Shorter Joel Stein

His entire column on video phones here can be abridged to the following with no loss of relevant information:

“I don’t use a video phone because most of the time I look like crap and have no real interest in what the other person’s saying, and I know they look and feel the same way.”

It’s mostly true in my life, especially the looking like crap part. I work at home, which means I’m generally bathrobed and unshaven, and not only do I not want to be seen by others in this state, I’m also more than reasonably sure that others don’t want to see me in that state, either. As for the other part of that statement, it’s not entirely true that I have no real interest in what the other person is saying, but it is true as I get older that with the exception of dear friends with whom I could talk endlessly about nothing for hours at a time because they are dear friends, I wish everyone else I was talking to on the phone would just get to the goddamned point, already. When I’m on the phone with someone digressive, they can’t see me miming stabbing myself in the eye, and if I were on video phone, it wouldn’t be polite to make such an action. I’ll stick with the regular, audio-only phone.

That said, I’ll note — as I believe I’ve noted before — that in this hustle-and-bustle world of the 21st century, I’m using the phone less to talk with people. Whatever, Facebook and Twitter do an admirable job of letting people know I’m still alive and babbling, which on a day-to-day basis is what most people really want to know, anyway. People who want to talk to me in a more specific fashion usually send along an e-mail because I’ve let it be known it’s usually the best way to contact me. Friends who want to chat with me often check in via IM, which I appreciate because it’s both functional — I can communicate and yet still do other stuff at the same time — and it also lets me control when I chat with folks (I put it on when I’m not busy writing).

That leaves a relatively few people — usually good friends of long standing — for whom the primary mode of communication with me is the phone. And to be clear, I actually love chatting with them on the phone; I’m glad they call, and sometimes I will even call them (this happens infrequently enough that they often express surprise when I do). But their numbers really are few. Pretty much everyone else who randomly calls me up gets my “get to the point and don’t waste my time” tone, if in fact I don’t just decide not to answer the phone, which is what I usually do if I’m busy or if the caller ID doesn’t show someone I immediately recognize. This isn’t to say I’m rude; I try to be pleasant but firm. I also exempt from this people for whom it makes sense for them to call here: Neighbors, Athena’s schoolmates and their parents, local folks who do work for us or with whom we do business and so on. But most of the time: Please leave a message.

The irony is that none of this makes it more difficult to talk to me, or at least at me. The blog gets dozens of comments a day, many directed to me, and I might get a similar number of responses to Facebook and Twitter postings. I get dozens of e-mails a day, many of which hope for a response, which I try to provide within a couple of days, even if it’s just “thanks.” Lots of folks IM me, and even with the relative paucity of phone communication, I end up using the thing a fair amount during the day. I’m not hiding from people; I’m just trying to manage it all so I can function. In my bathrobe. Unshaven.

28 Comments on “Shorter Joel Stein”

  1. About the only time I’ve used video phones was via Skype and it was for my research group’s meeting — one professor was in Europe at the time, but wanted to stay involved. Even then, the resolution wasn’t really good enough to do things like pass around graphs, so we’d just have to email them to him in advance. I think once I went to the whiteboard to explain something, and the video feature helped there.

    But that’s a very specialized use. And it didn’t even really involve a phone, just a computer with mic and camera.

  2. One problem with “nifty” technologies like this is that they quickly become the default method of communicating, whether the capability is needed or not.

    I’m old enough to remember when fax machines became common in offices. Suddenly, things that really could have been mailed had to be faxed RIGHT GODDAMN NOW. I was working in a branch office when the senior partner called from the home office and wanted a client file, so he demanded that it be faxed to him. All 500+ pages. We could have overnighted it and had it to him the next day, which was, in reality, a couple of days before he actually was going to do anything with it, but we had the fax, and the capability to get it there “instantly” (by tying up the fax and a staff member for hours), so that’s how it had to be done.

    Likewise, if videophone catches on, I can see that becoming the expected mode, and people will be upset or offended if you choose not to have your unshaven mug appear on screen.

    I wish everyone else I was talking to on the phone would just get to the goddamned point, already.

    And, when they’ve finally made it, stop making it. Some people apparently think I need them to repeat their point at least five times before I finally get how important it is.

  3. I hate the phone with a passion matched only by the love I feel for Cathie. I have spent far too much of my life being at the beck and call of idiots at the other end of the phone for it to be any other way. Yes, I know it is convenient and immediate, but give me the written communication media all and every day.

  4. As I’ve gotten older I have began to hate the phone more and more. Just get to goddam point, already! Emailing me is the quickest way to get my attention.

    Also, I used to like IM but I don’t anymore. I haven’t fired up an IM client in years. I do chat on IRC, because I am involved in a couple of open source projects but even then, I am doing others things as well.

    So for me, it’s email, facebook and twitter, in that order to reach me.

  5. I hate the phone with a passion too. My husband is addicted to his Crackberry. I talk to more people now over email and Facebook than I ever did with the phone. Those elderly aunts though cannot get the hang of the computer, so the phone it is.

  6. O Overly Verbose Scalzi, with no loss of relevant information your entire posting can be abridged to the following:

    “I don’t want a video phone because I babble on and on and want to stab myself in the eye. Mostly because I am overcome with shame from my poor treatment of Her Most Glorious Shimmering Radiant Perfection. Plus nobody wants to see me on a video phone; everybody wants to see Magnificent She.”

    Or something like that.

    You had such an excellent ending to 2009 and such an excellent start to 2010 with a decent selection of images of Superb She and Her Minions. But now you are starting to backslide. It’s not too late to right the ship and steer the proper course. You know you want to.

    The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club

  7. I’m often unshaven, but my wife is adamant that when I’m in my office actually doing work, I absolutely. must. wear. pants.

    She feels some level of workplace professionalism is important.

    I’ve tried to explain the whole core freelance “work for yourself” goal of being able to work in your underwear (or even fewer clothes), but she won’t budge. It’s one of those marriage compromise things, I guess. :)

  8. In terms of my personal life I’m with you–I only talk with a very few people on the phone, and they’re very good friends. Everyone else I communicate with via IM or txt.

    In terms of my day job–that’s different. I telecommute. I have daily phone meetings that work just fine on the phone, and some weekly meetings as well. However, I also have planning meetings 2-3 times a month that for whatever reason, work so much better if we’re on the web camera. Maybe it’s because they can see me and so interact with me more. Maybe it’s because since they can see me, I pay more attention. If I can I fly down to SF for those meetings. Those are really the hardest meetings to take on the phone.

  9. I only ever talk to my mother and the in-laws on the phone.

    We sometimes set up a video chat so my son can talk to his cousin. That’s about the only reason I’d ever one to use a “video phone” at home.

    Video is exactly the wrong direction. The wonder if the Internet is we can ditch the telephone with it’s “TALK TO ME IMMEDIATELY” insistence.

  10. I don’t even like voicemails…email me so I have a copy. Or Please leave a message after “the really long annoying ringtone of a song that no one likes”

  11. I like the SF shows in which characters answer video coms in their robe and looking gritty and shabby. Maybe someday in the future we just won’t care what we look like when we answer the vid phone. I wonder how vid phones will change the way we communicate and what is considered acceptable. Maybe stabbing oneself in the eye while vid talking will be considered acceptable communcation. I don’t think we’re ready vid phones yet, though. It’s too ahead of its time for mass adoption… like the Apple Newton. Regarding preferred means of communication… I am terrible at returning phone calls. But I rapidly respond to e-mails. I thought this was because I am an introvert or too Big Bang. With the phone, you have to expect some phone tag, and if you do reach a person, there are times when you have to think of a way to politely disengage. With e-mail, you can think of a polite thoughtful communication, and when you receive an answer back, you have something to refer back to. E-mail and text messaging just seem more efficient to me. Another theory I had about my preference for text has to do with my age group… the Gen X fascination (and Gen’s after adoption) with tech.

  12. @Jeff Zugale: Pants and headphones are what signal to my body that I am in work-mode while at home. Otherwise I could just be in surf-all-day mode.


    In general, I am not overly fond of my phone. In fact, when my boyfriend offered to get me an iPhone, I turned him down and made him get me the iPod touch instead. The reasoning goes like this:

    I only have a cell phone. There is NO land line. None. Which means that if you have my phone number, you have access to me where ever I am. This is fine and dandy except that there are times when I don’t want the world to get ahold of me, but must carry a cell phone any way for emergency reasons.

    Also, I dislike the idea that I can be lying in bed reading off my device or listening to music or in the gym, and suddenly the umbilical cord to the world forces itself on my consciousness. (Much in the same way I loathe how all the exercise machines in the gym have TVs at eye level which do NOT turn off. I drape a towel over them–exercise is my brain reset time and a great aid in writing, but not if I have to spend brain cells figuring out what is happening on Rock of Love with no sound.)

    I definitely love talking with people, but I generally like it to be in a context where we are in agreement on the talking. Like going to a restaurant together. Or playing World of Warcraft with my family. That’s together time. You can schedule it with me via email, which usually can be read and answered in the first few minutes you would spend waiting to talk with your loved one while they put the groceries away or check on the twins’ diapers.

    To me, talking on a cell phone, particularly when I had scheduled my own stuff, is like scheduling a Scrabble game in the middle of the day, and then having the other player wander off because there’s a delivery man at the door. It was great as a long distance option before we had computers, and also great if you want to hear somebody’s voice, but in day-to-day life, texts and emails are so much more efficient.

  13. kathy e@11: “I don’t think we’re ready vid phones yet, though. It’s too ahead of its time for mass adoption…”

    We’ll never be ready for video phones. Various proposals and demonstrations of visual telephones have been made for decades. I saw AT&T’s demo of the Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair. I figure if anyone could make a product a commercial success, it would have been AT&T. (They were quite persuasive back in the day.) But it just never caught on.

    It’s a useful technology for specialized needs like teleconferencing, but the general public has voted “no” (or rather, “yawn”) enough times I don’t think it’ll catch on. If our host’s description of what he looks like while he’s working gets out, I’m sure it won’t.

  14. Clear communication is the transmittal of distilled meaning. A formal business letter is the essence of distillation. Email is a lesser grade of distillation. Phones are basically trucking the mash around and having people distill it themselves. Voicemail is shipping someone a load of grain, a load of water, and saying, “You figure it out.”

    Jack Tingle

  15. I can really relate. I actually hate when people ask me how I’m doing on the phone when they call at work, usually they’re calling me for some business reason so why not get straight to the point? My time at work is dear so wasting it on something you don’t really want to know is pointless.

  16. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace says much the same thing about the shortcomings of video phones.

    I’ll tell you, though, there’s one group of people for whom video phone technology is a godsend: grandparents. If you live across the country from the grandkids and don’t get to see them in person that often, firing up Skype video isn’t a bad substitute.

  17. I recently bought a MacBook (my PowerBook was/is six years old and having hard drive issues, and I decided it was time to upgrade) and one of the features that’s going to take some getting used to is that darn pinhole camera at the top of the screen.

    I can’t get over the feeling that the damn computer is LOOKING at me.

    I’m going to have to put some duct tape over it, I guess.

    (From the above one may extrapolate how I feel about video phones.)

  18. Having just made the inaugural Skype call to my sister and my parents with the new webcam, I can say that video phones are nice for talking to those people with whom you can chat effortlessly for hours — mostly they don’t care what you look like, and they can see you waving your hands as you talk, which for some of us is an important part of communication. (Even with family I do kind of want a Jetson’s style mask at times.) For other kinds of communication — business communication, “I’m downstairs with your Chinese take-out,” “the plumber is here”, they don’t seem worth it — the priority is the information, not the discussion.

    It also does still fall into the uncanny valley, a bit. But it’s nice to add that extra level of communication with people you actually care about talking to at length.

  19. We have one (1) Tracphone, largely for emergencies. It’s turned on during trips. That’s the only time it’s in my possession. I cannot imagine what people are talking about on their phones all the time, especially the people stupid enough (and in violation of the laws in my state) to be on them all the while they’re driving. Most people have nothing to say most of the time. Yet somehow these very same people are phoning (or texting) each other ceaselessly. I recognize the weird self-importance combined with pride of ownership that we’re seeing most of the time people are using their phones; they become, publicly, larger than themselves as well as someone holding a product ™. I wish they would recognize these venalities and fight back.

  20. What you really need is a mask of yourself, shaven, with a tie hanging off the bottom, that you can wear while you’re using the videophone.

  21. The older I get the more I dislike the phone- I’d rather talk to friends in person, and with my far away friends it’s mainly email, so I use it mainly for work-related things. I only turn my cell phone on if I’m away from the kids who might need to get hold of me, and I get incredibly annoyed with people who have no hesitation about texting or talking on their cell while we’re actually out doing something together. I don’t even like IM anymore- with me it’s pretty much down to email or facebook. On the opposite side of the fence is my 14 year old daughter, who usually has the phone welded to her ear while she texts someone else on her cell. If she could pry my husband’s Blackberry out of his hands (which will happen when he’s cold and dead, I’m sure) I have no doubt that she’d figure out how to use that at the same time as well.

  22. mjfgates@20:”What you really need is a mask of yourself, shaven, with a tie hanging off the bottom, that you can wear while you’re using the videophone.”

    Or a piece of software to create a convincing animated avatar of yourself, properly groomed, listening attentively and speaking with passion.

    Sounds almost like something from the movies, doesn’t it?

  23. I think I’m with the majority here: i HATE the friggin’ phone! Never answer it at home unless I know who the caller is, never, ever listen to voicemails. If people want or need me, they have my email or even IM addresses. My cell phone is on maybe once a month, on average, and usually when I’m travelling. I do love Skype with good friends though. I think I’m required by state law to give my office phone number to students, but tell them the chances of getting me are vanishingly small as the phone is almost always interrupting something I think is more important.

  24. John,

    You have a typo here: “which I try to provide within a couple of day”

    Thanks for the post stating how you’d like your typos addressed, by the way. I’ve often wondered how you felt about this. It’s nice to have a definitive format for these situations.

  25. The woman i’m dating right now prefers email and calls only for specific things or for something very important. She doesn’t feel like talking endlessly about feelings and doesn’t want to bother people if they are busy. Her philosphy about the phone is the same as mine (and probably most men).

    I don’t know how I found her but that alone makes her a keeper!

  26. Video phones are not for having regular eyeball-inclusive chats with your friends, nobody uses them for that. The purpose of a video phone is to ensure that when a flash mob starts enacting the sound of music in front of you, or the aliens land, or you randomly witness police brutality / crime / corporate toxic waste dumping, you not only have a video camera on hand to document this with, you can send the video stream live to someone else, which means smashing the camera does not destroy the evidence.

    Also phone sex. but that goes without saying.

  27. Concerning the masks: David Foster Wallace’s several-page-long digression about videophones in “Infinite Jest” discusses a potential future in which the mask thing becomes the norm where videophones are concerned, and after a few years leads people to realize that if they’re going to do all that, they may as well just go back to audio-only phones.

    Due to marketing, a lot of people don’t realize that “Infinite Jest” is actually a near-future, vaguely dystopian science fiction novel, but it is, and DFW’s unique worldview is fascinating to see applied to such a genre. All of you should really read it.

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