Oh, to be unreachable

I would have a healthier relationship with technology and social media — and be healthier in general — if it were easier to take the phone off the hook.

Alas, I don’t think any product teams are rewarded for maximizing DIUWMBAUAASPITF (that’s ‘daily inactive users who might become active users again at some point in the future’). Ad-supported platforms want your daily engagement, and subscription-based platforms want you to ‘receive value’ every month so you don’t cancel.

I’m just barely old enough to remember a world before most folks had email or home internet. We had an old-timey telephone in the farmhouse, with the literal hook the earpiece hangs from. I think it was just for show, but I loved playing with it. I can’t quite picture the phone we actually used. Or rather, I can picture it perfectly, but I’m also not confident I didn’t make it up. Anyway, our phone, real or imagined, was beige, or perhaps brown. Wasn’t everything, in 1989? It was molded plastic, anyway, with the classic banana shape that nestled neatly into its holder, and a long coiled cable that hung with more slack (ahem) every passing year.

The thing about a landline phone like that, even with an analog answering machine attached, is that you can literally take it off the hook. Which makes you completely unreachable

Oh, to be unreachable! No calls getting through, no call waiting beeps, no digital answering service, no messages. Just gone. Off the hook. The little fucker would bleat at you, of course; a reasonable alert in case you’d left it off accidentally. Easily remedied by unplugging it.

People love to talk about ‘unplugging’ and being ‘unplugged’, but unless the platform has truly designed for that status, it’s hard to achieve. A sans-phone hike in the woods isn’t unplugging, just delaying. The ability to actually unplug — an ‘off the hook’ setting, if you will — is something I find desperately lacking in most of our modern communication tools. 

The vacation responder doesn’t stop the emails from piling up. 

Out of office blocks on your calendar don’t necessarily prevent people from sending invitations. 

You can turn your phone off, but the texts and voicemails are still there when you turn it back on.

Even Apple’s Focus modes, which are decent, can trigger a horrifying little link that reads Notify Anyway, letting messages you were going to get either way burst through and bleep at you. 

I’m particularly glad to not need Slack in my daily life anymore, as Slack is the worst for this. My last full-time job wasn’t all that stressful, but I still felt my shoulders drop and my asshole unclench when I uninstalled Slack. Slack’s primary interaction model mimics a chat room, except it’s actually dozens of chat rooms, and when you step out of them your ghost is still in them, and every room is an inbox or an answering machine, and also people can make you walk into rooms you didn’t even know existed. Utter madness. They’ve added lots of settings and reminders to encourage more thoughtful communication, but the messages still come through. I’ll sign into community Slack teams I haven’t been on for months and find DMs and notifications waiting! The chat rooms I remember from yesteryear that I told my mom I wasn’t using were more like that beige or brown telephone: actual (virtual) rooms you could simply leave and then be gone from. What a concept.

It’s not completely hopeless. Bumble has Snooze Mode, and from what I remember of the app it mostly works the way I’m describing, a sort of digital ‘No Housekeeping, Please’ doorhang. Would that we lived in a world where more apps copied that modality instead of just the endless engagement, infinite timelines, and piles of notifications invited by swiping or scrolling. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones with this functionality, but gosh, not much comes to mind, does it?

This essay originally appeared in my personal newsletter, You Get Email from Scott Kubie.

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