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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The anorexic telephone directory, communication style and the Big Society.

I hear a thump on the floor - some post through the box. It is the new edition of the BT directory.

Nothing of note, until I pick it up and notice just how thin it is. Business, classifieds and residential – all for less than a centimetre. There was a time when the tome gave me several inches of extra height when a ladder was not around.

So what’s going on? Well, the aneroxic listing shows we are now celebrity ex-directory or we just want to avoid being contacted by someone who might give us grief. Perhaps the geographical boundaries have changed. Comparison with last year’s offering suggests not. Other currents are at work.

The mobile phone in its numerous manifestations is taking its toll of its terrestrial cousin. Apparently, 25% of US households already get by with no landline. If one does have both facilities, it can be a shock when the traditional variant actually rings. It is probably an aged relative. If the answering service is activated, we probably ignore it when we get back, knowing that if someone really wants us they will use the mobile.

Most people under twenty have probably not experienced answering a phone connected by an umbilical cord to the wall. They would have no idea of what to do in a public callbox. Communication is now, anywhere, anytime and literally on the move.

This has crept on us and the implications for society and our communication styles not yet crystallised. The traditional phone was an in-house shared facility and switchboard. Families were aware of who was talking to whom even if the content was hushed. This was a strand of family connectivity which has been knocked away and our communication now becomes more individualistic than ever. Phone conversations are now individual events, a bit like our grazing habits on the food front.

The phonebook was an opportunity to scan who constitutes the local community. We may not have read it for fun, but at least it gave you an idea of who was around and what they did. Electronic on-screen versions do not provide the same sentient experience.

So next year the paper version will be wafer thin. In the meanwhile, our own personalised directory on the mobile lengthens. We have censored and chosen who we talk to. Not having a public listing, the opportunities for others to talk to us have been reduced. Is this the Big Society?

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