Some time around 1930, JRR Tolkien started off the whole Lord of the Rings series by telling his children bed time stories about a little character he called “The Hobbit.” He’d been dreaming up the world of the Hobbit since he was a child himself. In doing so, Tolkien pretty much invented the whole “Fantasy Adventure with Elves and Dwarves” genre single handedly.
He also proposed what is perhaps the most glamorous conference call technology of all time, the Palantíri, or seeing Stones of Númenor. These were a set of 7 crystal balls that could be used for videoconferencing from Eressëa all the way across Middle Earth.
In these latter days, the stones are lost, the Elves have sailed into the West, and the “little folk” are only a bustle in the hedgerow. Today we can pick our smartphones out of our “pocketses” and videoconference with three people spread across three continents for free.
But if you had the choice, which one is better: a conference call, or a Seeing Stone of Númenor?
The Palantíri definitely win on cool factor. They were indestructible. They were made in the Undying Lands by Fëanor himself, as a warmup to the Silmarils, before Númenor sank beneath the waves.
And there were only seven of them.
This of course, is their weak point. To get yourself a Seeing Stone of Númenor, you have to belong to a line of half-elven kings, or you at least have to have the Keys to Orthanc or some such place. In contrast, all anyone needs to set up a Video Conference is a smartphone, and everybody has one of those. Point to teleconferencing.
Comparing sound and picture quality
Of course, sound quality is very important in communication, and inferior technology like Skype or VOIP conference calls can result in creepy background chatter that sounds like the disembodied spirits of Orcs, Balrogs and sometimes even Nazgûl. Who needs that distraction?
Although I don’t own a Palantír myself, by all accounts modern conference calls using cellphones have quite comparable picture and audio quality to Fëanor’s glass globes. Both can show widescreen or closeups, and multiple screens at once. Both have crystal clear audio quality. While the Palantíri project their audio feed right into your brain directly, this can sometimes be too much of a good thing, as Pippin found out in his chat with Sauron in “The Two Towers.”
One way modern conference calls are better than Palantíri is that they come with Moderator Controls to eliminate Skype echoes, and make sure the volume levels for everybody are correct. And as long as you are careful not to send Invitations and Reminders to any demonic Dark Lords, they won’t be able to crash your conference call.
Any discussion of whether the Seeing Stones of Númenor were better than conference calls has to examine Features too. In skilled hands, the Palantíri could see back and forth in time, as well as space. That is pretty nifty. While conference calls don’t take any time to set up, and although you can book conference calls ahead with Call Scheduling, you can’t call Tolkien himself back in 1940 and ask him why he added Accënts on almost every single Nâme in his Bōōks.
Point to the Palantíri.
And like conference calls, Palantír also came with built in Toll Free Numbers and could be set up to make Recurring Calls. Pippin found this out when he picked up the Saruman’s Seeing Stone outside Orthanc, which speed-dialed Sauron. That sure taught him to meddle in the affairs of wizards!
But sadly, the operating system on Fëanor’s Palantíri predated the invention of the World Wide Web, so conference calls are better than Seeing Stones in some ways because they can engage in Web Conferencing and Screen Sharing. Conference call technology just gets better every year.
Convenient conference calls
Think of all the trouble the Fellowship of the Ring could have saved if they had the democratic, easily accessible conference call technology! Boromir wouldn’t have had to trek north to Rivendell from Minas Tirith for six months just to attend the Council of Elrond. But maybe it’s lucky Tolkien didn’t really invent the conference call as we know it, because the movie and the books were much more fun without them.
Keeping in touch with teleconferencing
So, based on a feature-by-feature comparison, let’s summarize. If you happen to be a direct descendant of Isildur, Elendil’s son, the Palantíri are pretty good options for keeping in touch with your beloved Arwen Evenstar, your immortal mother-in-law Galadriel (now residing in Elvenhome with Gandalf and Elrond), and the ring bearing (but deceased) nine kings of men and seven dwarves. And just maybe you can reach back into the dawn of time and see the mighty hand of Fëanor Curufinwë at work.
But if you are a typical hobbit, and don’t wish to meddle in the affairs of wizards (which is always a good idea), when you are looking for the one ringtone to find all your friends, bring them all together, and, “in the connection bind them,” choose the cheap and cheerful one on your smartphone.
For most modern day hobbits, conference calls are better than Seeing Stones.
Put your furry feet up on a barrel of “Old Winyards”, and use teleconferencing to collect up your colleagues, or family, so you can get down to a lively discussion of the important things in life, like how this year’s harvest of “Old Toby” is coming along, or that truly primary subject to any respectable hobbit:
“What’s for dinner?”