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Answering the call

Phones have fallen victim to becoming an open platform with no barriers to entry and a simple system for computational calling to make it a breeze for scammers.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
3 min read
Answering the call
Bo Burnham

I’m working on an article about the death of the telephone.

It kind of feels obvious.

Phone calls, huh? Who likes doing those anymore?

But it’s not just that. It’s that we should be fighting harder to preserve it as a platform.

The wild increase in dodgy robotic calls makes it feel impossible. Calls that aren’t just from overseas, but calls that pretend they’re from a local landline, or a phone number just digits away from your own.

So many respond to the annoyance or sadness that you can’t answer the phone anymore by saying “why would you?” as though it is the simplest thing in the world that one of the most important communication systems in history is no long relevant.

And it’s utterly dismissive of those who need to be ‘on call’.

As a journalist, and as a parent of school age kids, it’s hard to just screen everything. On Tuesday, alongside three robot scam calls, I also had a call from ABC Hobart about doing a radio spot that afternoon. That’s not a number I would have had in my contact list even if it was perfectly accurate with everyone who calls me regularly.

A few moons ago (OK, about 200) I did a keynote for IBM about why the telephone was such a fundamental shift in social norms.

Never before could someone breach the wall of your home or office in real time. They had to post something. Or knock on the door. They had to ask permission for your attention.

Phones DEMAND attention. They scream “I am here and I will continue to interrupt this moment until you deal with me!” It changed how we think about time at home and work. It could always be interrupted by a loud noise generated by someone elsewhere wanting you to give them time.

The big shift recently is computational calling. Like email, it shifted all the effort onto the recipient, because now you can call billions of random digits at minimal cost.

Algorithmic filters on email had the advantage of message content to tell if it was actually worth your time or not. Phone networks are at a wild disadvantage in that regard. Telstra says it now filters millions of calls, but clearly millions more still get through the gate.

Right now I can’t see a future for traditional phone networks as a communication platform. Their curse is being so open. But that’s also precisely why we need them to survive.

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Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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