December 9, 2013

Back to basics

End of radio silence.

After a hiatus of nearly two years, I thought it was high time some more posts were written.  I wish I could have contributed something much earlier but I had nothing worthy enough to see the light of day. 

My initial interest was in the social aspect of telephone use, especially in its early years, and how people modified their social practices and indeed developed new customs when dealing with this new technology.  These practices of the early 1900s are thrown into sharp relief when contrasted with our telephone behaviour today, specifically when using mobile phones.  The fact that iPhones can actually be used to place phone calls seems to be incidental and they perform so many other tasks that "phone" is something of a misnomer.  (The "tele-" prefix also seems to have been ditched somewhere along the way.)

Nowadays you'll probably only find a "traditional" telephone (i.e. with cables attached and a dial) in your grandmother's house, or in a museum.  Most teenagers would be clueless if they had to use one of these relics, simple though they are.  So I was surprised to see these things for sale at my local discount supermarket the other week ...
... a telephone handset (other colours available) that you plug into your mobile phone, to use when making/receiving phone calls.  Innovative, no?  I can't see it catching on, not when everyone uses headphones, which are easier to carry around.  Just what were the chaps in the marketing department thinking of when they came up with this idea?  Isn't the whole idea behind mobile telephony its, well, its mobility?  Those early primitive mobiles reminiscent of house bricks (with the aerials sticking out) have migrated to the modern history museum (already!) and here we are reproducing obsolete technology to join forces with state-of-the-art, 500 smart phones.

Could this be a retro trend in technology, a nostalgic move?  If so, then we might see the comeback of the telegram (sent by wire, not e-mail) and the return of the manual typewriter (the Kremlin sees the security benefits).

If you want a last-minute Christmas gift for the boss, or the mother-in-law, order your handset here - only €6.99!

February 26, 2012

Connected to the electricity network

There used to be a time when having mains electricity was a selling point for a house.

These advertisements appeared in The Times of 18 September 1935.  As you can imagine, many of the advertised properties for sale are rather large with rambling gardens and situated in the Home Counties.  Each would need a whole battalion of servants to keep them in good working order - you could pick and choose a domestic servant from the small ads that covered pages 2 and 3 of the same newspaper.  Running hot water would make life a lot easier for housekeepers and maids.  The lady of the house wouldn't need anyone to boil up water for her morning bath anymore; she could just turn on the tap and out it would come.

I find it quaint that, even in 1935, people felt they had to mention the existence of an electricity connection.  I wonder when they stopped mentioning it.  It would also be interesting to learn when electricity in working-class houses finally became so common that people didn't need to mention it any more. 

February 21, 2012

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

As a theorist, Mumford is no better or worse than any other commentator on technology, past or present.  I don't know whether it's good or bad that he had so many job titles: sociologist, historian, philosopher, student of architect, literary critic.  It's good that he had access to so many varied fields of study - Mr Inter-disciplinary personified.  Knowledge from one domain can enrich and provide a new perspective in another.  But it's bad in the sense that it seems he flitted from one area to another, with a finger in every pie.  Couldn't he stick at one subject and become an expert in that?

Mumford's writing can provide some useful background to my research in the sense that he lived through the period under investigation.  Whereas his ideas are certainly not representative, they do give a taste of contemporary notions on technology.  He expresses some novel (to us) thoughts on communication in his Technics and Civilization (1934).  Telecommunications meant that an individual acquired more and more contacts, which also made increasing demands on that person's time and attention.  Nothing new here.  But these demands, Mumford asserts, result in a weakening of "reflective thought and deliberate action."  More time chatting on the phone means less time available for reading, writing and drawing.  Isn't this true though of all/most forms of communications technology?  Television, laptops, iPhones, internet all divert our attention away from reading/writing/drawing.  I'm not sure how widespread television was in 1930s America, but certainly the telephone and radio were then the only devices capable of distracting middle-class Americans.

Mumford believed the telephone was overused and that people made calls for "personal intercourse" too frequently.  Instead, he recommended that lots of short calls could be easily condensed into a short written note.  A hand-written note requires less time and effort (!) and consumes less "nervous energy."  I'm not sure if Mumford is a bit behind his times with this concern about nervous energy.  With the appearance of each technical innovation, doomsayers foresaw catastrophe for the human race.  Racing along in the first steam train (or bicycle, or motor car) was bad for the heart and nervous system.  Telephone operators suffered from nervous exhaustion and hysteria because they had to answer so many calls per hour and had subscribers yelling in their ears.  The ringing of the telephone bell during dinner was bad for the digestion and delayed the postprandial brandy.  And so on and so forth.  The appearance of a new technology will always have its fanatic supporters and detractors.  But I would have thought that such ideas about telephone communication would be long extinct by the 1930s.  

Mumford also complains of an overuse of inventions, even when there is no real need for them.  (If they are there, then why not use them?)  He gives the example of the phonograph.  People stopped learning to play the violin, he claims, and listened to the phonograph instead.  I don't know on what he bases this assertion, nor how he can equate the two activities.  He implies that a live music performance is better than the "passive" activity of listening to records.  In this respect he does have a point.  But how many of us are able to perform Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, say, or get Guns n' Roses to perform November Rain live in our living rooms when the mood takes us?  This is the era of mass production.  Ready-made products are being manufactured in greater number and the hard sell is in full force.  Families are buying factory-produced jam - it's easier and quicker than making your own.  The same holds true for making music.

In 1959 Mumford wrote an appraisal of Technics and Civilization, in which he resorts to a gendered image of various technologies.  Technics with dynamic tools and machines, and "artificial extensions" (read: protuberances) of limbs, hands, teeth are masculine.  On the other hand, containers of various kinds (read: receptacles for aforementioned protuberances) e.g. cisterns, irrigation canals, barns, reservoirs, are passive and feminine.  They store potential energy and further "chemical, biological, and social reactions."  I'm sure that with Mumford's background in literary criticism, he was well aware of the impact this binary opposition would impart.

Can it be that Mumford was alone in adhering to this gendered vision of technology?  Maybe not, and if I can find others who voice similar attitudes then perhaps I can make the sweeping statement that 'people in the interwar years believed in 'male' and 'female' technologies.'  But in locating these others, I fear I am being guilty of having a theory and looking for evidence to support it. 

October 17, 2011

Ancient antiquities of good vintage

I have been following E-Bay auctions of late, particularly for manual typewriters (the last manufacturer recently closed for good) and telephones (with dials and cables attached, not the mobile variety).  There are some real bargains to be had, if you're a bit knowledgeable about each item's history and rarity. 

Some sellers try to appear naive: "I cleared out my grandmother's attic and found this old typewriter lying around.  No idea what it's worth but starting price is 100 Euros." Others attach adjectives like "antique" or "vintage" to telephones that are only 20-30 years old in the hope of attracting the high rollers.

It is precisely this arbitrary use of descriptions of age that bothers me.  I can understand a seller wanting to present his wares in the best possible light but when the (nearly new) article is accompanied by a photograph, then a description like "uralt" immediately comes across as incongruous and disingenuous.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of what exactly we mean by terms like "antique" or "historic".  Or maybe it's a matter of perspective: There are common, household articles that used to be part of my daily life and are merely 'old' or 'outmoded.'  For a sixteen-year old, however, such articles could well be genuine antiques.

August 24, 2011

Life without a telephone

A recent house move left me without a landline connection for a whole week - and all this despite meticulous advance planning.  

The problem apparently was located in a local exchange but the company (not) providing me with a telephone connection kept assuring me that their computers showed my telephone was connected and working.  They never took me seriously when I tried to convince them that their computers were wrong and I was right.  The fact that these numerous "service" calls were conducted via my mobile phone failed to make any impression on them.  If they took the simple expedient step of ringing my landline number, they would soon find out that the line was as dead as a dodo and their computers in need of a serious overhaul.  Luckily they saw the error of their ways by the end of the week and my telephone now works perfectly.

A few days after full service was restored, I received a phone call from a very nice lady in customer relations: she was ringing to check that my telephone was working properly - she rang on my landline phone.  If only they had done this on day one, in the fashion of the early telephone operators who used to make daily telephone calls to subscribers to check if the lines were working.

I'm not a fanatic telephone user - neither mobile nor landline - but I must confess to feeling isolated and cut off from the rest of society during my telephone-less week.  Not just cut off in the sense that I was unreachable by phone for a week but in the sense that, without a telephone connection in the society that I live in, you're not considered fully part of that society.  Many public bodies and services ask for your landline number first; a mobile number is useful but a landline presupposes a fixed address with a householder who is registered in all the correct places.  So with a landline connection, you feel more 'permanent' and an established member of the community.  When people ring your number, they know precisely in which building you are located.  I had to rely on mobile telephony but never felt really safe with it - units might run out during a long phone call, the battery could go flat, I could lose the charger, or quite simply forget to take the phone with me when leaving the house.

What made our grandparents feel permanent and 'connected' to their communities before the telephone became commonplace?  Or did they not need to feel connected?  As an experiment, going cold turkey with telephone use could tell us all a lot about how we view our own personal use and need of the telephone (in a similar fashion to going a whole week or month without television or Internet).  But we can never experience pre-telephony life in this way - what has been learned cannot be unlearned.

June 19, 2011

Manhattan, 1975

A fire breaks out in a New York telephone exchange and is allowed to consume cables and equipment for fifteen hours.  (Incidentally, when were fire sprinklers invented?)  You can well imagine the damage caused by a day-long fire: 90,000 customers in the Manhattan area had to make do without a telephone connection for more than three weeks.

This incident has gone down in telecommunications history as an epic example of what happens to people when they are deprived of their landline telephones.  A study was conducted by Wurtzel and Turner[1] which analysed how subscribers reacted to suddenly being without a telephone.  I know of no other similar incident on such a grand scale as this 1975 event and that’s probably why the impact of the fire, and the results of this survey are still cited today ad nauseum

How often do we get the opportunity to question a large group of people who are deprived of their means of communication with the outside world?  If such a fire occurred today, I don’t think any subscribers would even notice: they are so attached to their mobiles and e-mails that the loss of a landline is neither here nor there.  So an event such as this one in Manhattan was unique. 

The authors introduce their analysis with an acknowledgement that the academic community couldn’t care less about the telephone’s history.  They then proceed to discuss a few academics’ basic assumptions and self-evident truths, on which they base various concepts.  Examples will follow below but first, I wonder whether this lack of interest in any way connects to what I can only term a slipshod method of obtaining results?  Writers often make sweeping statements about telephone use, or its perception by its users, and then use this assumption to construct a conclusion.  The classic example for me will always be: ‘The telephone saved the sanity of farmers’ wives.’  No one has yet produced a farmer’s wife that has uttered these words herself.  Once this idea enters the debate then everyone uses it as a given and builds further on it.

Now to the examples of assumptions I mentioned above. 
  1. The function of an urban, domestic telephone is to reduce loneliness, increase feelings of security, and maintain contact with family/friends.
  2. The telephone “facilitates dispersion” of family members: “I’ll take that job 3,000 miles away – I can always ring the folks at home once a week.”
  3. The telephone breaks down our urban lifespaces into “psychological networks”

What problems do I have with these assumptions?
  1. Granted, these are some of the functions an urban, domestic telephone can perform, but not the only ones.  And certainly these functions vary according to the gender, class, race, etc. of the user.  Why - and if so, how - should the function of a telephone differ in an urban setting to that of a rural telephone? 
  2. I’ve said this somewhere else (can’t remember where).  People are more mobile today than previous generations.  They change cities/countries/continents for a variety of reasons: to find work, begin studies, follow a sweetheart …  These are big changes in a person’s life and he weighs up the pros and cons before committing himself.  I’ve emigrated twice and left friends/family behind but I’ve never said: ‘thank goodness there’s the telephone so that I can ring home now and again.  It doesn’t matter, then, that I’ll live/work too far away to see them.’  This factor comes at the bottom of a person’s list of arguments.
  3. Is the telephone solely responsible for creating these psychological networks?  Certainly today there are numerous other factors that play a role in creating these networks, for example, e-mail, social network sites.
  4. The survey authors formulated the questions to be put to Manhattan subscribers specifically to address the assumptions they had.  If, for instance, we believe the telephone reduces loneliness then we should expect to see subscribers complaining about isolation and uneasiness during their three-week bout of unconnectedness.  I would have liked to see the questions for myself.  From the article, it seems that people were not given the chance to express themselves in their own words, rather they had to agree/disagree with set statements – putting words in their mouths.  This is much like the tricks of pollsters during electioneering who ask questions such as: Which politician do you think would make the best prime minister, Mr A or Mr B?  They never give you the option of answering: both are crap.
  5. Finally, it’s the matter of having assumptions.  I think it’s dangerous to assume anything in the first place.  Collect data, sort, analyse, conclude.

Some other details emerged that made an impression on me, although I don’t know yet whether these are significant details or not.

About 25% of all New York telephones then were ex-directory.  I would be interested to learn if this percentage has changed at all over the decades and if there is any difference by country.  Having an unlisted number, I believe, changes the nature of your telephone network.  You are no longer freely available to every Tom, Dick and Harry who has access to a telephone directory.  Instead, when the telephone rings, you know it can only be someone to whom you have given your number, i.e. someone known to you personally.  Otherwise, it could be a wrong number.  This changes your telephone into something akin to a private, internal network.

Then there’s the question of actual numbers of subscribers surveyed.  Researchers were given the telephone numbers of 600 people they could contact, randomly selected.  Of those 600, 319 were eligible to participate (the others were, for example, business premises).  From the 319, only 190 actually completed the survey – some people refused, some people were never at home when researchers rang.  190 people out of c.1,500,000 Manhattan residents[2] doesn’t seem very many (0.0126% of the Manhattan population to be precise) and if we place the 190 guinea pigs in the context of New York city’s population, then the proportion disappears into infinity.

I believe a similar survey conducted with respondents from a variety of geographical regions – urban, suburban, rural – would yield different results. It would also be good to compare the US with Britain/Europe.  Utopian, I know, but one can dream.

All these people lost their telephone connection due to a company accident.  They were forced to manage without a telephone.  Would they have given different answers if they had never lost their connection, that it to say, just answering questions generally about how they use their telephones?

Residents really didn’t have many options during their three weeks of abstention.  Remember what it was like in 1975?  These people had to resort to the emergency street telephones made available to them or use the telephone at work.  Ten per cent of respondents actually sat down and wrote letters.  In essence, unless they had access to a telephone elsewhere, there was no other substitute for immediate interaction

The authors believe that if additional research is conducted what will emerge from respondents is a sense of frustration at not being able to make calls.  Reading between the lines, I interpret this to mean: I want the service to be always available, whether I need it or not.

In conclusion – I’m not disputing the validity of these findings, rather the absolute nature of the authors’ assertions – ‘the telephone reduces loneliness,’ ‘it disperses families.’  It may be a fault in how the writers word their theories but to me it comes across as absolute, categorical and allowing of no other alternatives.

[1] Alan H. Wurtzel, and Colin Turner, “What Missing the Telephone Means,” Journal of Communication 27 (2) June 1977: 48-57.
[2] According to Wikipedia.

June 11, 2011

The communication practices of the Victorians ... spiced up with a scandalous divorce

I have trawled through a handful of etiquette manuals, looking for advice to readers on telephone use.  All in vain.  The British publications pointedly avoid any mention of the new invention, even those published in later years after 1910.  The contents of these manuals are oh so predictable – visiting, invitations to balls/dinners/teas, weddings, funerals.  It seems these were the core events in one’s social calendar and members of the monied classes had to be able to negotiate their way through this minefield.  These were fixed, long established rituals which people observed in order to maintain the traditions of their class.  (Whether these were ‘invented traditions’ à la Hobsbawm is a subject for another thesis.) 

Why should lords and ladies incorporate the upstart telephone into their routines and upset tradition?  The people who read conduct manuals were probably the ones in a position to own a telephone, but that doesn’t mean they would use the instrument to conduct their social affairs.  It might be useful for ringing up one’s business premises or for ordering coal, but such an instrument, ‘tainted’ as it were by business matters, was inappropriate for inviting guests to dinner.  I think remnants of this attitude are still visible today.  There are some aspects of social business that you just don’t conduct over the telephone: wedding invitations, for example, or ‘Dear John’ letters.  I’ve never heard of a ‘Dear John’ telephone call or of someone being notified of a forthcoming wedding by telephone.  Well, they might, but they always send a fancy card by post later.

Lady Colin’s manual is no different to all the others of the era.  It makes no mention whatsoever of the telephone.  It is as if it didn’t exist.  She readily acknowledges, however, that modern life is hectic and that there is little time to devote to letter writing.  How much time she would save if she used the telephone. 

Regarding domestic use, telephone companies said it was alright to ring up traders to order supplies for the household.  Not so Lady Colin.  She advises writing a short letter, and even provides an example: “Mrs. Maitland will be obliged by Mr. Scott sending her 6lb. of tea.”  Admittedly, this method is not as speedy as a phone call, but if you can send a boy round to the shop with the note, you would still get same-day service.  And you would avoid the unpleasant necessity of having to actually converse with tradespeople.  Good houses had separate tradesmen entrances for deliveries, out of sight at the back of the building.  So we don’t want to invite tradesmen directly into our parlours via the telephone.

The writer makes further mention of post cards.  Towards the end of the century sending postcards became a popular form of communication among ordinary people.  Postage for a card was cheaper than a letter and with multiple deliveries in many large towns, it was possible sometimes to send a card and receive a reply on the same day.  You could say that post cards were to Victorians what Twitter is to us today.  Space was limited (you couldn’t add an extra sheet, as with letters) so messages had to be concise.  Lady Colin, however, advises against them for personal matters: post cards are only to be used for business transactions. 

Privacy was a major concern for these people.  Post cards entering and leaving a house would be seen by servants and the information written on them freely visible to all and sundry.  Even more paranoid, to my mind, is Lady C advising letter writers not to write their return address on the backs of envelopes.  Why?  Because servants at the receiving end would know who was writing to their employers.  Compare this with today’s business correspondence: every bill or official letter I receive is blazoned with the sender’s full details. 

I written a lot about communication and correspondence but very little about the telephone.  That’s okay because we are gradually building a picture of how people at the turn of the century communicated with each other and what attitudes they held towards each method.  Given what we now know about, say, letter writing or postal services, it’s easy to envisage how difficult it was for promoters of the telephone to convince the public of its utility. 

I suspect that the telephone eventually caught on, not so much because people realized it was a good communications device, but rather because the other means of communication deteriorated. 

A final comment about the author – Lady Colin was a victim of the hypocrisy and double standards of the day.  Wikipedia has all the sordid details and there’s also information here written by Lady Colin’s biographer.
Her divorce proceedings caused great agitation in high society and the same society ostracized her for her transgression.  Instead of quietly retiring into obscurity, Lady C took to writing and journalism and mixed in literary and artistic circles.  How fitting then that she should edit a book dictating good manners to the people who vilified her.  

Lady Colin Campbell.  Etiquette of Good Society.  London: Cassell and Company, 1893.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.