December 23, 2010

"Theft from a specified place" - crime on the line

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913 make for fascinating reading, giving an insight into lifestyles, motivations and social mores of various eras.  The archive is a digitised, searchable record of court cases heard at the Old Bailey, giving full transcripts of proceedings.

Criminals active during the "Bloody Code" could expect a public hanging for shoplifting, or at best, transportation to a far-flung colony.  Some stories are heart breaking (children and widows stealing out of sheer necessity) and hilarious (a butcher out walking who had the clothes literally ripped off his back: the thieves liked his silver buttons and wanted to sell them for ready cash).  Clothing theft was a subject for my Master's thesis, hence the interest.  But I digress.

I was curious to see if phone calls or the telephone (as artefact) figured in any instances of crime.  The first case heard at the Old Bailey where the telephone is mentioned is in 1883 and involves someone trying to defraud a City stockbroker.  Clerks gave evidence, stating that they telephoned other firms for price information and such like.  City firms were among the first businesses to adopt the telephone: it gave them a time advantage over rival firms that had to rely on messenger boys.

Two resourceful thieves in 1885 used a piece of telephone wire to fish goods out of a shop window.

Following a police raid in 1894, forty seven (!) brand new telephone receivers are found in a suspect's house.  They had been stolen from the National Telephone Company's storehouse in Oxford Street.  I'm wondering how the thief thought he could dispose of them.  In those days, phones were leased to subscribers, rather than sold and it would be impossible to apply for a connection, saying you just wanted a wire strung up to your house but you wouldn't need a telephone.

In another case, a witness gives evidence that in 1898 he tried to phone Scotland Yard but no one answered the phone!

Public telephones were also available very early on.  These weren't kiosks or booths as we know them today, but telephones in shops or businesses (pharmacies, for example) available at a small cost to the public.  The shop owner provided this as a service for his customers (and perhaps to attract new customers?)  In a 1901 forgery case, the accused made a telephone call from an undertaker's office.  Perhaps unknown to him, all calls were recorded and documented by the undertaker.  It was this evidence that was used against him in court. 

This is just a small sample from London.  It is logical that many similar instances have been recorded throughout Britain.  The telephone makes an immediate, albeit small, appearance in criminal cases: in prevention; in the commissioning of crime; and as an object of desire.  This leads us to conclude that a 'telephone culture' is beginning to work its way into the social fabric.  When people start stealing phones, then you know you've arrived!

December 22, 2010

The invention of a new science - culturomics

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this new field, I couldn’t resist trying it out with a few key words from my research.  The graphs produced were interesting (though, I must confess, also predictable) in that they gave me ideas for further research and which new questions I need to answer.

Read The Chronicle article which gives the complete background to the launch.
If you ever get fed up, you could while away half an hour trying out your own words at Google Labs

My verdict?  If you know your subject well, then this new tool isn't going to give you any new earth-shattering revelations.  And counting words taken out of context is a futile exercise.  Okay, the word 'telephone' appears around the 1870s and peaks in the 1920s, but I could have told you that anyway without any help from Google Labs.  Who used this word, where he wrote it and why, is something I have to find out for myself.

December 17, 2010

Castells - Toward a Sociology of the Network Society

Castells analyses the social changes that have occurred which have led to the emergence of a 'new society.'
  1. New technological paradigm  New ITs allow for new forms of social organisation and interaction.  Such organisation and interaction occurs via electronic information networks.
  2. Globalisation  [With hindsight we recognise early evidence of globalisation in past eras, but without electronically-based communication networks, it could never reach today's total coverage.  I'm hard pressed to think of one corner of the world that has not yet been overrun by mankind or that has not been touched by Western "civilisation."  Here I think of the rubbish accumulated around the base camp of Mount Everest.]
  3. Internet  [I don't think any comment is necessary, suffice to say that, contrary to the first pundits, the Internet does not unify people in democratic harmony.  Whoever goes on line, immediately seeks out like-minded individuals/organisations.  He will not view sites that put out an ideology which he is hostile to.  Few people will attempt to find out why their opponents think the way they do; instead they will turn to sites that echo their own worldview.
  4. Death of the sovereign nation-state   Alliances struck between countries affect internal power structures.  Think, for example, of countries belonging to the EU.  [National boundaries are being redrawn and/or becoming more transparent, and few countries can act in isolation without due consideration to their 'partners'.]
  5. "Crisis of patriarchy"  Family forms have changed; the 'heterosexual-couple-with-2-kids model no longer holds sway.  Other family models have emerged which have become feasible alternatives.
  6. Scientific progress   Among other things, there is a new awareness of man's relationship with the environment, which has brought about changes in production, consumption, etc.
This article also neatly summarises Castell's work on networks, spatial structure, and space of flows, and makes a useful accompaniment to his book, Rise of the Network Society.

How will the above prove useful to my thesis?  Well, for a start I think we can see incipient forms of many of the above dimensions in turn of the century Britain.  Regarding the Internet, obviously this did not exist in 1900 but if we adopt Standage's views on the telegraph (coupled with a highly efficient postal system), then we can say that society at that time had access to a system of express information exchange.

What is the role of the telephone network in creating this "new society?"  E.g. was it instrumental in bringing about any social change (as per the above dimensions)?
Did it promote or hinder?

Manual Castells.  "Toward a Sociology of the Network Society."  Contemporary Sociology Vol 29, No 5 (Sept. 2000), 693-699.

December 15, 2010

Old, but simple technology

Picture courtesy of the British Postal Museum & Archives,  -  black domestic telephone with chrome dial and cradle arm … and a looonngg cable!

They don’t make them like that anymore!

[Cursed link didn't work! Hope this one is better]

December 14, 2010

Castells - Rise of the Network Society

Some random notes on 'space,' hopefully to be put to good use later.

Castells differentiates between space of places and space of flows, where space is a concept based on experience.
"If we look at space as a social form and a social practice, throughout history space has been the material support of simultaneity in social practice.  That is, space defines the time frame of social relationships."
The city is a "communication system" where physical proximity allows more communication.
A new form of spatiality is the space of flows: "the material support of simultaneous social practices communicated at a distance."

A connection exists between 
  • society's changing technological character; and 
  • its developing spatial forms.
Acceleration of time
We've all noticed it - too many tasks, not enough time.  There are still 'only' twenty-four hours in a day but quite often they aren't enough.  Our social practices are restricted within their time frames but are carried out in different places.  We use technology (mobile phones, computers, transport) to help us overcome the physical barriers, to the point where we almost reach "timeless time."  Timeless time (as opposed to clock time or biological time) is 
"the social practice that aims at negating sequence to install ourselves in perennial simultaneity and simultaneous ubiquity."  
In other words, trying to be everywhere, all the time, at the same time!

Manuel Castells.  The Information Age.  Economy, Society, and Culture.  Vol. I: The Rise of the Network Society (2010).

Simmel and space

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a German sociologist living during the period of time I am studying.  As such, he should be an interesting person to read, but it is frustrating that he never makes explicit reference to telecommunications; how could he not take a scientific interest in the new communications medium?  He lived through what was, for us, an exciting era but he remained tantalisingly silent.  By way of contrast, Walter Benjamin wrote of his childhood memories in Berlin at the turn of the century with a wealth of detail about his domestic arrangements, with frequent references to the telephone.

Simmel did write, however, about space.  What follows is based on an interpretation of Simmel's work by Lechner.

Space is not just a place where individual can "be together" [reminiscent of Thrift's whales - see earlier post] but this interaction of "being together" is what fills the space and thus, the individuals share the space.

Simmel adopts a via media between social construction and spatial determinism.  Space is to some extent socially formed but not a complete social construct, nor does space determine or have causal effects on society. 

He elaborates on five social aspects of space:
  1. Exclusivity - social groups want exclusive rights to 'their' space.
  2. Partitioning of space - boundaries are important.  A social order that occupies a space with a clear boundary makes that order more concrete (less abstract).  "High fences make for good neighbours" - a partition effects relations with those on the other side.  Simmel stresses that boundaries are sociological, not spatial.
  3. Fixity - space offers fixity to social forms.
  4. Distance - physical proximity has consequences.  
  5. Movement through space has social significance - e.g. a nomadic tribe has strong integration.
Effects of social forms on spatial conditions
  • Political forms of organisation are spatially ordered - people are classified by location and not by ties of kinship.
  • Authority over people is exerted as territorial control.
  • Sharing a place with someone affirms communal ties - sometimes being bound to a particular place denotes members of a social group.
  • Even an empty place has social significance.
Simmel observes that societies deal with space as an abstraction.  This means you don't have to be physically present, concrete spatial settings are no longer so important.
Spatial abstraction - we don't have to share space in order to be together, because we're always together in the same global space.

December 13, 2010

"Complaints against women"

Writing in 1894, Miss Agnes Amy Bulley and Miss Margaret Whitley (prefaced by Lady Dilke!) elaborate on the many career choices open to women in the late Victorian era.  One of these areas is clerical and commercial work in the General Post Office.  I have already discussed elsewhere the working conditions and benefits employees could expect.

Not only do the Misses Bulley and Whitley describe careers at the GPO, but they feel it necessary to mention the fact that members of the public have lodged complaints about the shoddy service they have received.  Things got so bad that the Postmaster-General himself (Sir James Fergusson) felt compelled to issue a circular, requiring "greater civility" from the girls when dealing with the public.

Customers experienced "indifference and carelessness" from the telephone girls, who seemed to have forgotten that "important business transactions" were being conducted.  The authors even report that at one exchange, which they refuse to name, the Post Office had to resort to replacing the women with men.  Undoubtedly, everyone in the town would know which office this was; it would have been the only one with an all-male staff working the day shift.  A newspaper editor was always glad when the day shift (worked by women) was over and the night shift (worked by men) came on.  Reading between the lines, the authors merely mention the subject as a warning: 'behave yourselves, girls, or else this new line of work will be cut off to you in the future.'

Young boys were the first telephone operators but they didn't last long.  They kept messing about and had to be replaced by docile, obedient young women.  You only need to look at any contemporary photographs to see rows of young women seated at their switchboards, backs ramrod straight, a matron-figure patrolling behind them and the managers/engineers seated at their own desk to one side or in the middle of the room.  These girls didn't even have a chance to exchange a surreptitious glance with their neighbour, never mind being insolent to a caller.  And, of course, if the call was for business, then the caller undoubtedly would have been male and much older than the operator.

I find it strange that the authors inserted this paragraph ("Complaints against Women") in what is essentially a careers guide for young women, having details of wages, qualifications, etc.  There are many other jobs described in the book (teaching, commerce, textile trade) but nowhere does it mention customers complaining about employees' behaviour.  On the contrary, quite often the authors describe grievances attached to certain professions, such as low wages, long hours and so on.  Readers thus gain an honest picture of what's in store for them.  It's almost as if the Post Office told them to write this paragraph?

A. Amy Bulley, Margaret Whitley.  Women's Work.  London: Methuen, 1894.

December 8, 2010

Reactions to Bijker

There are some criticisms [Langdon Winner] that can be leveled at the concept of 'relevant social groups.'
  • Who has the power/authority/expertise to determine what a relevant social group is?
  • Are there any groups who are affected by the technology (or by technological change) but who are disenfranchised, and thus cannot speak up?
  • Are any groups excluded from the equation? 
Winner stresses the importance of 'looking at the other side of the coin': not just to look at which questions are asked but also which questions are overlooked; which debates are left off the agenda; which groups do not participate in the decision-making process.  There is some validity to this argument.  We get a fuller picture of society and its structures when we study not only the movers and shakers, but also those at the periphery who usually have no say.

As an aside (but still related), scholars have studied the classic technologies throughout history (nuclear weapons, steam power, automobile, etc.)  One thing they all have in common is that they are (or were) successful technologies.  No one has seen fit to look at technologies that have failed.  Examining what went wrong with a failed technology can surely tell us volumes about the society from which it emanated.

Langdon Winner.  "Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: social constructivism and the philosophy of technology."

December 7, 2010

Bijker's technological frame

Now that we've identified relevant social groups in the study of technologies, we can talk about the concept of technological frames.
"A technological frame structures the interactions between the actors of a relevant social group, and shapes their thinking and acting."
The framework comes into existence once interaction among group members begins around a particular technology.  When there is no activity, the framework is not built but once constructed, the framework shapes activity.

Interactions occur among actors of a relevant social group, but these interactions are not necessarily typical or characteristic of any individual of the group or the group itself.

A technological frame may include some of the following:
  1. problems
  2. problem-solving strategies
  3. design methods
  4. tacit knowledge

Pinch, Bijker.  "The social construction of facts and artefacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other."

Bijker's relevant social groups

The concept of "relevant social groups" is used to denote those groups in society that share the same set of meanings attached to any particular technology.

Such a group may be a group of individuals (organised or not), an institution, organisation or company.  Some examples may be the army, an industrial company that manufactures or develops the artefact, or consumers/users of the artefact.  However, to identify relevant social groups as only being producers and consumers of a technology is reductive; there are numerous other groups in addition to these two.

For Bijker, a social group is relevant when the meaning of the artefact is the same for all members of that group.  

Bijker uses his study of the history of the bicycle to give the example of cyclists, as users of this technology.  However, within this group there are also sub-groups; in this instance, women cyclists, for whom the bicycle came to mean emancipation and a vehicle (excuse the pun) to take them into the twentieth century.

One artefact will have several relevant social groups and each group will have greatly differing interpretations of that same artefact.  A nuclear reactor serves as an example.  Note the varying interpretations of these social groups:
Union bosses - a safe working environment compared to, say, a building site or dockside.
Local residents - dangers of radioactivity and attendant cancers, but also employment opportunities.
International relations experts - the presence of a nuclear reactor causes unrest in the international community (and nuclear proliferation) especially when in the hands of someone we're not too friendly with!
Conclusion - "interpretative flexibility"

Trevor Pinch, Wiebe Bijker.  "The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other."

December 4, 2010

Thrift, Part II

Continuing Thrift's point about the stubborn persistence of technological determinism in accounts, such accounts rarely placed these technologies within a framework of linked social practices (other connected technologies and humans).  Instead they would be looked at in isolation.

Accounts need to remember that technologies belong to a history of social practices.  As such, we cannot separate the technology from the practices.

December 3, 2010

Thrift, "New urban eras and old technological fears" - Part I

I am a fan of Thrift's writing, not only because of his analysis but also due to his fresh style of writing; he cuts through all the hype and myths and tells it as it really is.  A professor of geography would seem to be a strange academic to read when one is studying the history of technology and telecommunications, but Thrift has done important work on space/place/time.  This has a direct bearing on my thesis: people's perception of space and time gradually altered in the late nineteenth century, thanks to various developments in society and technology (more efficient public transport; greater awareness of time - pocket watches, factory shifts, official bureaucracy, train timetables; telephony).  The telephone, of course, was not the sole factor in changing notions of time and space, but it did play a role.  Generally, things were speeding up and everywhere around them, people saw spaces becoming smaller (i.e. distant places were not so distant any more) and the time needed to achieve something became shorter - but isn't that just as true for us today?

What follows are some extracted notes from Thrift's article.  There is no particular structure to the notes selected: they merely made a strong impression on me and they are notes that I find relevant to my thesis.

What is 'new'?
We all talk about new concepts, technologies, etc. but never really examine if these things are genuinely new, or just an evolution of something older.  'New' also means 'modernity' and the two are joined at the hip with communication technologies.
Relationship between man and machine
This ought to be re-evaluated - perhaps there shouldn't be a hierarchical relationship between the two, rather both should be on equal footing in actor networks (per Latour).
Thrift advocates abandoning Modernity as a historical concept and looking instead at historical change as slow, disjointed [i.e. not linear and teleological].
History of telecoms is evolutionary
Today's digital culture is not 'new', despite all the geek rhetoric.  It is not something that appeared out of thin air with no connection to the past or its technology or artefacts.  Today's 'new' technologies are nothing more than digitalised versions of the old ones.
  • Old and new technologies live together side by side; the old is not discarded when a new version comes along.
  • Technologies are cumulative; they build on the success of their predecessors.
"space of information"
Writing about 'new' telecoms technologies uses a new dimension, that of the "space of information".  But discussions of this information space omit the social element.
Technological determinism
Discourse on technology originating in the nineteenth century was prone to technological determinism.  We might forgive them their sins as they didn't know as much as we know today (!) but we must not be smug - we still commit the same sin today, even if we don't acknowledge it.  [It has been a hard habit to kick and one that has become so ingrained that we don't even realise it.  How many times have we read or talked about how 'the Internet is changing the way we work and study?'  Or (my personal favourite) 'Television is ruining our children's intellect?'  Such determinist thinking is rife in all domains.  Haven't we learned anything from the past?]

Part II will follow shortly.

Square brackets indicate my own thoughts, not those of Thrift.

Nigel Thrift.  "New urban eras and old technological fears: reconfiguring the goodwill of electronic things."  Urban Studies 1996 33:  1463.

December 2, 2010

The telephone in England and America

J. Ellis Barker.  "The Telephone in England and America."  Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. 25 Nov 1922.

The word "backwardness" occurs frequently in Barker's 1922 article, and he is not referring to the situation in the US.  He reports on statistics issued by AT&T which show how many telephones there were in the world, and in which countries they were to be found.  In January 1921 there were 20.8 million phones worldwide - and 12.4 million of them were in the US.  The United Kingdom lags in thirteenth place with 2.1 million telephones.  These figures demonstrate the "extraordinary backwardness of the English telephone."  Even more shameful is the fact that the UK lies behind "poverty-stricken and backward Austria" in the league table.

The figures are more illuminating when we convert them into number of phones per one hundred population.  London had 4.7 telephones for every one hundred people; the US as a whole had 12.4; San Francisco 29.4 (they obviously talked more there!)  There were as many telephones in New York as there were in the whole of the UK.

I would normally be somewhat dubious of statistics produced by a commercial entity, but in this case other sources bear out these findings (regarding global distribution of telephones). 

The writer continues in laudatory terms about the American service: how efficient it is; how superior the standards are; how even poor people and farmers use the service.  

The British service, the writer informs, has been held back by bureaucracy and under development.

It is once more interesting that the writer sees the telephone as primarily an instrument for business (as opposed to domestic us), having proved itself to be "a business instrument of the utmost value."  Again, English business men "can realize the backwardness of the telephone" if they travel to the US and see how things are done there.

The article writer was German; how much this has to do with his disparaging language and affinity for the word "backward" I know not.  Was he perhaps sponsored by AT&T to write this article?


"Aber das Sprechen, diese einzigartige Sache, ist nun mal um so vieles leichter als alles übrige, daß auch wir, ich meine, wir Menschen im allgemeinen, ein bißchen zu bemitleiden sind."
Alessandro Graf Manzoni, 1785-1873
Italian freethinker, writer

December 1, 2010

Virginia Woolf's diary

"They say its been raining heavily.  I daresay it has, but such is the civilisation of life in London that I really dont know.  What with fires, electric light, underground railways & umbrellas, how can one take notice of the weather.  But we look out about bed time & notice the moon."

Wednesday 23 January 1918

"This marvellous musical instrument"

"This marvellous musical instrument" is the telephone.  It was supposed to be used to broadcast a live concert given in Philadelphia, to an eager audience in New York.  Another reciprocal concert was broadcast in the opposite direction.

'Technical problems' meant the New York audience had to manage without entertainment.

The London journal, Orchestra, repeats the article published in a New York music journal, in which they describe the fiasco of the telephone concert that never was.  I detect an undertone of schadenfreude on the side of the British journal: they point out that the telephone (an American invention) is suffering setbacks in its home country.  More to the point, the audience should not be disappointed by such failings; as a means of entertainment, the telephone will fail them.

At a time when those in the industry were struggling to find a use for the new invention (1877), the writer shows remarkable foresight, or at least common sense.  He recommends the telephone should remain at home, together with concert-goers.

"The Telephone at Home."  Orchestra, 4:40 (Nov 1877)

Social domains and their interaction with technology

Any social history of the telephone, must examine it in conjunction with the following areas:
Which groups use it; how is the telephone integrated into their lives; what adjustments do they have to make to accommodate it?
Do working practices change?  Are existing hierarchies within a business changed/reinforced/subverted?  This has to do with power relations - what happens to those power relations when a new technology is introduced?
Perhaps it is too deterministic to ask 'how technology affects culture' (and too simplistic and naive), because culture is too vast and complicated to be affected by just one concept.  Perhaps it would be more productive follow the traces technology leaves in its wake when the two spheres (culture and technology) overlap.  How pervasive is technology in our beliefs, our metaphors, our hopes for the future, our nightmares, our art?  As a medium, do we still talk about it, or has it become transparent (invisible) through overuse?
Class, gender
Once more, beware of transferring definitions between eras.  But having said this, has technology reinforced or subverted existing structures?  Did it force to re-evaluate our preconceptions of these terms?

Technology/telephone and ...

Always a controversial area.  Obviously government intervention (or, interference?) held back developments in telephony, so as not to harm their investment in the telegraph.  Despite this, the former overtook the latter.  When was the turning point?  Surely, other factors also impinged on the telephone's development, such as people travelling more, migration to urban areas, increase in commerce?  Why was the Post Office so negative about the telephone?  Was the system so perfect (with errand boys, telegrams, and twelve postal deliveries daily) that a telephone was superfluous?  Did they really need to invent a need for it?

Another controversial area.  These categories are not immutable and fixed in concrete.  They change over time so we mustn't look at, say, gender roles in the Fin de Siècle and assume these are the same gender roles that we know in the year 2010.  What could be examined is how telecommunications technologies mediated class/gender relations of the time and whether use* of these technologies reinforced/weakened those relations.  For example, how did domestic practices change when a telephone appeared in the hallway?  Who answered it?  What was the involvement of servants?  A gentleman would never think of paying a "morning visit" to a single young woman (and certainly without her mother/chaperone being present).  But what was society's reaction later when he could telephone her from the comfort of his own home?

How is the telephone represented in visual art, dramas, novels?  How soon after its invention did the telephone start to appear in cultural artefacts?  How soon is it before we can talk about the existence of a "telephone culture"?
The telephone in business and the workplace.  Again, slighted related to class/gender in the sense of workplace relationships in connection with the telephone [boss/employee].  Particularly interesting is the introduction of the telephone in the City.  An ultra conservative domain of the male, upper classes, the City did not welcome the telephone with open arms.  Their business dealings were based on personal contacts, networks, gentlemen's agreements and word of mouth (see Kynaston's magisterial The City of London).  That's how it had always been done and they saw no reason to change in a hurry.
Developments also occurred in general office work (more office automation - typewriters, construction of large office blocks in city centres, office work becoming more suitable for women - feminisation of office work).  Telecommunications in industry/commerce, however, is too big a topic; it deserves a dissertation all of its own.

* Here I nearly fell into the trap of saying "whether these technologies reinforced ..." as if they had free agency.  The discussion should revolve around "technologies-in-use" and what people do with them.

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