The end of telephony: Is the telephone call dying out?

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On March 10, 1876, British inventor Alexander Bell invented the telephone, designed by his assistant Thomas Watson.

148 years later, it seems as if one of the most important cultural techniques of the past centuries – the telephone call – is slowly dying out. Although there are more phones than ever before, 89 percent of Austrians own a smartphone. They are making fewer and fewer calls. According to data from mobile phone providers, call minutes are continuously decreasing while data usage continues to rise. According to Rundfunk und Telekom Regulierungs-GmbH, a total of 24.2 billion chat messages were sent in Austria in the second quarter of 2023, which is around 900 million more than in the previous quarter. Seven billion voice messages are sent on WhatsApp every day. The younger generation simply no longer wants to pick up the proverbial phone. Nine out of ten people in Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) stated in a survey that they prefer sending text or voice messages to making phone calls. What was once considered a breakthrough, namely talking to each other regardless of location, is suddenly being rejected.

Calling as a surprise
Many people – regardless of age – no longer see permanent availability as an achievement but as a burden. Younger people even go so far as to perceive a call as a surprise. Calls that are not announced in writing in advance are considered rude.
Oliver Ruf, Professor of Aesthetics of Communication at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, has researched why we no longer want to make phone calls: “Making phone calls crosses the threshold of intimacy, which takes a certain amount of effort.” This is also the reason why the younger generation rejects phone calls. They can’t prepare for a call and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You can respond to a voice or text message in a considerate way and when you want to. Ruf: “When chatting, texting, or emailing becomes the norm, the phone call becomes the exception.”

As there are now alternatives such as messenger communication, it is easier to refuse calls. So, is the phone call threatened with complete extinction, and will we soon only communicate via text or voice messages? Oliver Ruf: “It is highly likely that we are currently experiencing a further media upheaval, which is also affecting the cultural technique of telephoning. The establishment of smartphones is at least heralding the ever-increasing minimization of phone calls.” However, the triumph of the smartphone has other effects as well: Landlines in Austria are becoming fewer and fewer. Today, children only get to see a telephone, perhaps even with a dial, at their grandparents’ or in a museum. In 2023, there were still 2.14 million landlines in Austria, 107,000 fewer than in the previous year.

Parcel boxes instead of phone booths
And soon, no one will need the telephone boxes in the country either. Before the widespread use of smartphones, they were still the place to go when a neighbor’s phone was blocked, and there was no dial tone. They are now almost superfluous. In the 1990s, there were still around 30,000 of them in Austria. Today, there are only 7,000. But even these are slowly being phased out. This is because Austrian Post wants to convert around 1,000 telephone boxes into parcel stations over the next five years. Despite fewer telephone calls, there is also good news, according to Professor Ruf: “We will continue to find those we want to address. People are still communicative beings.”

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