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Call Me! But Not on Skype or Any Other Videophone

5 minute read
Joel Stein

I figured that when 2010 finally arrived, I’d be here in Los Angeles on my videophone looking at my new editor in her formfitting silver bodysuit as she yelled at me from New York for sexually harassing her in the first sentence of the first column we worked on together. But even though we both have Skype, we haven’t used it once. In fact, even though Skype is the only one of all the cool gadgets that cartoons promised me would exist by 2010, people don’t seem nearly as excited as they should be. Only 34% of Skype calls even use video. And when Skype announced on Jan. 5 at the Consumer Electronics Show that we’ll soon have videophones on our televisions, everyone went right back to talking about which booths gave out the best key-chain lights.

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I’ve used Skype twice: to be a guest expert on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and to let my mother see her grandson. Both involved a lot of help from tech people and drool. Yes, I find Meredith Vieira that attractive. But I haven’t used it since. That’s because Skype breaks the century-old social contract of the phone: we pay close attention while we’re talking and zone out while you are.

As soon as you begin to talk, I feel trapped and desperately scan the room for tasks I can do to justify the enormous waste of time that is your talking. I wash dishes, I file receipts, I read news sites, I make little fake suicide faces to my wife Cassandra about how much I want to hang up that cause her to yell “Joel, I need you now” in a really unconvincing way that I’ve asked her not to do, but I still can’t stop making the suicide faces. In desperate times, when I am on my cell phone in the middle of nowhere, I will pace. The only other time I pace is when I stub a toe or burn myself. But when I start talking, I assume that you are sitting perfectly still, rapt. And while that is actually true when I’m talking, people aren’t listening to those of you who haven’t been on E!.

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But Skype requires me to look at you while you’re talking, which is totally ridiculous. The only sci-fi show that understood this was Star Trek. Bones and Jim would use their flip phones to talk quickly about beaming or health issues. The only time they’d fire up the videophone was when a Klingon was sitting in a spaceship 20 yards away with guns pointed at them. Even then I think Sulu was checking out Go Fug Yourself.

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Interested in talking more about my theory, I used my landline to call Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology. She told me people are not only uninterested in Skype, we’re also not interested in talking on the regular phone. We want to TiVo our lives, avoiding real time by texting or e-mailing people when we feel like it. “Skype, which was the fantasy of our childhood, gets you back to sitting there and being available in that old-fashioned way. Our model of what it was to be present to each other, we thought we liked that,” she said. “But it turns out that time shifting is our most valued product. This new technology is about control. Emotional control and time control.” You’d be shocked by how many times two people talking on the phone about people not wanting to talk on the phone have to tell each other they’re enjoying their conversation. I’ve had phone sex where I expressed less appreciation of another person.

If we miss anything about the regular phone, I think it’s the psychoanalyst’s trick it employed: you’re lying on a couch facing the wall, imagining nonjudgmental empathy from someone you can’t see. In her book Alone Together, which comes out next year, Turkle writes about a study in which she found that people really like to talk to robots. As soon as you ask people to interact with a computer with artificial intelligence, they start unloading secrets. Robots, it seems, are less likely to take over the earth than they are daytime-television hosting jobs.

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As far as the full-contact listening that Skype requires, I don’t think we want that all that often from people who aren’t already in our house. The fact is, we don’t really want to see other people that badly. That’s why it’s so difficult to make plans with them. That, plus texting times and places back and forth takes forever.

Maybe all the stuff we thought we wanted in the future sucks. Flying cars would block our light, food pills would make Gordon Ramsey’s screaming even more preposterous, and those moving sidewalks just give me another reason to hate fat people at airports. Far better is to have control over our most valuable commodity: time. Sure, we complain about being busy, but that’s pretty great as long as we get to choose when we do things. The truth is, my editor will never even call me. She’ll just e-mail. Which is actually fine with me. There’s plenty of video online of women in silver bodysuits.

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