Conversations for sale

The business of selling conversations on the telephone started in highly urbanized societies where human beings must live together as fragments of  a “lonely crowd”.  The sociologist Johan Galtung quantifies the extent of this mass loneliness thus:  40% of all households in Sweden are one-person households, and 20% of all Americans say they do not have a friend.

While we may disagree with Galtung that living alone and having no friends are necessarily indicators of alienation, the data he cites are astounding.  They depict a situation which precisely makes the telephone – and now the Internet – truly the urban person’s last hope for recreating the human community.

Ten years ago, I would shock my undergraduate students in sociology with the revelation that many Americans were willing to pay for metered phone calls just to talk to someone and not necessarily to seek advice.  They thought it was simply absurd for anyone to pay for a conversation service, even if it was for psychiatric counseling. Today, judging from the sudden proliferation of commercial “chat line” providers in the Philippines, this doesn’t seem so weird anymore even to the traditionally sociable Filipino.

These “chat line” providers are presently under fire because they are suspected of actually being phone-sex services.  They have denied this of course, notwithstanding the explicitly sexual overtones of their advertisements.  In the US, however, the distinction is only one of degree, because any phone conversation can become anything that the consenting parties want it to be.  And we may well expect the same thing to happen here.

But is that an argument for inviting the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to eavesdrop on these phone calls, or to ban them altogether?  I believe not, just as the proliferation of pornography on the Internet cannot be used as a warrant to close down Internet service providers or to censor cyberspace communication.

We have laws against obscenity and these may be used to go after those who publicly peddle explicit sex.  In this respect, it is right to summon these “chat line” providers to ask them to explain, on the basis of their advertisements, what it is they are actually selling.  On the same principle, it would also be correct for the NTC to cancel the licenses of those who systematically and deliberately encourage the use of these “chat lines”  as the venue for sexually explicit talk.  But to ban these services because some callers have used them for sexual release may be resorting to a cure deadlier than the disease.

Something else fascinates me, however, about the sudden appearance in our midst of these commercial talk providers.  What made these companies think there is now a market for this service here?  Has the Filipino suddenly become so lonely that he is now ready to pay for the service of a conversation?   What has happened to the traditional venues of social communion – the family, the barkada, the corner store, and the Church?  Have our cities become the habitat of David Riesman’s “lonely crowd”?

These are sociological questions dying to be asked.  And we do not have a clue as to where our society today stands on these issues. Even so, this nation of islanders has increasingly become enamored of connections to the outside world.  It is possibly a by-product of the OCW phenomenon, or one of its principal motivating impulses.  Let us not forget that Filipinos are among the world’s most avid international pen-pal seekers.  Could it be that the “chat phone” service, paid in dollars, is looked upon as one more venue for seeking global phonepals?

This service is so new in our culture it is difficult to generalize about the uses it has found for today’s Filipinos.  As usual, the merchants, their ears perpetually glued to the ground, are ahead of the social scientists in uncovering the many potentials of our rapidly changing lifestyle.  I am simply amazed that anyone could imagine that there is money to be made in bringing total strangers together on the telephone just to talk.

But perhaps if we had observed and listened more intently to the number of Filipinos who regularly call radio programs to air  their opinions on a variety of subjects, we would not be surprised by the appearance of commercial phone talk services.  Maybe it has nothing to do with urban alienation, or with the creeping solitude that accompanies high-rise living.   Maybe it has everything to do with the anonymity of the interactive setting which a phone conversation among total strangers provides.

This is exactly the kind of opportunity that the Internet itself opens up – that complete strangers who do not, need not, and probably will never, come face to face can interact with one another — in full sustained anonymity, if they so wish.  This context is an entirely novel one, for here, all the reservations that may usually obstruct communication in conventional settings are suddenly suspended.  Here there is no face to protect, no honor or reputation to uphold, no hierarchies or protocol to observe.

The whole setting is potentially liberative of inhibitions and constraints, and may well permit the possibility of what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls a “communication free from distortion”.   Were such a community accessible to everyone, and not dependent on one’s capacity to pay toll charges, a chat group of interactants made equal by their anonymity, would not be a bad idea at all.  It may seem foolish to invoke the lofty dreams of Habermas in relation to the sexy “phone chats” being advertised today.  But the initial misuse of an idea does not cancel its validity.

In an earlier time, we thought of the telephone, like the radio, primarily as a device for integrating a nation.  Today, it may serve as an instrument for re-inventing the human community and emancipating it from the distortions of class, race, gender, religion and nation.


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