Last week, in a decision that felt by turns overdue and impulsive, I gave up my landline. That I had resisted would come as no surprise to those who know me; I have long had an ambivalent relationship with technology – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have difficulty with change.
I used my last laptop for more than seven years before I replaced it fifteen months ago, and as for my cell phone … well, let’s just say I stopped updating it because the hardware had become so obsolete.
It all comes back to superstition, to the phone as something of a talisman. There was something about the presence of the house phone that left me reassured.
Then I found myself at the phone store, listening as a salesperson offered deals on service as well as on a new device. “You can save $25 a month if you get rid of your landline,” he suggested, and I watched my wife’s eyes fill with light.
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This has been her side of an ongoing conversation for some time now; the only people who call our home phone are telemarketers. My counterargument – that we need the landline for the earthquake we both know is coming – holds little weight with her.
It’s not that my wife is unprepared for disaster; we have canned goods, 50 gallons of water, a crank-powered radio. All of this was done at her instigation; she has always been the most pragmatic, the most grounded, of the two of us.
I once refused to take precautions, superstitious that this might bring a temblor on. Then I wrote a book about earthquake culture and discovered what I’ve come to think of as positive denial – which is to say you get your supplies, your gear, in order, and then try not to think about it anymore.
The landline has played a role in this: a way to keep communication intact. House phones – or the old-fashioned, corded kind – are more durable than their cellular counterparts because of the copper wire networks on which they rely.
And yet, with the advent of bundled cable and internet, even the venerable landline depends less on copper than it once did. Long before my conversation in the phone store, my wife and I switched to voice over internet protocol, or VoIP, which means that when electricity or Wi-Fi is disrupted, so is the phone.
As anyone who’s been through an earthquake understands, those are usually the first things to go. So why keep a landline when it won’t work in an emergency?
For me, it all comes back to superstition, to the phone as something of a talisman. Even after we made the move to VoIP, even after I had experienced the frustration of losing service when it rained, or when the wind blew, or when the network became overloaded, there was something about the presence of the house phone that left me reassured.
I realize I’m in the minority on this. In 2016, AT&T claimed that 85 percent of California households no longer used conventional landlines, as part of a failed effort to ease state requirements to keep its copper lines intact. The same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 51 percent of American homes had cell service exclusively.
Still, we take our comfort where we find it, even (or especially) if such a process is not rational.
Ultimately, I gave in on the landline – for economic reasons, if nothing else. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it, or that I felt more comfortable without it, without its illusion of connection, of protection, than when it was sitting on my desk.
David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times; firstname.lastname@example.org.