Is Telephony Making Us Stupid?

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The more people yell about Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the more I think back to Mark Twain, and his 1880 sketch, “A Telephonic Conversation.”

I consider that a conversation by telephone—when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s, down town. I have observed, in many cities, that the gentle sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:—

Central Office. [Gruffly.] Hello!

I. Is it the Central Office?

C. 0. Of course it is. What do you want ?

I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please ?

C. 0. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.

Then I heard, k-look, k-look, k’look— klook-klook-klook-look-look! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: Y-e-s? [Rising inflection.] Did you wish to speak to me?”

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted,—for you can’t ever persuade the gentle sex to speak gently into a telephone:—

Yes? Why, how did that happen?

Pause.

What did you say?

Pause.

Oh, no, I don’t think it was.

Pause.

No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling,—or just before it comes to a boil.

Pause.

WHAT?

Pause.

I turned it over with a back stitch on the selvage edge.

Pause.

Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it ‘s better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such an air,—and attracts so much notice.

Pause.

It ‘s forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.

Pause.

Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin…

You can read the rest of sketch online (horrors!) in the archives of the Atlanticthe archives of the Atlantic.