Is Slow Communication the Future?

A novelist and former trend forecaster foresees the rise of slow communication, dumb phones, and a potential boon for writers

I held out as long as I possibly could against the iPhone. My beloved Blackberry Bold was seemingly indestructible: neither toilet water nor city pavement could hamper its beetle-like resilience, and it was resolutely incapable of maintaining anything but a fleeting connection to the Internet. Its built-in camera produced images that looked like they were taken from the inside of a steam room, and its GPS receiver only found its starting point once your destination had been reached.

That Blackberry was my happy place, the telecommunications equivalent of an isolation tank. Useful only for the most basic of purposes, it allowed me to communicate without ever being tempted to over-share. Such sharing simply wasn’t possible. It literally took two and a half hours for Facebook to load.

I am woman enough to admit that I cried when my Blackberry finally croaked. It was 2014 and I was only months away from the publication of my first novel. The good people at my publishing house were all but tearing their hair out that I wasn’t “accessible”: in this brave new world where authors are expected to video call into a book club at the drop of a bespoke hat, my publishing team regarded me as someone who didn’t even have a cell phone because at that point, anything but the iPhone simply didn’t count.

When the bemused technician at Verizon told me it would take five hundred bucks to fix my Blackberry, if he could fix it at all, the decision felt like it had been made by forces greater than myself. I would get an iPhone. I would join the modern world.

It has been ten years since a turtle-necked Steve Jobs first held up a now ubiquitous white object exclaiming that it was a music player, a cell phone, and an internet communicator all in one. Charmingly — and uncharacteristically — shortsighted about his hopes for the device, Jobs was most effusive about how easily the iPhone would allow people to talk to one another.

Flash forward to the present, 2017. When people say they’ve talked to someone, they rarely mean in person. And they almost never mean on the phone. An anecdote derived from having “spoken” with somebody is usually accompanied by a fluttering of fingers to indicate that the conversation was carried out over text. Or Facebook messenger. Or Instagram. Or Snapchat. When is the last time you saw someone extend their pinky toward their chin and their thumb to the right eardrum in the ancient sign for “phone?”

We can’t get much more cell-phone addicted than we are now. With few exceptions, we use our cell phones to tell us what to eat, whether or not our bodies need more sleep or exercise (yes, both), how to get where we are going…we even trust the secret guru buried inside of our SMS cards to tell us who to date. And with the progress being made in virtual reality, we can use our phones to have sex.

The tenth anniversary of the iPhone’s unveiling came flanked with frantic articles about what could possibly come next — what could be around the corner when our smartphones already accomplish so damn much? Google Glass was superfluous and smartwatches a bit desperate, and as for everyone signing up for nanobot implants to be permanently connected to the Internet, thankfully, we’re not there yet.

In a new book I have coming out, called Touch, a noted trend forecaster is tasked with answering just this question for a major tech company: what’s up next, in tech? Her answer is a disappointing one in respect to her employer’s bottom line. She’s convinced the world is on the threshold of a resurgence in face-to-face interactions that don’t require any technology at all.

This premise is one that’s near and dear to my Luddite heart, but it’s also one that the former trend forecaster in me firmly believes. You see, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I worked as a consultant for boutique trend forecasting agencies, most of them in France. In an industry that prizes intuition, no one sits you down and tells you how to spot trends, but it only takes scrutinizing the past year’s “Best-Of” listicles to learn that trend forecasting, on a basic level, is a game of opposites and apexes. Take literature, for example: If 2015 was big in bleak dystopians, you can probably count on seeing the return of epic family sagas that pack a lot of hope. If the seven figure advances were going to the doorstoppers last year, next year, they’ll go to the novels that end at forty-thousand words.

This see-saw pattern can hold true in tech, too. The key is to look for peaks and saturation points. Sophisticated entertainment systems and MP3 players paved the way for the return of the vinyl record. The seeming futility of smartphones (which were so instrumental in electing Obama) to prevent a nation from needling toward The Orange One led many of the disillusioned to leave the echo chambers of social media for the brick and mortar streets.

It would seem we’ve reached an apex in mobile phones as well, which is an exciting place to be. 2016 was the first time that Apple’s sales for cell phones waned. The iPhone 7 Plus doesn’t have much more to offer, in terms of versioning, than the iPhone 7, or, for that matter, the 6S or the SE. Plus, in the wake of an unforeseen election helmed by a hatemonger who’s physically incapable of putting down his phone, it’s really not that cool to be addicted to your cell. So yes. Indeed, the question begs. What in the world is next?

I haven’t donned my trend forecaster fascinator in years now — its feathers are ragged, the beads have fallen off. A mother to a three year-old, I mostly use my intuition to divine whether or not my toddler is going to pee her pants. But I haven’t been out of the game so long that I can’t spot something around the corner: I think we’re about to see the rise of slow communication, heralded by the return of the dumb phone.

I think we’re about to see the rise of slow communication, heralded by the return of the dumb phone.

Because, let’s face it — sure, maybe the aesthete literary critic who roasts his own espresso beans has the time and willpower to flat out cancel his cell phone contract, but most of us do not have such bravura. What many of us do have, however, is the desire to maintain a healthier balance with our cell phones, which, weirdly, I think is going to be accomplished by the trend setters purchasing a secondary phone — a dumb phone — that only calls or texts.

Just as smokers sometimes suck on straws or alcoholics survive cocktail parties with a death-grip on their seltzer, cell phone addicts need a replacement habit, too. But in order to top the fathomless bright connectivity of our touch-screens, it’s gonna have to be something super cool. And as hipsters on one-speeds the world over have proven, what’s cooler than something kind of ugly that doesn’t really work?

Sure, Jasper Morrison has had a very sleek and overpriced dumb phone on the market, sitting stagnantly, for years, but I’m nevertheless convinced that secondary cell phones are about to trend. New-to-the-market The Light Phone is out to make the telecommunications downgrade easier with slim-as-hotel-card companion phones that let you keep your own phone number. Light Phones necessitate that their early-adopters go cold turkey on digital communication. At the time of writing, they can take calls, but they can’t text. The idea of changing our communication patterns so drastically is both overwhelming, and immensely appealing. With it becoming all too easy to know what others are thinking and doing at all times, (and eating, and wearing, and even evacuating in the case of certain over-sharers), it could become the height of sophistication to be unfindable again. Aspirational, even, to literally get lost because your dumb phone doesn’t have a GPS.

It will also be a status symbol, a way to instantly communicate to others that you’re digitally detoxing. Likewise, secondary dumb phones can be used to accord a certain hierarchy to relationships: imagine what it signals to a potential partner if you show up with a dumb phone on a first date. Leaving your smartphone behind tells the people you’re engaging with that they’re worth being fully present for.

In his farewell address (what is the international emoticon for: please come back!!?), President Obama invited citizens who were “tired of fighting with strangers on the Internet” to get out and interact with people in real life. Now, any writer I know worth their #savetheNEA hashtag is happy to do whatever Obama tells them, but regardless of his IRL-lifestyle endorsement, the data shows we’re simply due for a little throwback in our tech. If the US election outcome proves anything, it’s that we’re at an apex of instant communication, but clearly, we’ve never been communicating as poorly as right now. Black, white, brown, empowered, deported, terrified, or feared, you’d be hard placed to find an American who doesn’t feel unheard. Miscommunicated with. Misunderstood.

Black, white, brown, empowered, deported, terrified, or feared, you’d be hard placed to find an American who doesn’t feel unheard. Miscommunicated with. Misunderstood.

Secondary dumb phones could be the gateway drug to a whole inventory of retro telecommunication tools: prepare yourself for handwriting classes, body language clinics, and a surge in pen palship, I say. This is fantastic news for writers, who, in addition to being some of the last professionals on the planet who purchase things like pencils, notebooks, and actual diaries, writers also (in theory) have people to whom they can write. Another great thing about the rise of slow communication is that it will be cool for writers to play the long game again. Maybe people will realize that every single incident doesn’t need an op-ed. That opinions can be formed, and still exist, even if they aren’t digitally shared. Maybe it will empower writers to realize that the fact that they can mull over plot points and character development while waiting in a shopping line, or going for a walk, is something to celebrate. Maybe, just maybe, we will be able to find our way back to that impossible state of early childhood when we didn’t have the pulsing world beneath our fingers, and experienced the exquisite pleasure of being bored.

Keep your head up for the slow communicators and the signs by which they announce their arrival. Lifestyle magazines will start accessorizing their photo shoots with pugnacious rotary phones and chunky, spiraling cords. Houseware catalogues will show off their new wineglass collections with willowy millennials sipping something new world and talking on the phone. The hardcore slow communicators will clip pagers to their pants. In a couple months from now, when you get an actual phone call from a friend of yours, it won’t be due to the human error known as the “butt dial,” it will be because they called.

The downside of the return to slow communication is that you might very well find yourself having to write legibly, or receive (and send!) a fax. The upside is that the late Jobs might find his initial dream for the iPhone realized — humans might actually start talking to other humans again.

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About the Author

Courtney Maum is the author of “Touch” and “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.” A former columnist for Electric Literature, she’s also a shade and product namer for MAC Cosmetics and the founder of the multidisciplinary creative retreat, #thecabins.

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