phone companies loved it too, because they could charge you for talking to a machine.
Then things just went completely out of hand.
Fast forward to today and I literally cannot count the number of ways that are on offer for me to be able to communicate with other people, and for those people to contact me. Even if I limit my scope to what's on offer to me when I'm away from my home or office, it's just staggering the menu of options available. There's the standard voice call, and its text-equivalent, the text message. On top of that there's video calling and the ability to send photo messaging, which adds the dimension of a small, grainy picture to what was on offer before. Video calling and multi-media messaging was a clever ploy by the service providers to push additional paid-per-use services onto customers who really didn't have much need for them. They're kinda cool for a few minutes, a bit like seeing your first space-ship flyby in a movie, but in reality these services are flawed, expensive and ultimately suck.
Hang on, my phone is ringing again ...
You'd think all that would be enough, but oh-no. On top of that there are VoIP services such as Skype, which is voice again, but through a different mechanism. Then there's email, which is something I've had on smartphones for so long now that I can't really remember not having it. And what about instant messaging, a term which immediately fractures into countless micro-services. And Twitter. Oh, and Facebook. And there are countless other bespoke messaging apps for different handsets.
Now, if people just used one method of communication at a time, that would be great. But just like in the cartoon that Raymond has in his post, people are now haphazardly picking and choosing different combinations. I get people sending me emails and then following up with an email. Or leaving a voicemail telling me to check Twitter. Or posting on Facebook and then dropping me a text telling me to take a look.
Sometimes it's a combination of three of more lines of communication. And sometimes the whole things goes cyclic, which is when things get really confusing.
True story; Last night I came out of the gym to a voicemail from my landline provider asking me to check Twitter for a tweet I'd been sent. The only way to reply was via Twitter.
Why do people do this? My take on things is that while we have so many more ways of communicating with one another, we don't have an awful lot more to say, at least that is of substance. This leads people to feel that they have to fill the air with noise to get attention. Add on top of that the desire, nay the right, to have instant access to someone and the whole thing becomes a mess. I'm old enough to remember the day when someone might leave a message on your answering machine and if I didn't get back to them in a few days, they'd leave it a few days before getting in touch with you. There was no hurry. Two messages blinking from the same person meant either that some psycho had your number, or someone had died or something equally weighty. Nowadays I can have three or four messages spread across different services telling me about the latest LOLcat. Oh, and I dare not respond otherwise I get hit with even more messages. But even when I do respond with a quick "yeah, that's neat ... kthxbai," unless I respond to each and every message, I'm likely not sending the reply to the service that the LOLcater is using right at that moment in time, risking a further barrage of reminders.
So what's the solution? I think that just as we've seen a convergence of gadgets, the next stage is a convergence of services. I see this as a digital identity that we would subscribe to that will tie up to our phone, email and other services (let's not get too caught up here on privacy issues, I'm seeing this ID as being little more than a phone number of an email address, and something you opt in to). Send a message to this, be it voice or text or a photo or a link, and it appears in whatever place I happen to be at. Because I've only given a single point of contact, it'll mean that people will be far less eager to spam me with multiple messages. If the system was intelligent enough, it could be set to filter out such duplicates. The system could be clever enough to know where I am and redirect the message to the nearest device (it's certainly no leap of the imagination for my cellphone to know when I'm nearby or carrying it). When I didn't want to be bothered, there's just one device to switch off before I'm unplugged.
I could flesh this out more, but my phone is ringing and I have to go ...