‘Who in their right mind still answers the doorbell?’
Jennifer O’Connell: Once, it caused the whole house to leap into action in wordless unison
You can’t ring my bell: ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?’
Of course she doesn’t answer the doorbell, my slightly-younger friend explained, appalled, as though I’d just suggested she skydive naked from the Spire, eat something containing actual gluten, or pick up an actual landline and telephone someone.
What kind of person just turns up at your door without texting first to say they’re outside, she demanded.
Er, me? I’ve gotten used to this: the times when you look away for a moment and a generational gap that was barely noticeable mere seconds before has become a yawning chasm, like when someone asks you to “venmo” them your half of the bill or says they have “JOMO” and you have to ask for a translation. (“Peer-to-peer payments app” and “Joy Of Missing Out”.)
After this conversation, I did what I always do when I learn something new and troubling: I asked Twitter. “Who in their right mind would just answer the doorbell?”
“If they don’t text to say they are outside – they stay outside,” came the first reply.
“Ohhhh I hate my doorbell ringing! Text me first goddammit,” another tweeted.
A generation ago, a ringing doorbell was not quite a cause for celebration, but it at least triggered one of those rare, beautiful moments when everyone in the house leaped into action, in perfect, wordless unison. Someone raced to throw the dirty plates into the sink; someone else hid the wine bottle or the stray socks, while someone else would walk calmly, deliberately to the door. A generation before that, there were entire rooms in houses – good rooms – whose sole purpose was to await the ringing of the doorbell and the unexpected arrival of company. There were good biscuits. Good teapots. There was sherry – a drink invented solely and exclusively for offering to company.
Just as houses are now being built without fireplaces, some modern doors have no doorbells at all
These days, when the doorbell rings, families sit stock still, eyeballing one another in mute dread, and the sure and certain knowledge that no good can possibly come from the unexpected peal of a doorbell in a silent house.
Don’t worry, there are fixes coming.
Apparently, just as houses are now being built without fireplaces, some modern doors have no doorbells at all. The people who buy these houses see the lack of a doorbell as an attractive feature, like the bit of wall over the fireplace with the TV wires already hanging out of them.
Soon, houses may be designed without any front door at all, just a drive-in garage. Or doors will come fitted with a smart doorbell from Nest, Ring or Amazon, discreet devices that allow you to spy on whoever had the temerity to ring your bell, while you relax on a pool lounger several thousand miles away – or, let’s be realistic, crouch silently on the other side of the door while a recorded voice says “I’m happy with my current electricity provider, thanks!”.
I see the security advantages, but honestly, if I want to Skype someone, I’m not going to stand at their front door to do it. The relegation of the old-fashioned doorbell to an item on an amusing listicle of nostalgic stuff you remember from your childhood, somewhere between hostess trolleys and E numbers, makes me sad. It is further evidence of the strange society we’ve become, retreating further into our own physical fortresses, while simultaneously maintaining a carefully choreographed online persona.
One of the most read essays this year on the Atlantic website, entitled Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M Twenge, describes how today’s teenagers are physically safer than ever. They don’t drink as much as their parents did, they don’t smoke, they don’t have sex (not actual, physical sex anyway) with unsuitable people, and are markedly less likely to get into a car accident. But they are psychologically much more vulnerable than previous generations, more at risk of depression and suicide, because they’re spending so much time alone with their phones. It turns out that there’s not all that much joy in JOMO.
The demise of the doorbell is more recent, but it’s part of the same behavioural shift: our desire to limit the opportunity for spontaneous face-to-face interactions in the real world.
Without doorbells, the peculiarly Irish art of calling on people will gradually become extinct. I only discovered this was a peculiarly Irish art when I once asked an American friend to call for me on her way somewhere. “I don’t know what that means,” she texted back. “Do you want me to call you on the phone? Do you want me to visit with you?” “Ring my doorbell,” I replied. She decided it sounded delightfully 1950s and adopted it as a catchphrase. “Should I call for you?” she’d ask.
Granted, these days, 95 per cent of the rings on my doorbell occur on Hallowe’en. Of the remaining 5 per cent, four are divided up among my lovely postwoman, men in polyester suits trying to sell me a broadband package, lads offering to clean the gutters, or children selling raffle tickets. Still, for the final 1 per cent, I’m sure there’s a packet of biscuits and a bottle of sherry here somewhere.