An illustration shows a smart phone next to a dumb phone with conversation spilling out of them

My friend Vera likes to send me voice notes. Each one arrives with the innocent ping of an ordinary WhatsApp message. A Trojan Horse, ready to unload its hidden cargo the moment I open it. When I do so, Vera’s thoughts tumble out of my phone in a cascade of half-sentences and tangents, an improvised monologue composed entirely for me, wrapped in the background hum of the busy street she is currently walking along. I love these messages and I hate them in roughly equal measure.

Last year, WhatsApp announced that users of the messaging app send an average of 7 billion voice notes every single day. The internet is awash with articles proclaiming that the era of the voice note has arrived. “How voice memos became the new texts,” explained Australia’s ABC news in March last year, “Third of Gen Z now prefer VOICE NOTES to texts,” bellowed MailOnline in October, “The hot new thing in tech: speaking into your phone,” snarked CNN in February 2021.

And yet, for every article proclaiming the brilliance of this new medium, there is another explaining why it should be made immediately extinct. Recent polling by YouGov reflects this unease. Of nearly 2,000 smartphone users, they found that only 16 per cent liked sending voice notes, whilst 36 per cent disliked it. Even among Gen Z, the supposed epicentre of the current voice message boom, half of those polled still said they dislike sending them, compared to 30 per cent who do.

How to make sense of our ambivalent feelings towards this nascent phenomenon? For all its much heralded newness, the voice note essentially combines the functionality of two relatively old pieces of telephone technology: the text message (invented in 1992) and the answerphone (invented in 1949). A voice note is a recorded message, like the kind we used to leave on each other’s answerphones but now rarely do. Whereas those earlier messages were usually intended as a prelude to a phone conversation, a voice note is the conversation – like a series of text messages, but burnished with that most tantalising of things, the human voice.

Talk with electricity

It is no surprise to me that our voices are reinscribing themselves in the ways we choose to communicate with one another. After all, the telephone remains, I believe, one of the great wonders of the modern age – a device that brings people closer together at the same time as reminding them how far apart they are. Like something from a fairy tale, a telephone call is a granted wish that withholds as much as it gives.

As is usually the case in a good fairy tale, the result is happiness forestalled. But then the telephone has always been associated with a kind of longing – for human contact, if not intimacy. The very first words spoken down a telephone line (by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant in the neighbouring room) were “Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you.” How many people in the 150 years since then have cried forlornly into their telephone, wishing they could see or touch or be with the person on the other end of the line?

Paradoxically, the intimation of this distance can give a telephone call a closeness that cannot be experienced in any other way. Bell called his invention “talk with electricity” and anyone who has stayed up too late talking on the phone would surely agree with him. An exchange of love letters might be romantic, but only the telephone really embodies all of love’s fervour and its anxiety, all its awkwardness. The headset cradled against your ear. The feeling of being very vulnerable and very excited at the same time.

And yet, by the time the 21st century was in full swing, this wondrous device appeared to be in terminal decline. Who or what killed the telephone call? Was it Drew Barrymore, crying into the phone in terror in the 1996 blockbuster Scream, and the deluge of prank calls that followed? Are Apple and Samsung to blame? The first smartphone could be bought in 1994, but only later were these handsets designed primarily as devices for watching, reading, touching and taking photographs, rather than talking. Smartphones today are not actually that convenient for making phone calls, and certainly not as pleasant as a traditional landline phone to hold to your ear for long periods.

Quality of connection

Writing in the Atlantic in 2015, Ian Bogost claimed that the cause for the decline in telephone calls was the quality of connection. The shift from landlines to mobile phones required the transition from a stable and dependable network of wires to a cellular one that bounced calls erratically through the ether. And whereas a landline compels us to remain indoors, mobile phones enable us to be out in the world where interferences, sonic or otherwise, are manifold.

But of course, talking on the phone whilst walking down the street was precisely the thing that made mobile phones so appealing. Suddenly, you could talk on the train, in the park, on a bad date – even at the movies, as long as you didn’t mind the dirty looks. But such pursuit of ease and efficiency is never-ending. More than this, texts and emails enable the author (and the recipient) to retain a greater degree of control over their interaction. What SMS began, internet messaging services like WhatsApp have accelerated. In 2022, roughly 100 billion WhatsApp messages were sent every single day.

The voice note might be thought of, then, as a reflection of all we have lost as we drifted away from the phone call. Whilst retaining comfort and convenience, they inject a new kind of intimacy – something a little more human than a winky face emoji. As with a telephone call, we are speaking with no social cues to guide or reassure us, and none of the shared distractions that cushion our face-to-face conversations – a coffee to stir, a window to look out of. We cannot compensate for nerves with energy or affection, or try to gauge the mood of the person sitting opposite. There is only our voice. Everything else is stripped away.

What is lost, however, is spontaneity. In the vacuum of a telephone call, you are required to improvise. You cannot spend hours, or even days, preparing exactly the right wording. A conversation on the telephone can feel like a high-wire act with the safety net removed. And yet we do it together, reaching out our hands and guiding each other through the darkness – the awkward pauses, the misunderstandings.

Voice notes retain all the potential for misunderstanding and disconnection, but without the shared space to figure our way through. There is too much room to hide, or simply disappear. A telephone call asks something different of us; something we often think we hate, but perhaps we also need. It asks that we keep going – improvising, listening and being listened to – until we both know the conversation is over and, with a click, or simply a silence, the line can finally go dead.

This is an edited extract from Andy Field’s new book “Encounterism” (September Publishing), from the summer 2023 issue of New Humanist. Subscribe now.