Is Telephony Making Us Stupid?

By Carl Zimmer | February 5, 2010 9:14 am

Twain by Brady 200The more people yell about Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the more I think back to Mark Twain, and his 1880 sketch, “A Telephonic Conversation.”

I consider that a conversation by telephone—when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s, down town. I have observed, in many cities, that the gentle sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:—

Central Office. [Gruffly.] Hello!

I. Is it the Central Office?

C. 0. Of course it is. What do you want ?

I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please ?

C. 0. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.

Then I heard, k-look, k-look, k’look— klook-klook-klook-look-look! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: Y-e-s? [Rising inflection.] Did you wish to speak to me?”

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted,—for you can’t ever persuade the gentle sex to speak gently into a telephone:—

Yes? Why, how did that happen?


What did you say?


Oh, no, I don’t think it was.


No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling,—or just before it comes to a boil.




I turned it over with a back stitch on the selvage edge.


Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it ‘s better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such an air,—and attracts so much notice.


It ‘s forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.


Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin…

You can read the rest of sketch online (horrors!) in the archives of the Atlantic.

[Image: Wikipedia]


Comments (7)

  1. This is precisely why Scientific American came out against the telephone way back when. I mean, we already had the telegraph, who needs this infernal contraption in their actual domicile?

    In defense of Twitter re: Packer et al, I get my best online reading from it, including this post. Consider it crowdsourcing management of the endless, voluminous traffic of the information superhighway. At least for me.

  2. Mark Twain, the original blogger. :)

  3. Atom Crewz

    I don’t know if telephony is making us stupid. But constant connectivity is definitely making ppl lazier in general about keeping to a commitment of schedule. The cell phone always on and in ear generation feels it is ok to constantly change plans and re-schedule on the fly. This seems like freedom, but when examined from a distance, the patterns also start to resemble aimlessness. TV is making us stupid.

    [CZ: Thanks for the comment. I can’t resist pointing out, however, that you just used your own constant connectivity to send this in. Technology tends to feel alien at first, then essential in a few years.]

  4. DavidB

    First monk: ‘Have you seen these new-fangled printed books? What a load of crap. No style, no skill, no taste.’

    Second monk: ‘Yeah, but they will never catch on. You can’t beat a good old illuminated manuscript.’

  5. Haha! So true CZ. …but I swear it was carefully planned in advance! I, however, haven’t owned a cell phone for almost 3 years, and find myself better off for it in general. excluding roadside emergencies, etc.

    “Technology tends to feel alien at first, then essential in a few years.”
    -Like any crutch, regardless of whether or not you ever walk better from it. 😛
    Dependency on connectivity may complicate without improving performance/output. I contend that perhaps with new forms of communication we are often falling into the pitfall of “re-inventing the fork”; adding depth without meaning or advance.

    I guess I’m the second monk in here. lol

  6. StevoR


    Too much alcohol is responsible for that.

    Speaking personally. 😉

  7. Roger

    Technology does not *make* us stupid. It merely highlights the ever-lasting stupidity of humans in novel ways.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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