Sunday, May 29, 2011

Robocalls and Electronic Warfare on the Landline

Well, it’s finally happened. I have reluctantly joined the ranks of those whom you are never, ever going to be able to talk to on their landlines simply by calling their number and waiting for a live person to answer the phone. Now we always let the answering machine pick up the call. If the caller leaves a message (which usually doesn’t happen), and it’s somebody we want to talk with, we’ll call them back. But otherwise, the caller is out of luck.

Thirty, or even twenty, years ago, I would have regarded this sort of behavior as standoffish at best, if not downright unfriendly. I inherited a strong streak of what you might call German democratic “just-folks” populism from my father. It’s one reason I still mow my own lawn, have a listed phone number, and until recently, answered my own home phone in person. I don’t want to send a message that I’m too busy or important to be bothered by people I don’t know. But that was before some of the people I don’t know started using robocall machines (technical term: auto-dialers) to pester the life out of me by asking for donations to various and sundry charities. What prompted me to change my behavior was the realization that about 90% of the calls reaching our landline were from robot dialers operated by charities of one kind or another. While some of these organizations are worthwhile, I got tired of spending numerous five-minute chunks either trying to get them to hang up, or reluctantly promising to watch in the mail for the envelope with the red phone on it in order to send in my twenty bucks for the relief of red-haired orphans of left-handed libertarians, or whatever it was.

I’m not alone in letting my answering machine screen phone calls. Response rates to telephone polls are declining steadily. According to one study, 36% of calls resulted in completed interviews in 1997, but the figure dropped to 25% by 2003, and is probably somewhere in the low teens today. Many people, especially younger ones, have dropped their landline altogether, or never even had one, relying only on their cell phones. This has created problems for organizations such as telephone-solicitation charities and polling outfits, because the rules are different for cell phones and landlines. Did you know that there is a Federal law against using auto-dialing machines for cell-phone numbers? No such restriction applies to landlines. For this and other reasons, it costs about twice as much to do polls calling cell phone numbers as it does to call landline numbers. And naturally, that results in fewer pesky solicitations on cell phones. Not zero, just fewer, which is one reason I hardly ever turn on my cellphone.

This mass retreat from instant accessibility is one more example of what you might call the electronic-warfare effect. Electronic warfare includes any techniques designed to confuse, disable, or otherwise bamboozle your enemy’s radar, communications, and other electronic systems. It began during World War II with the advent of radar, and ever since then has followed an ever-escalating path of improved jammers and countermeasures, followed by the other side’s devising a way to dodge the jammers and countermeasures, followed by the first side’s countervailing improvements in said jammers and countermeasures, ad infinitum. The same kind of thing happens all the time with cybersecurity, telephone solicitations, and even humdrum things like locks and burglar alarms.

In some fields, the war reaches a stalemate pretty quickly. Unless you have a Fort-Knox scale hoard of gold in your house, you are not likely to spend extravagant amounts of money on super-secure locks and infrared-laser burglar alarm systems. But with a relatively trivial investment in robo-calling machines, the telephone solicitors have managed to pollute a well that used to be clean, fresh water, metaphorically speaking: namely, the experience of dialing a stranger’s number and getting the stranger on the other end of the line, right away, without the intervention of an answering machine. That experience is increasingly rare today, and I am one who has contributed to its increasing rarity.

It’s hard to say where all this is headed. If the artificial-intelligence folks get their act together, we may all have phones that act like clever private secretaries, forwarding calls directly to us from people we want to talk with and squelching other calls even before they set off the ring tone. And yes, there’s probably an iPhone app for that—there is for almost everything else. If the telephone world of 1970 was the electronic version of the peasant village where everybody could talk with everybody else, today’s telephone world is more like those rich parts of town where everybody lives behind a guarded gate and you have to know someone inside in order to get in. My German democratic-populist self says we have lost something in the transition. But maybe it’s just different, not better or worse.

Sources: The Pew Research Center has a helpful website that answers numerous questions about how telephone polls are conducted, at The paper in which the decline in response rates is described is “Gauging the impact of growing nonresponse on estimates from a national RDD telephone survey,” by Scott Keeter, Courtney Kennedy, Michael Dimock, Jonathan Best, and Peyton Craighill, which appeared in the online edition of Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 70 (2006), pp. 759-779, and at

1 comment:

  1. I've lived without a phone for years let alone walk around with a cell phone glued to my ear like some useless electronic appendage while I incessantly blab about absolutely nothing. If I ever see Rome burning, then I'll find a pay phone to call the fire department.