I hate telephones

In many polls, people list their number one fear as “public speaking”, beating out “death” by some margin. Not me. Public speaking doesn’t come close to my fear of the telephone. I hate telephones. There are few things I fear and despise more than the telephone.

Recently, when I was at mum’s alone, the house phone rang. I didn’t answer it. It rang again immediately. I didn’t answer it. It rang again immediately. I stood over it, willing it to stop, palms sweating. The stand-off was only broken when mother texted me to tell me to answer the phone. I hate telephones.

Last year, I received a series of 3am calls. At the ring tone, which is set to a horrifically unadjustable volume, I was woken from deep sleep to deep panic. Alone, the hallway lit only by the green LED of the receiver, the call was always the same, a recurring nightmare: a grainy tape recording of a man, as if very far away, telling me: “you may be unsafe. You are in danger. Have you considered insurance? ...”

I imagine being elderly and receiving these calls. The shock of it could kill me. After these episodes last year, I unplugged my landline phone. I have only plugged it back in once, and briefly, when debugging my internet connection, to check whether the line had a dial tone.

Imagine if every person in the world had the ability, at their arbitrary whim, to anonymously activate your fire alarm inside your home. That is the reality of the telephone. There is nothing quite as rude as the telephone.

I grudgingly have a mobile phone. Occasionally, it starts calling from an unknown number. I do not know who is on the other end. I have not agreed to this call. I have not arranged this call. I never answer it. Yet they keep calling. The equivalent on the internet is email spam. Spam is now mostly a solved problem, thanks to email authentication protocols and spam filters. Yet spam still runs rampant on the telephone network. The telephone network has no caller authentication, and telephones have no spam filtering.

If I were rich, I would have a permanent secretary. All calls first reach the secretary. The secretary would arrange the conversation for a date and time that suits my calendar. The caller would have to call back at the arranged time. Only then would the authenticated caller be passed through to me. Of course, such a protocol does not require a physical secretary. The job could be done by a virtual secretary, an app on my phone. And yet this is not how telephones work.

Months ago, I was ill. I needed to arrange an appointment with my GP. Apparently, you can do this online, but you need a “User ID”. Alternatively, you can call them, in which case you just need your name. But the idea of calling them made me feel more ill than I already was. I didn’t call. I waited it out, and eventually got better. Maybe the NHS is aware of telephone phobia, and this is a deliberate NHS strategy to save money.

Every day for months, I’ve thought about a loan I need to adjust repayments on. How does one contact Barclays? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s easy: Google it, and it says to call 0345 734 5345. No, that’s not how it should work. Thanks to the magic of the internet, we have a direct civilized way to contact Barclays: the internet! Barclays have had barclays.co.uk for over twenty years, and yet this still does not provide a replacement for the telephone.

However, Barclays do accept contact via Facebook Messenger. I tried this:

Jim: Hi. I’m trying to make payments towards a loan. What details would you like from me?

Barclays: This isn’t a secure platform, so we wouldn’t be able to complete this over chat unfortunately. But I can now guide you to the correct team to change this. The number is 0345 7 345 345 and they are open 24/7.

Jim: Thanks. What secure chat/text platforms do you provide?

Barclays: We have Secure Messaging and Nomi chat which are secure but these are only available to Barclays customers that use Online and Mobile Banking. In this situation you’ll need to call through to the team.

Apparently, I can’t authenticate via Facebook Messenger because it’s not “secure”, yet I am apparently able to authenticate via telephone! Barclays seem to believe that the telephone system is “secure” in a way that Facebook Messenger isn’t. Do they believe that the telephone system provides privacy or authenticity? It provides neither: the telephone network, and likely other parties too, can listen to your conversations, and forge them. The security properties of Facebook Messenger are at least as good as the telephone.

If I want to use Barclays “Secure Messaging”, I first need to authenticate with many obscure details forgotten long ago. But if I call, I only need my loan reference number. Routinely, telephone calls have lower standards of authentication. Calling the NHS, you only need your name. Calling Barclays, you only need the paper in front of you. But if you want to use “online” services, you’re held to a much higher standard of authentication.

And so, begrudgingly, I prepared to call Barclays. Here’s how I did it: I prepared a spreadsheet with everything I wanted to say, everything I predicted they might say, and everything I might need. It took me around an hour. I dialled their number, and navigated around their robot which tries to direct you back to their website. Yes, Barclays’ internet presence insists you call them, and then when you call them, they try very hard to move you back to the internet. I hate telephones. Barclays hates telephones. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

I had to prepare this spreadsheet because, when you get eventually reach someone, if there’s anything you don’t have, you need to hang up, find the thing, then start the entire process again. If this were a textual chat, I would be able to find information asynchronously, as required. Much of the spreadsheet I prepared was probably unnecessary. I hate telephones.

In the middle of my call, it cut out. Maybe they hung up. I had to start again. Now I was not only fearful, I was angry. If this were a textual chat, we could have resumed from the previously sent messages. But this was not text, it was telephone, where everything is remembered by operators and the government, and nothing is remembered by the callers.

When I reached a human, he tried to put me through to the loans team. “I’m sorry, sir. The loans team is not available at weekends. Please call back on Monday.” If this were a textual chat, this would be no problem: I would send a message to the loans team, and they would answer me on Monday. This is not how the telephone works. The telephone is synchronous. Because callers like myself are only available outside work hours, but the receivers are only available inside work hours, the two can never sync. I hate telephones.

Everyone complains about companies’ customer service being terrible. But the companies are not the real problem here. The problem is the medium. The problem is synchronous communication. The problem is the telephone. I hate telephones.

I’m told that, in 1993, 2.5 million people in the UK had “telephone phobia”. That’s over 4%, similar to rates of arachnophobia. This is not unusual, and I’d bet rates are higher now. Everyone hates telephones.

Facebook Messenger is pushing their “business” accounts. WhatsApp recently launched “business accounts”. Telegram encourages business use. The first telegram was sent in 1844. 173 years later, companies are only just catching on. Asynchronous textual communication is how everyone communicates remotely now. It’s here to stay. Killing the telephone is a big market.

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