I, like many people, am in that camp of retrograde laggards who do not particularly like the idea of a phone with some sort of TV screen attached to it. I and my brethren cringe at the prospect of peering at an electronic replica of the person we're talking to, and we loathe the notion of allowing them to see us. If the so-called video phone is the inevitable marriage of voice and vision, we are the hecklers in the back of the church questioning the wisdom of this disturbing union. And, like so many naysayers before us, we will almost certainly be ignored. But not before we've had our say.
The battle continues
Those of us who prefer our phone calls detached and crackly have so far successfully defended ourselves from the invasion of the video phone. Hiding under the guise of technical perfectionists, it's been easy to heap piles of scorn on anyone who dared merge a phone and a video screen: "Hey guys, too bad about the jerky picture, poor resolution, lousy sound quality, out-of-sync audio, complicated operation, ridiculous cost and numskull design — try again."
But as our cover story this month suggests, companies such as Motorola and WorldGate have not been deterred. No matter how many times or in how many ways we insist that we do not want this evil contraption in our lives, these companies continue to plod ahead, refining and "improving" the idea, removing the technical barriers that have served us so well for so long, one by one, like logs from a dam. Unfortunately, now that most of these technical objections have been addressed, it is becoming necessary for us to fight the battle on a different front. Yes, it's time now to reveal the real reasons why the video phone is such an unwelcome idea.
Vanity isn't the issue. On the contrary, many of us telephone traditionalists are quite self-assured and distinguished-looking, so being caught on-camera naked with spinach in our teeth isn't the problem. No, the real issues involved are much more subtle, sophisticated and, dare I say it, practical.
Consider a typical phone call for an editor of my stature: A PR person from some company I've never heard of calls to tell me about a great new product. When she asks me if I'm familiar with her fabulous company, I say, "Yes, of course," and immediately enter a Google search for said company's Web site. There, I click on Contact Us, and two seconds later ask, "How is the weather in Seattle?" to let her know that I do in fact recognize her and her company, even though I don't. While she is telling me about their fantastic new product, which I'd rather not hear about at the moment, I riffle through the papers I was working on before the PR person's phone call interrupted me. I make noises to indicate that I'm listening intently —"you don't say," "good idea," "hmm," "no kidding" — even though I'm not listening at all. When she's done, I say it all sounds very interesting and could she please send me an e-mail to remind me of the fabulous conversation we just had, but what I'm really trying to do is end the call as quickly as possible so I can get back to work.
The fight must go on
As anyone can plainly see, such an interaction could never take place on a video phone. If I had to look this woman in the eye, I'd have to drop everything I was doing and actually listen to her. During that time, my personal productivity would drop to zero, and if I had to take more than 10 such calls a day, my company would start to wonder what I actually do. Choosing to turn the screen off would no doubt be interpreted as rude, which would jeopardize my tenuous personal relationships with such people. Fakery and subterfuge would be far too easy to detect on either side; boredom and apathy even more so. Energetic, go-get-'em types who live to insert themselves in other people's lives (salespeople, insurance agents, telemarketers, etc.) would eventually dominate the medium, of course. And thus the flimsy fabric that holds our society together would begin to unravel, one phone call at a time.
Remember, answering machines, voice mail and call-waiting were all invented as defense mechanisms against the intrusion of the humble phone call, itself once an object of intrigue and wonder. It's only a matter of time before we're defending ourselves against the amazing video phone. So you see, the fight must go on, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Tad Simons is editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine.
Send comments to him at email@example.com.
Tad Simons, Editor-in-chief
50 S. Ninth St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402