Caller ID: The Cultural Shift Nobody Realizes

I’ve written before about how disruptive technology doesn’t always cause headlines. It was only twenty years ago that Caller ID was an add-on feature, that Ma Bell charged a premium for, and required a separate box to utilize. There were even commercials for it. Early cell phones didn’t have it at all. Today, it’s almost like cell phones themselves – so ordinary and ubiquitous that trying to explain a world before caller ID is like trying to describe a Yellow Pages or a card catalog.

But this isn’t about the technological advances of the CNAM protocol, or to take another nostalgic journey.

Caller ID’s cultural shift made avoidance possible. Prior to caller ID, one always had to pick up the phone because it could be someone important or desirable to talk to. It could well be a phone solicitor, but if one was arguing with another person, and that person called, there would be some sort of exchange. Even if it was an immediate hang-up, it is still a form of exchange. In a post Caller ID world, calls could be ignored in the same way that written communication like texts, e-mails, and letters could. Without Caller ID, ghosting would not be possible.

On one hand, this is ultimately a matter of technological enforcement of intent. In some contexts, this was a positive measure – people being harassed had a means of mitigation, and phone solicitation became less profitable – and by extension, less common.

On the other hand, it allows people to avoid conflict resolution. Still angry at someone? Intentionally ignore their calls. Don’t want to deal with a bill you’re late on? Ignore the bill collector. Feel like a conversation might not go your way? Send it to voicemail until you think it will.

Like anything else, these things are not always bad. Sometimes, it really is better to have a cool-off period before talking to someone in order to have greater success in resolving a conflict. However, as a society, Caller ID gave us a means of conflict avoidance, rather than conflict resolution. We got used to those capabilities and took them with us to our cell phones and text messages and IM apps, making sure that “block user” was always a possibility in every new communication app we used.

I’ll reiterate that these measures are good things when being used to ensure safety and security. The cultural shift, however, isn’t about the use of Caller ID in matters of safety. The shift is in the ability to use them for reasons of comfort, convenience, and control. Deciding whether we have used these tools for good or for ill is an exercise I shall leave to my readers.

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