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The phone and the voice are once again an item

Istock; globe staff digital illustration

The phone and the voice, that pairing we once thought immutable, have had a rough go of things over the past decade. Phone calls are on the decline. Ask anyone. My mother, for instance.

The New York Times recently derided phone calls as “rude. Intrusive. Awkward.” (And Miss Manners went ahead and agreed!) Forbes detailed the myriad ways that phone calls are “a waste of time.” TechCrunch declared phone calls “dead” four years ago, and it’s been six years since most of us started texting more than calling (this, despite that profoundly ugly Motorola Z10 you were rocking at the time).

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A recent piece on New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer questioned why we even call our phones “phones” anymore. Wireless companies, argues Kevin Roose, stand to gain more by foregrounding their cheapo voice rates and not their jacked-up data plans. (Last year was the first when data fees topped charges for voice plans.)

The decline of the phone call is understandable given how dramatically attitudes toward other people’s claims on our time have shifted (i.e.: We’re bigger jerks).

Phone calls, after all, eat minutes; they demand a level of live performance for which we’re not always in the zone; and they eliminate our precious strategic response and message-crafting time. Add to this the annoying brambles of small talk one must trudge through, the cadence-jilting corruptions so often inflicted by a cellular signal, and the burdensome politeness that dictates we couch our spoken intentions (otherwise so efficiently delivered via text: “Get a milk,” “U up?”) into the meandering improvisational melody of conversational speech.

So it’s a little surprising to see the voice experiencing something of a resurgence across the app-sphere. This past week saw former Microsoft chief technical officer and chief software architect Ray Ozzie launch the iPhone app Talko, one of a growing number of collaborative productivity apps (like Convo, Yammer, and Slack) that distinguishes itself by employing the voice as both a primary engine for commands and a primary source of content. Teams can record and share bits of spoken speech that can be heard, responded to, and reconsulted whenever — a meeting unstuck in time. In work relationships – where interpersonal urgency takes the place of interpersonal intimacy, and where things have to be understood, quickly and clearly – the voice offers an ideal means of message delivery that retains all of the signaling and subtext you can manage.

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Similar features have also sprung up in Facebook’s Messenger app and in the iOS8 update of Apple’s Messages app, both of which now allow permit users to snatch and send short voice notes with the speed and economy of a text.

And as for the voice command functionality that has made assistants like Siri and Cortana such trusty sidekicks, Mara Mills, an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU who gave an enlightening talk on telephonic history at MIT’s “Seeing/Sounding/Sensing” symposium last weekend, points to a long history in telecommunications that always imagined them as not just a logical end, but a natural one.

“A lot of people who worked on early speech synthesis and speech recognition analogized computers to work animals, like work horses or cattle,” she says. “And they said that humans have evolved to give voice commands to animals, so it’s evolutionarily natural to give voice commands to machines.”

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Why this subtle shift back toward simple telephony when we have every multimedia mode at our disposal? According to Mills, there’s something about the voice that we just can’t get anywhere else.

“The voice has multiple layers,” says Mills. “One of them is the speech/information layer, but the other one has to do with the sound of the voice, the grain of the voice itself. That’s where you have things like affect and the unique sound of a person’s voice coming out of their body. You’re getting at least two different layers of information from a voice message as opposed to a text.”

Like a distant cousin to the phone call, the asynchronous voice SMS carries the embedded intimacy of the voice (the little cracks, inflections, and decays that give our speech meaning beyond language) with the efficiency of the text. “I think sometimes those two values are in conflict,” Mills notes.

Some of Mills’s own personal fascinations – the enduring history of phone sex, and the 20th-century phenomenon of phone phreaking (which found “phreaks” hacking into the telephone systems to skirt long distance charges or assemble chaotic group chats) among them – point to another way that the voice is making a comeback: satisfying our natural desire to connect in real time with other people — even if that means complete strangers.

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Anonymous peer-to-peer voice chat apps such as the subject-specific Parlor and the singles line Quest have emerged and taken cues from the 800 and 900 numbers that arose in the 1980s. Not always sex-driven, these chat lines often combine the pool of app users with callers accessing the service through traditional toll numbers. In a way, they’ve created a space in between eras, where the trappings of identity are subsumed by the simplicity of a signal.

“I say when I’m teaching my telephone class that telephony was so successful that it erased the need for voice communication entirely,” Mills says.

But removing a need doesn’t always erase a desire. We long for connection, but more than that we want to be heard. While it’s easy to get lost in digital space, the sound of a voice can help restore our bearings. It’s reminder that real life is calling — whether or not we choose to accept the charges.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.