The landline that time forgot

The spate of recent news stories about the dangers of social networking has only served to remind me how dizzyingly quickly communications have moved on since I was young - a chilling four-word phrase which, having turned 30, I'm now legally entitled to use.

In the 1980s, my parents, like most people of their generation, regarded phone calls as at best a regrettable necessity, at worst an absurd extravagance. On an average day in our house, the phone was no more likely to be used than the fire hydrant.

If a conversation did have to be held, my parents would wait till after 6pm or for the weekend for the cheaper rates. If a family disaster occurred on a Monday, it might well go unreported until Saturday. Even last year when my mother finally succumbed and got a mobile, she was amused by the salesman asking if she was going to be "talking to her mates a lot" and would need a higher tariff. So far she's burned up a grand total of £10 credit in 12 months.

But the mentality that sees phone communication as a luxury hobby is dying out.

Only the most determined Luddites - that is, my dad - continue to tut and mutter "Why not graft a phone to your head, while you're about it?" when a mobile goes off. BT's brave ad campaign claiming that "if a conversation's worth having, use your landline" sounds as forlorn as if a video cassette manufacturer were to claim that "DVDs spoil the experience". Public telephones now function as public urinals. We are now communicating with each other more than ever before.

You can see why this bewilders people who grew up with telegrams, and there's no denying that tales of teens being lured by internet fiends are a salutary lesson. It would be easy to go along with the idea that the internet is corrupting our kids. In reality, however, we should be grateful to it for giving lonely teenagers a place to meet.

Chat rooms don't make kids depressed or insecure: that's part of being a kid, like being thrown out of pubs and making regrettable hairstyle choices. But while adolescents of previous eras - me included - had to write poetry, listen to miserable music and fantasise about our own funerals, today's kids can thrash it out on Facebook. Even at the darkest times, there is always someone to talk to.

Of course, some of those people to talk to will be dangerous and some of the ideas to be found on the internet will be harmful. But most teenagers aren't stupid. Only a tiny, misguided minority will arrange to meet up with someone they've never met before. We should trust the others to make good use of the technological bounty they've inherited. In fact, we should stay on the right side of them generally, because before long they'll be building robots to hunt the rest of us down and kill us. And when that day comes, the landline's not going to be a lot of use.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!