Why we can’t talk any more

Theres a better class of neighbor in Pima County
There's a better class of neighbor in Pima County

I received a call the other day from a chum who was formerly a distinguished newspaper publisher, who now lives in a Tucson trailer park, and is trying to save some money in order to pay for the necessities of life, namely his two-dollar quart of pinot grigio and greens fees for the nearby public golf course. Someday soon the trailer parks will be overrun with ex-publishers, given the state of the newspaper industry, but never mind that for the moment.

I could immediately tell he was economizing by using the Skype phone service, because every third word was unintelligible. Normally, when you talk to him face-to-face it’s only every eighth word that doesn’t make any sense, so Skype was considerably upping the ante of conversational difficulty. The price of being incomprehensible is a bargain: he pays just $29.95 for an entire year’s worth of exceptionally poor-quality calling.

“How’s your Jeep running?” I asked. Oh, he said, she’s fine and sends her regards, and I realized that he thought I was asking about his wife, whose name is Jean. Since there was no way to gracefully correct the error, and because I don’t happen to care all that deeply about his Jeep in the first place, I didn’t bother to rephrase the question.

Hello, Central? Get me a better phone
Hello, Central? Get me a better phone, willya?

Skype is a glorious throwback to the days when nothing worked properly, or else it’s a preview of a future when we’ll all be fumbling with our hearing-aids.

Coincidentally, only a few hours before I received the call, my wife asked me what I knew about this thing called Skype. I wondered why she was curious. It seems she had just received a piece of correspondence from someone who works for a public agency where my wife is a board member. The employee had been asked to describe his job duties, and provided a long — if not especially cogent — list, wherein he claimed to be engaged in “regularly skyping stakeholders.”

I explained that the fellow was referring to a particularly ineffective voice-over-IP product that you would only think of using if your goal was to annoy the person you’ve contacted. I further offered that anyone who would use Skype as a workplace tool is either trying to conceal something from the people he’s calling, or else believes you can impress your board by tossing around phrases they may not be entirely familiar with. Example of the second possibility: Sorry, I’m far too busy to respond to your request right now, because I’m skypilly skypifiying Skype-Skype-Skype!

The only person I know who can use VOIP without spreading this type of extreme chaos is George-the-Dentist, who is seldom home, and usually on the phone, and would consequently be diverting his entire income to AT&T’s long distance division if not for Skype. You don’t require caller ID when he phones. You’re greeted with a distinctive burst of static, followed by some line noise, and then you hear something that sounds just the slightest bit like the voice of George-the-Dentist. “George,” I say, “where are you calling from?”, and he mentions some place such as Istanbul, or Islington,

Islington is one of our dozen or so favorite London boroughs
Islington is one of our dozen or so favorite London boroughs

or the Isle of Arran — or perhaps he’s actually addressing the ghost of Isadora Duncan, for all the sense you can make of things.

The only way you can carry on any actual dialog using Skype is to ask the other party to repeat his last comment over and over again. Eventually some semblance of a discussion may emerge, but the overall effect sounds vaguely biblical, or else derived from Samuel Beckett:

— “For I said, and when will you be returning home?”
— “And it was that I answered, within a fortnight.”
— “Then you will be returning home within the fortnight?”
— “Yea, as I said, within the fortnight I’ll be returning home.”

Throw in “verily” a couple of times, and these chats can become positively creepy, but nonetheless it’s always a kick to get a call originating from the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel Luxembourg, and a treat to yap with George-the-Dentist, even if Skype does make it sound like his mouth is completely stuffed with samples of surgical gauze. (Odds of that actually being the case are no better than average, I would guess.)

Because I’m reading a slim book on a related subject, it occurred to me that the new popularity of the low-fidelity telephone conversation will rate a footnote in the study of current epistemology.

You say goodbye, I say hello
You say goodbye, I say hello

Someone will argue that when you become accustomed to comprehending only two out of three words spoken, your brain will make adjustments and begin to fill in the blanks. This will mean, in effect, that on one-third of the occasions when you think you’re conversing with other people, you’re actually only talking to yourself.

In which case, you may be better off blogging.

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