Cellphones Aren’t Degrading Our Relationships

Brian Christian has been making the podcast rounds with a really fascinating book about how our conception of humanity has changed now that we compare ourselves to computers rather than animals.

He makes a bunch of auxillary points, one of which is based around the observation that when you talk on a cellphone, it takes 600 milliseconds for the sound to reach your conversation partner, compared to 100 milliseconds on landlines.

I would also say that the shift in telephone technology from landlines to cellphones has had a kind of unforeseen trade-off, which is that we’re now much more accessible geographically, but the cost is that the lag on the connection is six times greater. So it’s about half of a second instead of a little bit less than a tenth of a second.

And it may not seem like much, but in fact it is enough to disrupt a lot of the subtle dynamics of timing and pauses, and yielding to other people, and it’s turning communication much more into a kind of peer data exchange, you know, pure content.

It’s easy to latch onto these subtle degradations in the quality of our communications options and lament that ‘no one talks to each other anymore!’

But really, would anyone trade instant, infinitely mobile communication for those lost 500 milliseconds? Yes, cellphone conversations aren’t as rich as landline conversations. Which aren’t as rich as in-person conversations. Acknowledged, fine, whatever.

But it’s nonsense to make the argument that our relationships are based on ‘pure content’ more than they were in the time when we had fewer communications options. The lag-time involved in communicating by handwritten letter is a hell of a lot longer than 600 milliseconds.

The point he’s making here is interesting, but weighed against the benefits of mobile communication, it’s a drop in the ocean. However damaged our conversations are from longer pauses, they’re even more damaged by pointless contrarianism.

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