I can still remember my first home phone number. It was fairly easy then—just seven digits with an optional area code. We were required to memorize it in preschool, along with other vital information like our addresses, to the point that those seven digits became intrinsically glued to our identities. My best friends’ phone numbers weren’t just programmed into my brain, they were in my muscle memory as much as a well-practiced piano piece, ingrained deep in the nervous tissue of my dialing thumb. And we were careful about giving out our numbers and held onto them like precious things, because giving someone your number meant that they had some kind of intimate connection to you, that you had given them permission to enter your bubble of communication.
And yet, here in 2015, when was the last time you had to call up someone’s number from memory? When I want to call my friend Joe, I pull up an app in my phone and tap a picture of Joe’s face and I’m connected to him without ever interacting with any numbers and scarcely utilizing that well-honed dialing thumb. The numerical part of his identity is seemingly gone, replaced by a much more human picture and a name.
While phone numbers obviously haven’t entirely gone the way of the dodo, we’ve diversified the way we identify ourselves for contact purposes, especially online. If you want to reach someone, there’s no longer the singular portal of the phone number. There’s email, there’s social media, there’s messaging apps, there’s FaceTime and Skype and Google Voice. And if you’re talking about the practice of cord cutting in general, we can distill this abundance of communication options into the idea that you’re not just tied to one specific thing anymore for service, and as a result, you’re not tied to one specific identifier.
I talked to Karma CEO Steven about this phenomenon. He’s got two young kids, both of whom will probably never have a phone number. They’ve also had the internet from day one, and see it as a ubiquitous “always there” sort of thing.
“Your phone number, which used to be nothing but a unique identifier, is now not even that unique anymore,” said Steven. “If you look at what we’re doing at Karma, and what Google is doing, by decoupling data from the network, the infrastructure layer just isn’t relevant anymore for a consumer.” Before, you had your business number and private number and home number, and now those are replaced by your Twitter handle, your work email, your iCloud account, and any other accounts you use, but the biggest difference is that those independent user names don’t have to be tied to one infrastructure. When you disassociate your identifier from the service provider, all of a sudden, the phone number doesn’t seem so essential anymore (aside from any pesky emotional factors at work).
Your phone number, which used to be nothing but a unique identifier, is now not even that unique anymore.
That diversification of identity, I think, comes from our desire for choice. We want independence. We don’t want to be forced into doing things one way. And the options are out there. Steven hasn’t had a phone contract for three years and according to him, barely knows his own phone number (that he got through Google Voice). But ideas are ingrained, like that phone number in your muscle memory. It will take a long time to detach the majority of people from their phone numbers because we’ve all had service providers since we can remember, despite the fact that we hate the idea of being tied to any one thing. My parents haven’t answered their home phone since probably 2009, but they still pay every month for a bundle that gives them practically useless home phone service along with their high speed internet connection.
We want independence. We don’t want to be forced into doing things one way.
“I still remember when my parents first installed internet at home,” Steven told me. “I remember what games I played and the first sites I visited. My kids will never experience that, because they’ve had an internet connection from the day that they were born.” This new generation won’t ever have to dial their best friend’s phone number to schedule a hangout. And while we might be reluctant now to give up our numbers because of emotional attachment, in 15 years, there won’t be phone numbers to give up.
When that time comes, we can all put on a recording of 867-5309 by Tommy Tutone, probably in high-speed streaming FLAC, and remember the good old days while the kids ask what the heck Tommy is singing about. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” we’ll say, because explaining a phone number at that point will be about as impossible as our own parents explaining 8-tracks.