Switchboard operator Beryl to the mute generation: secrets aren’t safe



I suspect if they’d lived long enough, they’d have maintained a stout distrust of WhatsApp, too, and all those other applications promising the ultimate privacy of end-to-end encryption, whatever that might mean. And they’d barely express surprise about the Great Optus Hack of 2022.

Give over all your secrets to a telephone operator which, when it boils down, is what Optus and the other telephony and data companies actually are? Lodge with a giant telephone exchange your passport, your driver’s licence, your Medicare number, your banking details and everything else you might hold dear? Oh, my … what did you expect?

Right now, a lot of us are hastily re-evaluating our relationship with the telephone exchanges to which we subscribe, and to their agents nestling in our pockets, those marvellously smart mobile devices that we are forever whipping out to use as cameras, to tap out a text or an email or a social post, to guide us through city streets or country lanes, or to transfer money or pay for an ice-cream. Sometimes, we even use them to make a call, or answer one.

Here’s a paradox. Those generations that have never heard of a Beryl, nor received a warning about speaking frankly into a telephone, have taken the whole idea of avoiding phone conversation to new levels.

They don’t pick up. They wander around with their phones switched to silent. They have been telling researchers since about 2017 they get annoyed at the idea of answering a call. A survey this year found 81 per cent of 1200 users in the United States declared they suffered anxiety at the very idea of making a voice call themselves.

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Psychologists have reported that, increasingly, younger users consider a call made to them out of the blue, without the caller first texting or emailing, to be rude and disruptive.

With everyone carrying their devices wherever they go, the idea of actually speaking on one in a public place has come to be considered a breach of etiquette.

There is a term fashioned over the past five years or so to describe the age groups harnessed to this phenomenon: “Generation Mute”.

It refers to those otherwise known as Millennials – born between 1981 and 1996, and thus aged from 26 to 41 — and the younger, so-called “Generation Z”, born between 1997 and 2015.

They are, in short, those who have grown up with the increasing ability to communicate through texting, emailing or using various social media messaging systems. Their world is the screen, rather than the microphone.

Their older sisters and brothers (and many Millennials born in the 1980s, before mobile phones and screens) might have hogged the landline phone at home for hours at a time, or lined up to use public telephone booths at holiday resorts.

But few homes even have a landline these days, and remaining public phone booths are empty, even though they offer free calls.

As a classic Boomer, I still like a natter, tend to be old-school about phoning mates and colleagues, and get a bit annoyed when no one picks up.

Still, it’s not too difficult to understand the tidal movement against yacking. Life is busy and a phone conversation takes a lot more time and energy than a swift, to-the-point text.

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Vast numbers of exhausted, multi-tasked commuters value isolation in crowded places, plugged into headphones that deliver music and chosen stories, tapping through social media. Interrupt at your peril.

The Optus hack, however, has the potential to turn the cult of the voiceless telephone on its head.

There may be nothing much to be overheard by an operator, of course. But is all that data and personal information stored silently by the telephone exchange – everything, really – required to make your modern life actually worthwhile?

We thought it would be safe, or we didn’t think about it at all. But it’s not, it turns out. Beryl, who knew about hacking and retailing secrets, could have told us long ago.



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