November 30, 2010

The Social Shaping of Technology

MacKenzie, Wajcman 
The Social Shaping of Technology (1985)

Social scientists look at technology's effect or impact [my pet-hate word!] on society. 
Prior to this, we have to ask: What is shaping technology for it to have these effects?
What causes the changes in technology?
[i.e. a change in perspective from technological determinism to social determinism]

Questions the authors examine:
Which social factors shape technological change?
Does the type of our society affect the type of technology we produce?

If you accept technological change as an independent given,  then you see our social responses to that technology as passive; but,
If you concentrate on the effects of society on technology, then technology is no longer independent/autonomous.

From a SST perspective, technology is just another facet of our social life, just like our political or economic system.

Warning - just because technology can be shaped socially, it does not mean that it is easy to change technology

Technological Determinism
Technology is autonomous, independent, outside of society;
Changes in technology cause changes in society
It is problematic to ascribe agency to inanimate objects or systems - how can they cause society to be this or that?
Some technologies are resisted or rejected - which technologies are eventually adopted depends on the characteristics of the society.  Technology then is not so autonomous after all.

Contradiction to technological determinism - the same technology can have different effects in different societies.  When explaining social change, we must look to other factors in addition to technology.

Technologies as cultural practice and production (Pursell)

Technology is performative.
Three aspects of cultural history that can be applied when studying history of technology:
  1. Main task of cultural history is the deciphering of meaning, rather than discovering causal laws.
  2. The use of language as metaphor should be taken seriously.  Take note of how words are used, e.g. the changing use and meaning of the word 'technology.'
  3. Terms like race, class, gender, etc. are not fixed and immutable categories.  They are things that "happen in human relationships." [E.P.Thompson]
C.W. Pursell

November 26, 2010

Technology - consumption - culture

Telephone (as one example of a communications technology) is an artefact.
Artefacts can be used to construct our identity.

Telephone is ambivalent, double-sided since it
  1. isolates us [we communicate without needing to be physically present]
  2. connects us [we communicate with others where it would be impossible for us to be physically present]
Technology is no longer associated with the idea of human progress (first promoted during the Enlightenment).  Technology has not been the panacea we imagined it to be (Hiroshima, Chernobyl, global warming, pollution, etc.)

The effects that a tech has are not built into it; the effects of a tech are determined by how it is consumed and consumption needs a context.
The home as a context for consumption of tech
* The home has gone from being a unit of production to a unit of consumption (unless you are a woman, in which case it is both).
* More leisure time is spent at home.
* Home has become self-sufficient, self-contained - a process of privatization has occurred
* More emphasis on consumption, less on public sphere/community
* Again, the ambivalence of techs that bring us closer together but also isolate us from each other.
Definition of "technology"
Techs are made up of three components:
  1. Physical artefact
  2. Surrounding human activity - necessary, otherwise artefact on its own is useless
  3. Human knowledge (know-how) - applied to the design, maintenance, etc.
In other words, tech is a social phenomenon.
Technology can be:
  1. a physical artefact; or
  2. a technique, a way of doing something (with or without artefacts)
Technological Determinism
The prevailing technology determines our culture, e.g. steam to power factories during steam age determines dominant form of social organisation (cotton mills, urban slums, etc.)
This theory believes that tech develops outside of society with a life of its own, and then have an impact on society [as if society were a passive recipient].
Although tech. determinism as a theory has its flaws and is now overlooked by academics, it still has a persistent hold over us.  We still talk as if we were powerless beings at the mercy of our machines, e.g. how the Internet is affecting our children, how mobile phones change the way we communicate, etc.  Note how the technology has become the subject of the sentence and we are the objects upon which the verb is acted out.
Question - why do we insist on talking about technologies that do things to us, or affect us in a certain way?   Why do we not talk about the things we do with technologies or how we use them?  Why do we put ourselves in the position of passive receptor or 'victim' of technology?  Is it because we want to absolve ourselves of all responsibility for when things go wrong, or when negative side-effects appear?  If there is a problem with a company delivery, then we are told the computer is down or such like.  You never hear the excuse 'sorry, the computer programmer didn't foresee this problem and thus programmed the computer incompetently.'

Social Shaping of Technology
This theory concentrates on
  • Actors (engineers, managers, scientists, consumers); and
  • Networks in which the actors operate
Techs embody the culture that produced them.  Culture shapes technology.
BUT techs do have their limitations - they limit what is possible; design of a tech is limited by the nature of the materials used.

Technology as text
Like any other text, technology can be
  • encoded - physically (in its design) and symbolically (styling, marketing)
  • decoded - read by customers
Note that production and consumption of technologies must be considered together and symmetrically.
Preferred readings are encoded in technologies during their design (adverts, news stories, etc.)  A 'reader' is directed towards this particular reading but there are of course alternative readings.  Decoding is also shaped by the reader's own cultural framework and the reading thus generated may be at odds with the preferred reading envisioned by the technology's creators.  There is some degree of resistance and transformation on the part of the reader but we should not read too much into the power of this resistance (apologies for the pun!)
Aberrant or oppositional decodings
There are occasions for alternative uses for technologies, uses unimagined or unplanned by its producers (e.g. fax machine used by students to contact outsiders during Tiannamen Square incident).
New techs are cumulative
New techs have to fit into the context of existing techs.
The telephone
First uses of the telephone - broadcasting of: church services; concerts; political rallies, sporting events; news.  Telephone was thought appropriate only for businesses and household management.  Telephone companies took a long time to realise that encouraging subscribers to gossip would be good for profits. [see also Fischer, Touch Someone, 56]
Meanings of technology change
As a technology becomes more commonplace among the population, its meaning shifts.  This symbolic meaning is also shaped by culture.  Example - mobile phone in the beginning was only for elite businessmen, a marker of success.  Now it's used by everybody (school kids, plumbers, etc.)  It has lost its exclusivity.  To be marked out as an 'elite' mobile owner, you now have to be inaccessible.  

Hugh Mackay, ed. Consumption and Everyday Life.  London: Sage, 1997.

More thoughts on manners

It has become worse over the decades, but with the arrival of the telephone we have the opportunity to 'drop in' unannounced on our hosts.  These new technologies provide us with the capability - not just the telephone, but instant messaging, e-mail, caller ID and many others.  

Imposing upon our hosts without advance warning is considered rude (even today) because you put the host in an uncomfortable position: he may not want to receive you just then, he may have to adjust his plans to accommodate you, and so on.  You are intruding into his private sphere and catch him unawares; you have the upper hand while he is disadvantaged.  You, as the caller, know when the call will be made and what the subject is.  The receiver is completely ignorant of these matters - all he knows is that the phone is ringing and it must be answered.

You would, hopefully, never turn up on someone's doorstep unannounced expecting your host to invite you in, devote his time to you, sit you down to dinner (unless you are on very intimate terms).  Then why do something similar with communications technologies?

Today's polite society advises against taking advantage of the ability to 'drop in' without prior agreement.  Technology gives you the possibility but that doesn't mean you should use it.

The Adventures of Princess Sylvia

A new book came out in 1900 called The Adventures of Princess Sylvia, by Mrs. C. N. Williamson.

The fictional-monarchical vein once more.  Sylvia is wooed at Richmond by Maximilian, Emperor of Rhaetia, and to Rhaetia the story quickly moves.  There are baronesses, and burgomasters, and chamois and chancellors; also telephones.
This review appeared in The Academy, March 1900.  The last line is very Alexander Pope-esque, with its alliterations (baronesses and burgomasters) and tacked on at the end, the new-fangled telephone, in an afterthought of bathos.

I suspect the review is better written than the book itself.  Must try and find an e-book online.

The decay of manners

Conservatives (with a small 'c') of every age despair of the lowering of standards and the disruptions-intrusions that innovations bring to their hitherto cosy little worlds.  1913 was no different to any other era.

"R.F.S." writes in The Academy (21 June 1913) of how manners have decayed, thanks to that "most domestic of the great inventions."  Looking first at business use and then domestic use, the author would seem to concede that the telephone has indeed been domesticated, since it was first viewed as a tool for business.  If it was installed in a private residence, it was only because even businessmen sometimes have to go home and rest.

Deterioration of business manners
The author finds it objectionable when he is consulting a lawyer or doctor and he doesn't enjoy that professional's undivided attention, because the lawyer makes or receives telephone calls during the appointment.  The visitor feels as if the professional is
interviewing another, an invisible client
the [client] is troubled by the imaginary presence of a third party, by the obtrusion of a piece of business with which he has no concern.
The phenomenon is a familiar one even today.  You're speaking with someone (friend, consultant, colleague) and his phone (mobile or landline) rings.  He breaks off to answer and you stand around, feeling uncomfortably, not knowing where to look until the call is over, and trying to appear as if you're not listening to the one-sided conversation.  I think this is true when you are a visitor, then you are obliged, in a way, to eavesdrop on the conversation.  At least I personally feel uncomfortable when in these situations and if the call seems to be dragging on, then I go and wait outside till its over.  In a similar vein, how annoying it is when a stranger talks (usually loudly) on his mobile in a public space and we're all forced to listen to his petty private details.  It is a distraction to which we find ourselves drawn.  But I digress.

Deterioration of domestic manners
The author asserts again that those physically present with us take priority over someone else who is merely present 'in spirit' or on paper, hence the custom that people should not read their letters at the dinner table.

New technologies mean that our definition of "present company" must be revised and "R.F.S." does admit that this definition needs to be enlarged to accommodate those who are 'present' via a telephone connection.  Here we can apply Thrift's discussion on "being with" others and his whale example.  In pre-telephone days you could only be with someone who was physically present (though the telegraph was quicker than letter writing, it was still nevertheless like written correspondence in the sense that there could be no immediate interaction with your interlocutor - the two people communicating do not share the same space or time).  In the telephone era, communication was immediate; you don't wait for a response to your comment.  Both parties occupy the same simultaneous time and space (not physical space, of course, but rather the 'space of flows' [Castells] or to be more prosaic, the same piece of copper wire).

So, to conclude, the telephone forced Edwardian society to re-evaluate just what they meant by "present company".  Their rules of polite society dictated that you give your full attention to those standing in front of you.  If you turned to someone who wasn't there in the flesh (represented by a letter or phone call) then that was rude and the other party was an intruder.

The writer censures hosts who worsen established rules by getting up from the dinner table to answer the telephone.  Have you ever tried to ignore a ringing telephone, either at home or work, or even a public phone in the street?  It is very difficult.  (I think the only exception would be if I knew the caller's identity - thanks to caller ID - and it was someone I didn't want to speak to.)

The writer equates letters with phone calls: we read our correspondence at breakfast time so that might be a good time to make a telephone call.  However, morning is not the usual time to make calls or receive callers - we know that 'morning calls' are made between 3.00pm and 6.00pm.  

Social invitations by telephone
When organising a formal event that required lots of forward planning, the host should really send out written invitations.  A telephone call only gradually became acceptable for very informal occasions, organised at short notice, and when inviting close friends.  The writer finds telephone invitations issued at the last minute as "less honourable."  Reading between the lines, it sounds as if a person invited at such short notice is being used as a stop-gap or a last-minute replacement to make up the numbers, someone from the 'reserve list.'  'If you deserve an invitation, you get a fancy card to display on your mantelpiece.'  Otherwise, how can you demonstrate your social credibility as an invited guest if you've only got a telephone invitation, which leaves no evidence.

The writer's solution to retard the decaying process?  Regulate telephone usage: custom should dictate when the time is appropriate to make a telephone call, as was the case with personal visits.  He wouldn't have been very pleased with 21st-century manners: they are not only decaying, they are positively putrid.

R.F.S.  "The Telephone and the Decay of Manners."  Academy and Literature, 2146 (21 June 1913), p786.

November 23, 2010

The telephone and diseases of the ear

Seen in The British Medical Journal, 2 August 1879, p162.

A manageress of a Manchester manufactory was talking on the telephone with their office two miles away, during a storm, when she suffered an electric shock and temporary deafness.  Luckily she made a full recovery.  The woman's doctor wrote to the BMJ and some aspects of his report made an impression on me.

It was common in the early days for businesses to have an exclusive telephone line connecting office and factory (literally a telephone in each location joined by a length of wire in the middle).  They were not connected to a switchboard and we cannot talk of a 'network' in any meaningful sense just yet.  This seems to be the case here.

The clap of thunder that the woman heard "appeared to be conveyed through the wire."  Her ear acted as a lightning conductor!

The woman wasn't talking on the phone, or making a phone call (as we would say today); she was "listening to a message."

After examining his patient, the doctor concludes that "the telephone is almost useless to those who have even a comparatively slight degree of deafness."  You don't say!  Ironic that Bell was working on an invention to help deaf people communicate.

The doctor doesn't want to cause panic and does concede that the new invention is "no doubt destined to become a most useful agent in daily intercourse."

Telegram delivery boy

A old man remembers his childhood days.  

He was born in 1885 and lived in southern England.  His family took over a post office in 1897: his father became sub-postmaster and his two sisters attended to the telegraph instrument.  To help out, the boy would deliver telegrams.  He had to go on foot since the post office provided no official bicycle and they couldn't afford to buy one.  

Such was the nature of the job that he would deliver telegrams at all hours of the day or night.  He remembers a member of the local gentry in the area who was fond of fox hunting.  The next day's hunt was cancelled (too icy and the ground rock hard - not good for the horses) and a telegram was sent to the gentleman to save him the trouble of calling for his hounds to be prepared.  This poor boy had to walk two miles there and two miles back, in the middle of the night, in freezing fog, alone

November 22, 2010

"Being with others"

Thrift gives the example of whales: "'being with' other whales might mean communicating with whales who might be hundreds of miles away."  Compared to human space, whale space is obviously much larger, but when we say "I am with someone" we mean that that person occupies the same space as us, regardless of the vastness of that space.

"Being with person X"  could mean that person is in the same room as me, but it could also mean he is a thousand miles away.  New technologies have allowed this increase in distance.  We have become "beings who can live with distant others as if they were close to."  In these newly enlarged spaces that we share with distant others, we find "new kinds of social relation."

In the early days of telephony, a message by letter or telegram could reach much further than a telephone call, but sending a letter could not constitute 'being with' the recipient: communication between sender and receiver was not simultaneous, instantaneous.  A message by telephone, however, is.

*What kinds of new social relations came into existence with the coming of the telephone?
*How were existing relations altered?
*Were there changes in hierarchy: master/servant; male/female; company/customer?

Nigel Thrift.  "Space."  Theory Culture Society 2006: 23, 139-146.

November 21, 2010

"The love-letters of to-day"

"But the art of letter-writing is dying out, if not already dead.  Railways, motors, telephones, have killed it, and the rush and hurry of modern times."

Every Woman's Encyclopaedia.  Vol. 6.  1910 (p3991)

Sir George Scharf's diary

My curiosity was piqued, reading about Sir George Scharf's light fingers with Richard II's relics.  Luckily his acquisitiveness has benefited historians today.  

And as a methodical man, Sir George kept a diary filled with both the sublime and the mundane.  It always strikes me as peculiar that what we consider trivial about today's activities (what we ate for lunch, that the trains were on strike, how much we paid for a coffee), are considered highly important facts for social historians of the future.  The moral is, therefore, "leave a written record for posterity."  So many important people lived through the first days of the telephone's appearance in society, yet so few recorded their impressions or their opinions on the import of this invention.  Did they not realise its significance?

Sir George noted in his diary for May 1878 that he visited the Royal Society to view experiments being performed with the telephone.  He was "much interested."  Among the sounds reproduced  were "long sentences" in Greek and four voices singing "God Save the Queen."  "Heigh diddle diddle" was also heard performed "slowly & gravely."

Another interesting tidbit - the annual report for 1899 records that the National Gallery installed in that year a telephone connection to the fire station in Old Scotland Yard.  Considering the importance of the building and its contents, they should have had a telephone connection years earlier.  But, better late than never.

Invitation to dance, by Madge

Mrs Humphry (“Madge”) writes in Every Woman's Encyclopaedia in 1910 that it is now acceptable to "summon their friends by telephone a day or two before" when inviting them to a dance (p.371).  Social rules about the amount of written notice you need give in advance are now more relaxed.

Still harping on about calling cards, there is an amusing anecdote in the next pages, again by "Madge", about a colonial couple returning home.  They mistakenly gave out ornate, gilt-edged visiting cards (which were customary in the colonies) to acquaintances, on their return to Britain.  Despite being perfectly decent people, they were dropped like a hot potato by polite society for this faux pas.  British conservativeness on the matter of visiting cards tolerates no taint of originality.

How the telephone messes up nice Victorian rules of etiquette

A telephone call is spontaneous: there is no advance notice of a call coming through.  The most you can do is forewarn the servants (who act as a buffer) and hope they don't forget.  An exception could be when you write to say that you will phone at a particular time.  Thomas Hardy wrote to Lady St Helier in 1917, proposing "to ring you up on the telephone Wednesday morning to ask when we can call."  Imagine the chaos today if we wrote to everyone first, announcing our intention to telephone them at a set time!

The visiting card represents its owner, the visitor.  (Remember, you can't leave a card on behalf of another person who is out of town.)  What represents the 'caller' when he telephones?  In this respect, he is an unannounced visitor who contravenes social rules.  Note also the slippage in meaning of the word 'caller': he is no longer a tangible presence in the house who sits opposite the hostess, but a disembodied voice heard coming from a handset.  Implications for perceptions of the time-space relationship?

The rules for visiting are formal.  Those who adhere to them are seen as upstanding members of polite society.  What does it say about a person who bypasses these rules, engaging in innovations and uses a telephone?

The telephone's initial role was one of a business tool.  Even when found in homes of the well-to-do, it was for the purpose of the householder/factory owner/businessman in communicating with his place of business.  In this context, can we assume that the telephone has no place in polite society when ladies called on each other?  Gentlemen rarely made such social visits, i.e. making morning calls.

A telephone call is (or at least, could be):
* uninvited
* unexpected
* unannounced
From a hostess's viewpoints, these are vulgar traits for a visitor.

Phones in the hallway

Visiting cards had to be deposited in a silver tray to be found on a hall table.  They should never be handed directly to a servant nor to his mistress.

I find it amusing that Every Woman's Encyclopaedia advises its readers to place the telephone in the hall, even though the hall may be small and anyyone in the household can overhear phone conversations.

Visiting cards and telephone calls could be described as "invasions" or incursions into the private life of the family.  They are unsolicited requests from friends/acquaintances to gain access to the inner sanctum of the family.  

The hall could be seen as a half-way house between the public and private spheres of society.  In the geography of the house, the hall is removed from the public gaze and any visitors/phone call that land in this 'prothalamos,' or ante-chamber, await further acceptance or rejection, screened from public view and unable to proceed further in the house's internal space.

For a long time, the phone's place in the family home has been the hall table.  A ringing phone summons someone from the depths of the house.  Phone calls have to be made in the (usually) dimly lit, unheated hall, which is a thoroughfare for everyone else to pass through.  This is a public, shared area: it doesn't 'belong' to any one individual.  There is no privacy or intimacy in using the telephone.

With the coming of cordless phones and extensions, the telephone handset could migrate further and become part of living room or bedroom furniture.

November 20, 2010

Established rules of etiquette

There were certain situations where you just knew that you could expect a visit one day soon.  An acquaintance has come to town and the rules dictate that they must pay you a visit.

If visiting cards are left for you by your visitor, you can decide whether you want to be "at home" or not.  A modern equivalent might be screening all incoming phone calls with 'caller ID' and then deciding whether to answer or not.  Or perhaps refusing to answer the front door, pretending that you're not at home.

Calling hours were specific (3.00pm-6.00pm: perversely called 'morning calls' but only because they take place before dinner).  Visits had to be repaid within a set time limit.

No cards should be sent by post - the height of vulgarity!

Servants must differentiate between:
* a card left after a visitor leaves
* a card left and the caller enquires if the mistress is at home

Purpose of calling cards: to get round the tiresome problem of servants with amnesia.

Semantics: when a card is left with a turned-down corner, this means the visitor will call on the mother and her daughters together.

Duration of visit: never to exceed 15 minutes.

Embarrassment: what do you do if another visitor calls while you are visiting.  Stay, leave, talk, be silent?

Cards are also left at a family's house when an acquaintance dies.

A married lady would also leave her husband's visiting card together with hers - unless he was out of town (if, say, he were a naval officer serving overseas).  Your card is your proxy.  It is the rule that wives do the card-leaving for their husbands.  Married men rarely call in person!

After a visit, the calling card is left on the hall table.  It is never handed direct to a servant or the hostess.

The style and content of the visiting card must be fixed and simple - no ornate curlicues or fonts or elaborate use of titles.

The Girls' Own Paper, 1880.  Vol. I
Manners and rules of good society, or solecisms to be avoided.  London: Frederick Warne, 1916.
Routledge's Manual of Etiquette.
Every Woman's Encyclopaedia.  Vol. VI

Etiquette - good telephone manners

Nineteenth-century British society is governed by a set of rules with a rigid format.  These rules determine (among other things) who may call on whom, and when; how visiting cards are to be used; how to interact with a family that has suffered a bereavement; how to give and receive invitations; and hundreds of other situations.

In the Fin de Siecle period, these rules are gradually relaxed, an atmosphere of informality begins to appear where people do not insist so much on social norms being enforced.

It is in this same period that the telephone makes its appearance in society.  Coincidentally, it is used in those circles where social manners were/are considered important.  (Not that the 'lower classes' didn't have their own social codes; they did, but their codes were untouched by the initial telephone's appearance.  Other technologies shaped their daily lives.)

My question - did the presence of the telephone in these people's houses play any fundamental, primary role in relaxing (or, subverting?) existing rules of etiquette?  Or did other factors come into play (e.g. the various changes in society that can be lumped together under the heading of Modernity)?  In other words, is the telephone the cause or the symptom of the erosion in social manners during this era?

In a domestic situation, the telephone starts off as a tool for 'business' (the business of running a household): ringing to place grocery orders, etc.  Prior to this, of course, it allowed the gentleman of the house to keep in touch with his place of business (his home is an 'extended office').  The telephone then ends up as a tool for conducting social relationships (giving invitations, asking after friends, etc.)

Then, as now, people express concerns about bad manners in phone use or the phone's intrusiveness in the domestic sphere.  See:
* Gary Marx.  "New telecommunications require new manners."   Telecoms Policy 1994 18(7); 538-551.
* Minna T. Antrim, “Outrages of the telephone,” Lippincotts’ Monthly Magazine Vol 84 (July 1909), 125-26.
* Maude A. White, “‘Those Telephonics.’  Have you one in your home?”  Delineator, Vol 96 (May 1920).
Sometimes, the new technology appears and embeds itself in social practice so quickly that it takes a while for the rules of good behaviour to catch up with reality and set out some ground rules for basic use.  A similar phenomenon is observed nowadays with mobile phones, e-mails, etc. (when should mobiles be turned off, do we treat e-mails like paper memos, etc.)

Dematerialization of telecommunication

How does "being connected globally" affect local development?

Appearance and spread of telegraph coincided with:
*growing global trade links [connections]
*increasing volume of trade [quantity, volume]

A close link exists between:
*development of telegraph in a region
*the region's position in world trade
            Global spread of telegraphy has positive effects on world trade.

When communications and transport are separated a new virtual space is created.
In this new virtual space, relations between time and space are changed.

A new technology will spread and be adopted only when:
*there is a demand for it
*the new tech. offers clear advantages over the other alternatives
Public demand must be balanced against the effects of "technological inertia" (Mokyr).

Railway expansion created need for telegraph in order to co-ordinate trains.

per Castells
A network has no centre and therefore no periphery.
No single node is essential to the network.
If a node fails, the network reconfigures and works around the failed node.
Some nodes are more important than other nodes.

Telegraphy spreads quickly:
*Railway companies see the benefits and (no longer put off by high costs) erect lines along railway tracks [---> cumulative action of technologies; ---> mutual benefits for both telegraph and railway companies]
*Newspapers exploit telegraphy for obtaining news more quickly
*Law enforcement forces use telegraphy to fight crime -- a telegram is quicker than a murderer!

Parallels can be seen between social networks [connections among people] and telecommunications networks.  In both networks, some nodes are:
*more important than other nodes;

*closer to the flow of information than other nodes.  
A word of caution re. the analogy of social networks for comm. networks.  The connections in social networks only register when interaction/communication between two nodes occurs.  A similar connection between two nodes in a comm. network registers the potential for communication, i.e. the nodes exist but a flow of information may not be present during our examination.  The infrastructure is in place but the information flow is not necessarily present or continuous.

In order to describe a country as a communications centre, it needs:
*an advanced domestic telegraph system
*good connections to other foreign networks

Roland Wenzlhuemer.  "The dematerialization of telecommunication: communication centres and peripheries in Europe and the world, 1850-1920."  Journal of Global History (2007) 2, 345-372.

November 14, 2010

Anthony Trollope and the telegraph girls

"The Young Women at the London Telegraph Office"
from Good Words, June 1877

Details of the girls' employment used as background info. for Trollope's short story "The Telegraph Girl." 

The impression that comes out is that these young women are lucky to enjoy a position in the Civil Service and all the benefits that accrue.  At this point in time, this is perhaps one of only a few rare occasions where a woman could work in a male/middle-class dominated domain.

Trollope states outright that he is not really interested in the technical side of the girls' work; he is looking for a human-interest story.  He is more concerned with the social aspects of their occupation - what brought them to work at the telegraph office, what is their behaviour like, do they flirt with the the few boys that work in the same room, and so on.  He poses many rhetorical questions of this nature but provides no answers.  I get the impression that what answers he does provide of a social nature, are based on supposition.  He presumably had a guided tour (ordinarily, members of the public are not allowed in, nor are the girls allowed visitors) and his guide would have provided the basics: wages, hours of work, pension scheme.  For the rest, modesty prevented him from questioning the girls about personal matters.

The office is a 'half-way house' and the girls re-transmit telegrams coming from other offices that are destined for elsewhere.  "They live secluded and apart, in a world of their own, harassed by no interruptions from without."  In other words, there is no contact with the public, which makes this job respectable enough for girls from good, respectable families.  Taking their lunch in the company canteen protects them further from public gaze in the high street tea room.

In addition to the entrance exams that test reading, writing and maths, the applicant has to provide three character references.

Lateness is not tolerated and records are kept of late arrival.  A girl who arrives late for work could mean the delayed dispatch of an important telegram.  Trollope's example shocked me: supposing a gentleman wanted his horse brought round so he could go fox hunting and this message didn't get through in time?  He would miss the hounds!!!  Couldn't Trollope have found a less vain example, something to do with, say, closing a business deal, or notice of a sickness/death?

Generally, I am highly suspicious of texts written by authors of fiction, even when they purport to be documentary.  Trollope may present 'facts' but he does so with an eye to a good read and we can never be sure what his true agenda is.

November 13, 2010

Census returns

National census returns with occupational details (working for telegraph/telephone companies, messengers, etc.), ordered by region, city, age, gender.

Telephones? What do they want telephones for?

Cartoonist W. K. Haseldene's scathing view of an imaginary day at telephone headquarters.  The words of this post's title are spoken by directors at a board meeting.  Another director wonders why people can't be content with sending letters!

Haseldene's satire (The Mirror, 21 January 1911) obviously conveys public dissatisfaction with the low levels of service provided.  The Post Office took control of the country's telephone network at the beginning of 1912.

Haseldene found targets for his satire by reading the morning's papers and choosing a topic that was both "prominent and cartoonable."

p.s. Any ideas why this excellent site chose a caricature of Tony Blair as its banner illustration?

November 12, 2010

Lady telephone operators

Under new organisation at the Post Office, girls no longer have to cover themselves with an overall.

There are health stipulations:
  • She mustn't be shorter than 5ft 2in.
  • She has to undergo a medical (by a woman doctor, of course) and her eyesight is tested
  • Teeth are examined and problems put right (so that having a toothache can't be used an excuse for time off work)
 Girls enjoy a "sumptuous" dinner in their decorated-with-fresh-flowers-brought-from-home dining room.  They themselves decide what kind of meat they will eat tomorrow and the cooks prepare it on the spot (no contract caterers).  Cost to the operator: 5 pence.

Initially, operators had to find what they could from the street during their lunch break; tea and cake at a teashop (the Victorian Kamps or Starbucks).  They would rush back and faint at their switchboards from malnourishment (!)  

Cynically, I wonder at the company's generosity in providing lavish catering facilities on site.  The author talks of the operators that "rush" out in all weathers and "hurry" to finish a cup of tea.  Yet photographs show us the operators, first taking lunch in their dining rooms and then relaxing in their sitting room/rest room, reading or taking tea.  Perhaps (in the early years, at least) it was considered more seemly for the operators to stay on the premises and not rush about the streets looking for somewhere to stop and eat.  Telephone work was certainly a respectable occupation for young ladies: they were not exposed to the public (Occomore, Number Please, 69).

Switchboards were first operated by young boys, with disastrous results.  They fought all day and were rude to callers.  If boys had managed to keep these jobs for themselves, I have a hard time imagining them having lunch in flower-strewn dining rooms.  

Henry Thompson.  “Telephone London.”  In Living London.  Vol. III., ed. George R. Sims.  London, 1903; p.115-119.
David Occomore.  "Number, Please!"  a history of the early London telephone exchanges from 1880 to 1912.  Romford, Ian Henry Publ., 1995.

November 11, 2010

Living London

“[Voices] … flow over our heads, around us, and under our feet in a ceaseless silent chorus.”
Castells’ “space of flows” – these voices are sealed inside the system and no one hears them when passing by; the only ones to hear are “those for whom they are intended.”

Content of the conversations
  • A City trader’s instructions
  • Party invitation [were invitations delivered by phone socially acceptable by now, compared to written ones?]
  • Household order to a tradesman

Traffic flow lessens during the night; calls are made for emergencies:
  • Call for a doctor
  • Fire
  • Police
Author gives extensive description of telephone use at the Stock Exchange, IMMEDIATELY following an account of the death-defying engineers and linesmen who repair and maintain the wires.  The hidden reading seems to be saying: 'the telephone is primarily for business use.'

National Telephone Company
  • Operators are recruited from well-to-do, respectable families (doctors, lawyers, etc.)
  • They need to be literate, numerate
  • Training given on full pay
  •  No night work, this is done by male colleagues
  • Women wear gloves while working to protect hands (!) – was it such rough work?  These ladies would not want to have hands that looked as if they belonged to working-class girls or washerwomen.
  •  The “kindly” NTC provided overalls for the girls to wear over their own dresses.  Otherwise a poorly dressed girl would be “distracted” by the fineries worn by her neighbour.  Socialist uniformity, or schoolroom discipline?

More space of flows
Telephone traffic has peaks and troughs, according to the business being conducted around London. 
  • The City stops its activities at 7.00pm
  • West End is busy 10.00pm till midnight
  • Holborn wakes up early – residents here have dealings with Smithfield Meat Market
The exchange as a temporal microcosm of all of London life

Operators’ dining facilities
Much is made (here, and elsewhere) of the sumptuous and generous catering facilities available to the operators.  Scant reference is made to the girls’ actual duties, general working conditions, relationships with supervisors/other operators, the public’s perception of their job.  I don’t think we have any first-hand accounts from operators themselves about their job?  Why this imbalance in reporting?
  • Need to present the job in favourable light in order to attract new recruits: high turnover (?) – girls left upon marriage and had to be replaced.
  • This was a menial job performed by single girls whose job prospects in these years were seriously circumscribed.  But their participation was VITAL for the running of the telephone system – if the girls decided to down tools and strike, the whole telephone network would be useless.  By emphasising the fringe benefits, perhaps we are pampering to the operators to keep them satisfied (and not pack in their jobs)?  And perhaps by emphasising these benefits, the general public is left with the impression that the telephone company holds its operators in high esteem and appreciates the part the girls play in keeping the system up and running every day?

Henry Thompson.  “Telephone London.”  In Living London.  Vol. III., ed. George R. Sims.  London, 1903; p.115-119.

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