Voice wants to be free

There’s always been a tension between the power of channels that convey information and the cost associated with them. But what if technology allows that tension to disappear?


I can’t remember who the carrier was, but there was a commercial on TV when I was young that showed a family playing hot-potato with their telephone, passing it around after saying only a few brief words to some presumably far-away relative. This was to illustrate how expensive long-distance had been at the time, but how new technologies were bringing the cost down. That mindset probably doesn’t exist anymore.

Then there were the companies — and I worked in one of them — that tracked each and every employee phone call, and if it looked at all personal, they were confronted with the long-distance charges and expect to either justify them or pay for them. In an increasingly mobile world with smartphones replacing a lot of desk phones, I suspect this practice has died out too. No one fears the cost of telephony on a call-by-call basis, but most firms would probably like to move beyond managing it as a major item in their IT budget. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, voice wants to be free.

Brand is a 74-year-old writer and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, who in 1960 spoke at a hacker’s conference where he told Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing. He is credited with coining the phrase “information wants to be free,” a counter-cultural slogan that has been used by all kinds of activists to argue against things like digital rights management, paid online content and censorship.

When I saw “voice wants to be free,” however, I’m suggesting it’s important to look at the entirety of what Brand said that day, which is as follows:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Voice used to be expensive too, because, like all channels that carry information, it has always been considered valuable. And as with all information, it can change the life of a person or an organization, whether it is a customer who says “yes,” a CEO who says “no” or feedback from a team member that makes or breaks a critical project.

Like many other means of conveying information, the cost of voice is getting lower in large part due to advanced technologies like SIP trunking, where customers can enjoy free long-distance calling across Canada. On the other hand, voice communication is becoming even more valuable as knowledge workers need to connect and collaborate with each other at any time, anywhere and on any device.

Unlike other channels of information in the online and offline world, that tension Brand talks about may slowly be disappearing if we’re talking about voice, at least in the business sector where SIP trunking is making it far more manageable and affordable. That reality may end up being one of the most countercultural notions of all.

Learn more by downloading SIP Trunking eBook: Expanded 2013 Edition, from Allstream. 

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