A short history of instantaneous distance communication


The telephone was the first device to become widely available and provide a means of instantaneous communication between individuals at different locations. For social interaction it of course had the advantage (compared to letter writing) that those communicating could hear each others’ voices. Looked at from a more practical point of view we can say that particularly for business use it had two advantages over the public postal system. It allowed decisions, such as orders for goods, to be communicated instantly. A second – related – advantage was that it allowed information gathering in an interactive way – where questions can be asked and further questions arising from those questions asked, in a way not easily done by letter in a reasonable timeframe.

Semaphore towers, which also provided instant communication, existed long before telephones became available, but the nature of the infrastructure meant that they were not means of instantaneous personal communication in the same way as telephones became, because the individual wishing to communicate would have to write their message and deliver it to the semaphore operator. And the later telex and fax, which used telephone lines, were never, in practice, a means of instantaneous personal communication for business because offices tended to have a single (or a limited number of) central fax or telex machines rather than having machines on everyone's desk as was invariably the case with telephones once they caught on.  

Telephone use increased gradually during the 20th Century, coming into widespread use in the second half of the century. By the end of the 20th Century, email – which had the same two practical advantages (instantaneous and interactive) as the telephone, over the post – was becoming widespread. But by this time mobile phones were becoming common and so such phones, which could be carried anywhere, had a temporary advantage over email which generally required a computer. Although PDAs (personal digital assistants), which provided email capability in a pocket device, existed, they were fiddly to use because, in order to fit on a pocket device the keys needed to be much smaller than the width of a finger. They were also expensive and most people, if they had to choose and could not afford both, would buy a mobile phone rather than a PDA or a hybrid. In 2007 the first smartphone, combining in a single device a phone with easy-to-use email capabilities, appeared. Smartphones have a "soft" keypad which can be made to appear and disappear, to increase or decrease in size as the phone is rotated, and to change from alphabetic to numeric/symbol, as required, thus solving the conundrum of having reasonably sized keys on a pocket device. Which such advantages, and decreases in price due to mass production, smartphones quickly took off and since around 2010 the vast majority of mobile phone sales have been smartphones with email capability. 

Many people prefer email communication to the phone because it can take less time. If you phone, the person you are phoning may not be available. You can leave a message for them to ring you back but, when they do, you may not be available, so the time taken for you to listen to the other person’s phone ringing, leave a message, and for the other person to listen to the message, ring and listen to your phone ringing, is unproductive time. Email is interactive and virtually instantaneous but does not require the two people in communication to type at precisely the same time.

Some people can find it stressful to talk to someone on the phone without being able to see their facial expressions – particularly someone they do not know well. And even if it does not cause stress, communicating by voice, without being able to see, alters the phone user’s behaviour to a degree. In face to face conversation, there are natural pauses, and we can also discern, by body language, when someone is thinking before replying and distinguish that from a shocked silence, or a deliberate silence of disapproval. In face to face communication sometimes body language is used to indicate a response without words being used at all. When using the phone we try to keep talking and avoid pauses because we know (from our own experience) that the other person may find pauses disconcerting or might misunderstand them. “The phone went silent” is a staple of many a novel, used for dramatic effect. We know that it matters. So whereas in a face to face conversation people if necessary take time to think before responding, in telephone calls there is pressure to avoid silence. Different people react to this pressure, at different times, in different ways. They may repeat something they have already said - or say the first thing which comes into their mind - while they think of a more considered response. This can cause misunderstanding. Or they may feel pushed into making a definite response when ideally they would have wanted to think more about it first. Of course with email you can’t see body language either but email avoids the stress and potential for misunderstanding inherent in the artificial situation of having to avoid natural silences in conversation.

During the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, legislation was introduced to allow more hearings to take place by phone or video, rather than all parties and lawyers being in a physical court room. Some non-court-room hearings were permitted to take place by phone or video link but for others only video (not phone) was allowed, which is a recognition of the importance of sight and body language in addition to audio. 

Talking about legal matters on the phone has its own particular risks. You don’t want to take action based on a misunderstanding of advice being given, and it can be difficult in a phone conversation for a lawyer to fully convey all the qualifications and options. There is also the possibility of the lawyer not fully appreciating the facts as you have described them and on which any advice may be based. Despite these potential problems solicitors will talk to clients on the phone because that is expected and also because it is profitable – every minute on the phone is charged at the fee-earner’s hourly rate and short calls are traditionally rounded up to the nearest 6 minutes - but certain factors mitigate the risks. There are two factors in particular. First, the solicitor will make a file note of the conversation (albeit that adds to time and cost) and secondly the solicitor will generally speak in a qualified way (e.g. “It could be the case that…if so…”). Solicitors generally instruct barristers to provide specialist advice at strategic points and to draft key documents (as well as to represent the client in court or tribunal) and because of this solicitors make a practice of qualifying what they say – not just on the phone but in letters and emails as well – because they are aware that more definitive (or even different) advice may in due course be given by a specialist barrister.

If you analyse a typical phone call, it includes quite a lot of repetition and small talk which may be agreeable in a social call but can waste time in business settings. There is also the question of keeping a record. Email is its own record but you have to make an effort to write down what is said in a phone call. That takes more time.

If you are buying an important service (as distinct from buying standard manufactured goods), or if you want to talk over an important matter with a professional advisor, you might feel that you want to meet them and talk face to face, but where face to face communication is not essential many people prefer to use email rather than the phone.

Of course there are a few situations where a phone call is essential – 999 calls to the emergency services, for example, where there is threat to life and limb, and every second may count - but in most situations – leaving aside social calls where voice has its own importance – it is perhaps surprising that we still use the phone for business as much as we do.

Partly it is convention and habit. We don’t normally expect to talk to a doctor or an M.P. on the phone so we make an appointment and go to see them. But generally we do expect to be able to talk on the phone to the garage repairing our car. There may be no real reason why garages do not communicate by email, but generally they don’t and because they don’t our first instinct is to phone. And any garage without a phone would lose business. It is largely convention and habit. But things are changing. Many business websites do not show a phone number and Google My Business, for example, only requires businesses to have a website or a phone, not both.  

People expect solicitors to be available on the phone. Increasingly email is being used and when solicitors contact clients it is usually by letter or email, rather than phone, but there is an expectation that the client can always choose to phone the solicitor. Of course there is no guarantee that you will actually be able to speak to the solicitor normally dealing with your case – they may not be available. Someone else may say “can I help?” which you may welcome or dread – it is not always easy to say “No. I want to speak to..” when someone is keen to help instead. So probably a majority of clients now choose to contact their solicitors by email, rather than phone, most of the time.  

Since 2010 most sales of mobile phones have been smartphones and virtually all mobile phones now in use in the UK are smartphones so that, in 2019, 79% of the adult population of the UK used a smartphone with email capability (Ofcom Communications Market Report, July 2019), and it may be that in the next 10 years the use of voice calls for business communication will become something of an exception.


This page was lasted updated in February 2020          Disclaimer