Have smartphones killed the art of conversation?

SCI-TECH

News of the un-newsy kind this week, fresh from an Ofcom study designed to confirm a belief in our worst selves: we are a nation addicted to smartphones but are repelled by the idea of making or taking voice calls.

Is this the death of conversation? Not quite, but it’s certainly more than a blip in the cultural history of communication: in 2017, for the first time, the number of voice calls – remember, those things you did with your actual voice on your actual phone – fell in the UK. Meanwhile, internet addiction keeps growing, presumably because we haven’t quite worked out what to do with all those hours we’re saving on talking.

More than three-quarters (78%) of British adults own a smartphone, and we check them on average every 12 minutes. That adds up to 24 hours a week online via our phones – much of that time swallowed up by modern-style chat on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, with some left over for texting. It has taken a toll on talking, sure, but few smartphone users might claim to feel less connected as a result.

Conversation is delightful, but unsaid rules for how and when it happens have been established collectively over the past decade or so. No one – except your mum or someone asking about an accident you were never in – just calls these days. Some people will text to warn of a call; others will hold a conversation by swapping voice notes back and forth. (A youth truth: using the voice memo function on WhatsApp as a sort of dictaphone to “talk in turns” rather than hold “a live conversation” is now a thing.)

Many of us can agree that voicemail, as a concept, is dead: anyone listening to or leaving one has arguably too much time and too little regard for the recipient. Who likes listening to voicemails? The menu, the navigation, the unnecessary news that an energy service provider has been in touch to offer you a different electricity package. (As my phone keeps reminding me, I have 53 of these messages optimistically waiting to be heard.)