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By Andrew Larson '08
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- As technology hastens the rate and widens the scope of communications, people are more interconnected than ever, and without being tethered to a phone jack. Nowhere is the demise of the landline phone as pronounced as in the residence halls of a college campus.

At Bucknell, fewer than 30 percent of students have their campus landline’s voicemail set up, and that number is dropping every year.

Ten years ago, about 90 percent of students were using a room phone. The Telephone Office discovered that so few students use its services, it had to consider whether to install the same vendor upgrade on student voicemail as it did for faculty and staff.

Cell convenience
“Even if all landline calls were free, they’d still be second to the convenience of carrying a cell phone with you all the time,” says Dan Malick, the technical operations group leader who oversees the Telephone Office.

Ian Hartshorn ’07, who had a landline phone plugged into his dorm room all four years, is among the last of his kind. He learned early in his sophomore year that the landline phone remains a highly reliable form of communication.

He was at Bucknell’s Cowan Conference Center when Hurricane Ivan pummeled Lewisburg and caused the Susquehanna River to overflow its banks. He received a frantic call on his cell. “The cell phone service was intermittent, so I was only hearing the words, ‘house,’ ‘police,’ ‘evacuate,’” Hartshorn says.

Evacuating room
Concerned about the phantom phone call, Hartshorn called Public Safety on Cowan’s landline phone. The reception was crisp and clear, and the dispatcher told him that his dorm, Edwards House, was on the verge of flooding. He arrived back on campus just in time to evacuate his room. “I was appreciative of the landline that day,” he says.

"Even if all landline
calls were free, they’d still be second to the convenience of carrying a cell phone with you all the time." -- Dan Malick

Increasingly, a cell phone number or an Internet handle tends to be more valuable than a landline phone number.

Michelle Laxer ’09, news editor of The Bucknellian, gave up calling her reporters in their rooms when she realized none of them had a phone set up. Since then, she’s obtained most of their cell phone numbers, which she uses whenever she needs a quick answer to a question.

Still, she admits a phone call can seem “confrontational.” That’s why her staff is more likely to contact her by email or text message than by phone, she says. “It seems like, even among my friends, if I can text them or instant message them, I’d rather do that than call them.”

Evading contact
Even though today’s persistent technology makes it hard to evade contact for long, text messages and email allow recipients the luxury of time to respond. “It’s almost like you can hide behind emails and instant messages and texts,” Laxer says. As for the cell phone, “It’s as face to face as you can get,” she says. “You actually have to deal with the person.”

But cloaked behind an email address or a screen name, people gain confidence that allows them to voice thoughts more freely, with both good and bad results.

“People can say things they wouldn’t have said up close,” says David Weinberger ’72, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of Everything Is Miscellaneous. “They can broach feelings in ways they normally wouldn’t be able to and can connect with people they might otherwise be intimidated by.”

Deep conversation
Weinberger believes that new avenues of communication foster heightened levels of sociability, helping people maintain relationships, ranging from family to high school classmates to coworkers. “Can you have as deep a conversation through text as in person?” he asks. “Maybe. But long, deep conversations are not the only way that we maintain friendships.”

As people cut the cord to their landline, there’sirony in the fact that new methods aren’t always a boon. Email addresses and cell phones numbers can be difficult to procure since they aren’t listed in any conventional phonebook.

Bucknell is addressing that problem by offering students the option of submitting their cell phone number to the online directory, in addition to their room phone number, which is automatically included.

Campus emergency
Bucknell recently instituted a system to notify the campus of an emergency via cell phone. The University is capable of sending out a mass text message to the 65 percent of students who’ve submitted their cell phone numbers. Previously, the University would send an alert to every voicemail on campus.

But in this transient world, Bucknell knows the limitations of a warning that would reach only people sitting at a desk, next to a landline phone, with an activated voicemail.

Outside Bucknell, so many people are scrapping their landline phones that it’s starting to affect phone surveys. According to U.S. government data, 13 percent of households can’t be reached through a typical telephone survey because they don’t have a landline phone installed.

The loss of landline phones “may very well be damaging estimates for certain subgroups in which the use of only a cell phone is more common,” worries a recent alert from the Pew Research Center. With landline phone usage at an all-time low, even students who have one in their room concede that its purpose is provisional, if not merely decorative.

“Sometimes my room phone rings, and I don’t answer it,” Laxer says.

But the vanishing landline phone isn’t an objet d’art just yet. In the workplace, employees still prefer to confine work-related conversations to the landline, saving their cell phones for personal use. Also, the Career Development Center urges students applying for jobs to provide a landline phone number to employers because cell phone transmission can be finicky.

On-campus calls
Further, Bucknell’s landline phones are usually cheaper for international calls because the school receives a special discount from the phone company. Plus, the landline phone is useful for students and employees who make many on-campus calls, which are free from a landline on campus, and fast — they only require the prefix 7 plus the person’s four-digit extension.

Whether most of a person’s conversation takes place over a landline or a cell, over email or instant message, the fact that so many means of communication exist reflects a healthy state of human interaction, Weinberger says. That’s why he supports the development of emerging forms of communication like blogs and Web sites that solicit user comments: More ways of “talking” promote the exchange of ideas.

While spoken words are ephemeral, lasting only in the minds of the speaker and those at whom they’re directed, Internet communication can reach a much larger audience and is immortalizedin the hard drives of computers and search engines.

Privacy concerns
At the same time that improved communication helps people keep in touch and share ideas, it has the potential to spread insidious misinformation and crass bigotry, while opening up a myriad of privacy concerns. On the Internet and in person, some conversations are necessarily more advanced than others, but perhaps it’salways better to have more access to each other — and to information — than we need.

“If you got on the roofs of all the bars and restaurants and heard what people were saying, you’d be appalled,” Weinberger says. “You’d also be amazed and enlightened. It depends what roofs you’re on.”

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted Feb. 19, 2008