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Over the wires

Long distance relationships have gotten a lot easier since I was in college.

It’s all technology, right? But I cast my mind back, and I remember when phone calls were a huge deal. You had to ration them, because there’s nothing you want more than to talk to your girlfriend for a long, long time, but an hour of phone conversation is awfully expensive. Ramen or voice contact. Hard choice. So you get a call a week, maybe two, and you have to keep it reasonably short, and letters are very nice but not quite the same.

Email letters, not paper letters. I’m not that old. And fortunately, by the time I got to college, AT&T had already lost the monopoly so competition had driven prices down. But still, man, phone clutched to ear and distance audible in the phone lines and yeah. Plus the sizable phone bills at the end of the month. You don’t really want to feel guilty about talking to loved ones, but when you know you’re spending their money, it can suck.

Well. If the big romantic revolution of the 60s was the Pill? The big revolution of the 00s is night and weekend minutes. Free phone calls make conversation what it ought to be; easy and fluid and without impediment. If you want to talk every night before bed, you can. It makes a difference. No guilt about two hour phone calls, time to talk things out, time. Time’s a gift, right?

And this isn’t even getting into Vonage and Skype and Google Talk. Those get you free conversation any time, at the cost of being tethered to a computer. (But think Bluetooth headsets.) Life gets a bit easier. But really, night and weekend minutes make the big difference; that’s the practical leap. I imagine in the next five years or so, voice over IP (aka computer telephony) will come closer to being consumer technology. Right now, cell phones already are consumer technology, and it doesn’t count as a revolution until my aunt can use it. Disclaimer: as far as I know, my aunt isn’t having an LDR.

It’s just another facet of the Information Revolution, obviously. Decreased difficulty of communication, which has all the same effects you’d expect from decreased friction. (Including the whole “decreased difficulty of pissing each other off,” in the general case, aka flame wars. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.) It makes any form of communication easier. You could write a thesis about it. One of Rob’s students probably will. Relationships are one of those forms.

Which is not a surprise, if you think about it. Go read a self-help book about relationships. What’s key? Communication. So of course, LDRs are hard because it’s hard to communicate; and of course, they become easier when communication becomes easier. Obvious in retrospect.

Long term secondary effects, eh. I wouldn’t make any sweeping predictions. I do kind of think that sense of place, like sense of identity, will become more fluid in this century. Location is a state of mind? Maybe. But I’m not completely sure of that; the technology isn’t that disruptive yet. Yet.

Tell you, though. Voice is great; it removes much of the confusion and mixups you can get from the lack of inflections in text. Add webcams to the mix, for easy visual cues? Two out of five senses is luxury, especially when I compare it to the hour or so a week of free voice I got back in college. I like the Information Revolution.

Also: “You can’t solve social problems in software,” my butt.

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