Caller I.D. Culture

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Since its popular inception, by some estimates about ten years ago, Caller I.D. (the ability to see the phone number that is calling you) has changed the way we communicate. This seemingly simple convenience has turned communication on its ear and transformed its legions of tacit adopters (Caller I.D. was once exclusively a landline pay service that now comes standard with most cell phones) into a bourgeoning generation of call screeners and selective recluses.

A friend recently started a new job that came equipped with the standard means of communication in phone and e-mail. He was reluctant to give out his new work contact information to family and friends as he feared this would lead to distraction. They had his cell phone number or any of the myriad of personal e-mail addresses should they choose to contact him. The problem surfaced a few weeks into the new job as he would use the office phone to place calls to friends as reception for his cell was not too good in the office or when his cell minutes were low. It seemed that relations, not recognizing buddies’ number on their Caller I.D. chose to ignore his calls at a frequent rate.

At my own home were up until recently we had Caller I.D. block (the evil practice of disabling those receiving your calls from knowing the number from which they originate) people would often not answer as they did not know who is calling. With some friends, they had another phone company provided service that would automatically not receive calls from locations that did broadcast their numbers. This created either a mutually destructive phone call with neither party getting through or the act of having the block disabled on one end or the other albeit temporarily until the phone is dialed again. Some friends knew it was us calling by the fact that their Caller I.D. read Restricted. My own brother called me from a restricted phone the other day (not his usual M.O.). I ignored him unknowingly.

This all leads me to the fact that we are now identified by the ring tones and pictures/icons/avatars or in the most basic case, digits that appear on our friends and families’ phones marked by Caller I.D. We are all marked, tagged, and identified in a matter of rings and just as quickly decided upon by that calls receiver if we are destined for voicemail. The former binary configuration of telephone operation is gone. We no longer answer a ringing phone based on our desire to communicate damning the fact that it could be a telemarketer and not my friend with the baseball tickets for tonight’s game. No, we are now, thanks to Caller I.D., thrust into the more complex game of do I or do I not want to interact with this person.

The further implication is one that has been a hurdle for many forms of burgeoning technology, that is, does this cast us off more from society and interaction. Can what is basically a phone utility actually breakdown the forms of communication? Some say it can and it does as users of Caller I.D. that are perhaps depressed or desiring isolation (the latter being not always a bad thing) cut themselves off further.

So the next time you find yourself calling from an alien number or up against a prompt telling you to leave a message after a paltry three or four rings, the chances are you have been I.D.’d and discarded for later. Welcome to the world of Caller I.D. culture. Maybe you should have tried text messaging your sentiment instead?