Let’s wind back the clock a little: Mobiles are expensive, bulky and associated with the likes of James Bond. The means of communication used most commonly is the landline. Wires crawl across walls, behind velvet sofas, onto the small glass topped tables kept in the corner of the lounge. An ugly green telephone eats the wire at the end of its journey. The phone set has black rubber keys. A small paper adjacent to the headset reads the landline number behind a smudged plastic sheet. Suddenly the phone starts ringing. It’s the retro ring. Tring Tring Tring. It is relentless. The cord pulls at the handset as it is picked up. The voice on the other end is one you had been expecting. You converse as you lie down on the sofa, your head fixated at an angle as the cord is only that long. Family members pass by, you juggle between high and low tones to both reveal and hide the conversation you are having. Your message is delivered as the volume of the TV in the next room is lowered. Just then, your father steps in, his eyes focused on you, glaring at you, insisting without really speaking, that you alone will be responsible for the fantods-inducing phone bill demanded of him at the end of the month. You roll your eyes, roll over to your side and continue conversing.

The present now: Landlines had issues, irrefutably a lot more than those pinpointed by the above paragraphs. Extensions were sneakily picked up and conversations were spied on. Rainwater was often termed responsible for the painful silence in the phone line. Conversations were mixed up and one could listen to other people conversing amidst one’s phone-calls. There was no customer service. Demanding privacy raised more questions and made parents compulsively pry.

Nevertheless, and this is important, the introduction of mobile phones and social media was not, and is not, the solution we were looking for. Communication, when it was not as easy as it is now, was arguably more sentimental than what it has become today. Associates and acquaintances were more than their names, they were numbers as well, digits that were memorized and sung as they were punched into the rubber keypad. Families were closer too. Parents recognized names of one’s friends and gave in to friendships that rebelled against the impediments that landline-communication carried with it. Birthdays were remembered and phone calls were made at midnight, making everyone acknowledge the value of friendship between the two on the line. It was okay to sit in uneasy positions as long as the conversation kept going. It was all difficult yes, but at the end of the day, it was worth all the effort.

All of this and much more can be said about the art of letter writing i.e. with a pen. Friends who truly defined friendship and long-distance relationships were worth the rewriting of countless drafts just so the right words could be put to paper. These friends were worth going to the post-office for, buying stamps for, while we jotted down addresses on rickety post office furniture. The wait for a reply started as soon as the fingers loosened their grip on the envelope and allowed it to fall somewhere inside the colossal metal letterboxes. Replies were made with earnest effort, knowing full well that another chance at communicating was going to take a while. Time was taken out to brainstorm and speak of things one cared about. There was permanence in such communication. Envelopes were stored in boxes, read and re-read; the whiff of perfumes staying for months. There was emotion in the black and white text of the letter. One could almost hear the other speak.

If not all, most of this has changed. Communication has become too easy; the other person has become too approachable. Wishes, much like numbers and emails, are based on software reminders. One might get hundreds of birthday wishes on social networks but most of them are redundant and lacking emotion and come as a mere formality than a genuine declaration. Reminders, if anything, have made us lazy and have justified our disregard for others. Cyber-sharing has revealed too much of us to others, leaving very little to be shared when we really speak to each other.

On the other side of the equation, we find one over-exposed; a true representation of Emile Durkheim’s concept of ‘Anomie’. The person of today represents a case wherein “no living being can be happy or even exist unless his needs are sufficiently pro-portioned to his means.” The experience of communication ergo has become an exhaustive process in itself, resulting in detached beings and an incredibly superficial society.

n    The writer is working as a health economist in a think-tank based

    in Islamabad.