My grandfather worked for Bell Telephone, mother of “The Baby Bells”, aka “The Phone Company”, for his entire career, installing phones and running wires. My aunt worked for Bell as a telephone operator (and spent much of her career 60 feet underground in a nuclear bunker). My uncle worked DSL networks. At 4th of July barbecues, instead of talking about shopping or football, we talk about wonderfully exciting things like bandwidth, the unconscious effect of latency, and how the role of telephone has changed over the years.

According to granddad, early on in telephone history, many folks felt that phone conversations were so awkward and impersonal that they really didn’t enjoy using them. The reticence receded in waves as phone calls went mainstream. Phone users adjusted and began having succinct, purpose-driven calls. Over time, they began doing routine business, having personal conversations, and eventually becoming comfortable talking to people they hadn’t yet met in person. Eventually, of course, the telephone became an acceptable way to have important business conversations. (Which reminds me of the way we adopted a certain series of tubes I’m fond of…)

Initial reticence to using the phone is traditionally attributed to the lack of body language and facial expression in phone conversations, but most people don’t realize that the alien-ness of a phone conversation is also caused by uncomfortable conversational latency patterns. (..

Roughly speaking, latency is the amount of time it takes for a message to get where it is going. The speed of sound is roughly 340 m / s, depending on air pressure, humidity, temperature, etc. This means that normal conversational latency is about 6 milliseconds. If I were to speak to you from two meters away, my speech would take 6 milliseconds to travel from my mouth to your ear.

But suppose you and I were having a conversation via a local telephone call over the “Plain Old Telephone Service” (POTS) network. Even if you are on the other side of town, the timings wouldn’t much different. My voice leaves my mouth, travels to the phone just a few cm away (.06 milliseconds), moves a microphone diaphragm, and gets converted to electricity that travels close to the speed of light, which is negligible delay at that distance. When the signal gets to your phone, the process is reversed and the sound is pumped directly from your phone into your ear. Thus, speech of a local phone call is actually at least a whole order of magnitude faster than face-to-face communication. This conversational sensation was alarming to the first generation of phone users.

With nothing more than anecdotal evidence from my teenage years to back it up, I speculate that this lack of normal conversational latency, this “hyper–closeness” which has both the echo-location and the latency characteristics of someone whispering in your ear, helps conversations over local POTS phone networks to sometimes actually feel more intimate than face to face communication.

But this doesn’t hold true over long distance phone calls. If we talk on a POTS call from say… from San Francisco to New York, the time the electrical takes to travel along the wire is a lot longer, roughly 30+ milliseconds, creating a 60+ millisecond round-trip. While many of us no longer notice the latency in long distance phone calls, this latency was unsettling to the first generation of long distance phone users, who found that their innate abilities to tell a lie from the truth and by extension to make character judgments, having been honed by years of face to face conversation, were thrown off by the long distance delay.

At some point our long distance phones conversations started going over fiber instead of copper, bringing them closer to the theoretical speed of light and getting rid of some latency. But those gains were negated by the transition from analogue to digital, which costs a few milliseconds and is required at each end to bring our analogue ears into the loop, and is particularly slow in small, cheap, energy efficient devices (like cell phones). Add the unpredictability of wireless phones, network congestion, and you have wildly varying conversational latency.

Chances are that if you are reading this, you’ve grown up making long distance calls. I know that I don’t notice the latency in any POTS phone networks… but I can’t stand cell-phone latency. I constantly second guess my five year-old decision to ditch the landline. As a freelancer, I can’t stand negotiating fees on my cell phone, where I find it difficult to read a client and play the give-me-an-estimate / what-is-your-budget dance to my benefit. Trying to do so is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I echo generations past in my lack of ease in doing business using this confounded new communications technology.

The current crop of teenagers doesn’t know a world without cell phones. Having never (really) known much else, do these Digital Natives have different conversational patterns of micro timing molded by a life of cell phone latency? Has this age bracket lost a certain ability to unconsciously read truth or intention in a conversation from variations in micro-timings? …Or have they merely adjusted their conversational patterns to account for the immense additional latency? Do their “cell-phone” conversational speech patterns carry over in face-to-face conversations, or do these digital natives unconsciously work in different conversational rubrics when using different communications technologies? In terms of mental energy, what is the net effect of the effort required to switch back and forth?

John Randall

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