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Originally published Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

In lean times, UW profs let go of one way to connect

Kielbowicz, whom I had to reach by e-mail, is a professor at the University of Washington's Department of Communication. These are lean times at the UW, so to save money this department that specializes in how society exchanges information has gotten rid of its landline phones.

Seattle Times staff columnist

When it came to the end, a couple of weeks ago, Richard Kielbowicz says it was one of those days you could feel a little history happening.

"I think we're all aware that we're living through events that in 10 or 20 years we'll be talking about in our classes," he said.

He's referring to the day they took his telephone away.

Kielbowicz, whom I had to reach by e-mail, is a professor at the University of Washington's Department of Communication. These are lean times at the UW, so to save money this department that specializes in how society exchanges information has gotten rid of its landline phones.

Not all of them. They still have some administrative lines. But most of the communication professors' office phones were removed, marking both an irony and a once-in-a-century technological shift.

If you call a professor's direct number, you get a recording saying that "the best way to reach the person you are calling is to send them an e-mail."

Or you can call to leave a message with a receptionist.

"We've gone old-school, in that we essentially are back to having a central operator who handles any calls," said David Domke, the department chairman.

Most professors have personal cellphones, so they're hardly shut off from the world. Still there are some who feel the demise of the landline phone is sad.

"There is a sense of an era passing," Domke said. "This has been a fundamental device for communicating in the world for generations, and that's exactly the sort of thing we study here. The loss has definitely been noticed."

On the other hand, the relics never rang anymore.

Kielbowicz, who teaches a course in the history of communication technology from the Gutenberg press to the World Wide Web, says his office phone would ring maybe once every two weeks. Calls became so rare that he began to view any that did come in with trepidation.

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"Students no longer call on the phone, ever," he said.

A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 68 percent of Americans still consider landline phones to be a necessity. That's higher than the 50 percent who feel they must have a computer or cellphone.

Domke says he was surprised how readily most professors concluded phones were an expendable luxury.

That's even with a widespread worry on campus about a decline in verbal interaction. Students back in the dark ages — say, the 1990s — would drop by during office hours to talk. Or they'd call, Domke says. Now the back-and-forth is almost exclusively in writing, via e-mail.

Does this matter? Is something lost when people stop using vocal cords to speak to one another? Or are we living life just as richly, only pixelated?

The department has a professor studying just that — "the consequentiality of talk, that is, the social consequences of using the oral channel of communication as compared to other channels."

But he didn't get back to me.

For now the phones are barely in the grave, but already there's speculation about a comeback.

"It will come full circle," Domke joked. "We won't become dependent on cellphones because everybody is always losing them. So someone will hit on the idea of creating a phone that can't be lost. An immovable phone, mounted on your desk.

"They'll call it a 'stayphone.' "

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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