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.

Victorian call centres

Victorians had qualities which mark them out even to this day: thrift, hard work, a practical nature, a mentality of self-help.  Such qualities, I believe, are borne out of the nature of their society; there was no social security network, for example, to go to when they fell on hard times.  If there was no family to help, then people in distress would have to rely on their own resources.

Widows were especially vulnerable.  Losing a husband meant they had to become the breadwinner overnight.  For women of the lower classes, going out to work was not so remarkable and it was relatively easy to earn money.  The major forms of employment were domestic service or factory work.  For the middle class woman, however, paid employment was simply not an option.  The most she could hope for was a position as governess or companion to old ladies.  Both meant living in and a drop in social status.  And the money earned would have been peanuts.

One highly practical solution for such widows was the practice of giving them a sewing machine as a present.  This was not charity and allowed the widow to become self-sufficient.  Working from home, the widow maintains respectability, and performs a task considered appropriate for women.  She could receive orders for new garments or domestic textiles, or take in alterations.

But why bother with a sewing machine?  Close needlework ruins your eyesight (remember, they only had gas or oil lamps then) and you get a hump back bending over your work.  Some projects would take days or weeks to finish.  A much better alternative to the donated sewing machine is – wait for it – a telephone. 

A writer identifying herself (I think we can safely assume the writer is female) as “Self Help” sent in a suggestion to an 1884 periodical,[1] saying that the gift of a telephone connection to the central exchange is an inordinately better income generator than a sewing machine.  Here are some of the ways the widow can exploit her telephone (and simultaneously exploit her friends):
  1. Send out flyers to her lady friends that she can now order goods on their behalf from local traders, who are also connected by telephone.  They might order the following: flowers, fish, theatre tickets, coal, wine.  The writer believes that traders would be willing to pay the widow 10% commission for all orders she puts their way.
  2. She could allow merchants and their employees to use her telephone for business purposes.  They pay a few pennies to the widow and telephone the office to say they would be an hour late. 

Given a choice, I would opt for the telephone.  It’s much easier than labouring over a sewing machine that’s not even electric.  Turning your front parlour into a one-woman call centre has a lot going for it – intense networking with friends and local business people; no commuting every day; being at home to look after children.

This idea surfaced during the telephone's first decade in Britain.  It shows amazing entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking on how to put a new technology to good use.

I still maintain that the technological practices and gadgets that we consider ultra modern and super digital are not in the slightest bit new or original – they are merely faster/bigger/cheaper versions of what the Victorians did before us.

[1] Work and leisure: a magazine devoted to the interests of women.  London: F. Kirby, 1884.

June 9, 2011

Sex discrimination, in the opposite direction

“There are now 120 women in the Berlin telephone exchanges.  It has been decided to use only women in the future, as it has been found that their voices are much more audible than men’s, owing to the higher pitch.”

The American Magazine, 1891

… and, of course, you don’t have to pay a woman such high wages, as you would a man.

June 8, 2011

Just a copper wire

New York, 1888









I am a copper wire slung in the air,
Slim against the sun I make not even a clear line of shadow.
Night and day I keep singing--humming and thrumming:
It is love and war and money; it is the fighting and the
     tears, the work and want,
Death and laughter of men and women passing through
     me, carrier of your speech,
In the rain and the wet dripping, in the dawn and the
     shine drying,

               A copper wire.

Carl Sandburg composed this short poem in 1916.  In just a few brief lines, he manages to capture the pure simplicity of telephony - one single copper wire strung up in the street, which carries all of human experience: life and death, love and hate.  Conveying human speech, the wire itself speaks with its (his? her?) own voice in the first person to us directly.

And what a refreshing change to read something from this era that talks of "men and women" and not the bland, generic "Mankind" or "Man."  Of course, when contemporaries wrote of mankind, especially in the context of telecommunications, they usually inferred men, excluding women.  Sandburg redresses the balance by including women as telephone users.

Incidentally, his mention of wires being exposed to the elements brings to mind those epic old photographs of telephone wires collapsing in snow storms.  Derricks perched on rooftops throughout urban centres were easily felled when the wind was strong.  They were loaded with wires (one for each subscriber) and engineers had to start from scratch when the whole structure came down.

June 6, 2011

"Selling Talk"

I came across another little gem in the Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company publication, "Telephone Facts" of 1915.  Remember, this is a journal the company sent out to its business customers (telephone companies) who were in the market for telephones, switchboards, and sundry accessories.

Strategically positioned on the first inside page is a short sales pitch that salesmen can use to market the telephone to potential subscribers.  What is interesting is that the piece does not focus at all on the technical aspects of the telephone apparatus, its durability, technological features, innovation and such like.  Instead, the only selling point the salesman should emphasise is talk.  This is the commodity that the telephone man deals in.  Even more surprising (to me, at least) is the fact that the writer mentions that it doesn't matter if the talk is important or trivial, it is still significant.

Ads such as these link to Claude Fischer's discussion about how American telephone companies suddenly discovered sociability and how, surprise surprise, encouraging people to be sociable was good for business.  We then see a gradual turnaround in telephone companies' attitudes: they ceased promoting the telephone purely for 'serious' business use and stopped berating women who insisted on abusing the telephone for mere trivia.  Now gossip was good.

Everyone involved in the telephone business, from lineman, contract man to operator, was reminded: "you sell talk."

This is all well and good and highly interesting, but what happened in Britain?  It is well known that the telephone service in Britain was grossly under-developed (and dare I even say, backward?) in comparison.  Certainly, in 1915 there was no massive, national advertising campaign undertaken by the General Post Office.  War concerns were more pressing, but even after the war, it would be a long time before any concerted efforts were made to promote the service.  

How the GPO promoted the telephone service is one huge area still awaiting intensive research.  I can't wait to get started!!


June 5, 2011

"Has the telephone killed the old-fashioned love letter?"

Apparently, yes.  The 1915 American trade magazine Telephone Facts hosted an article which counts the costs of telephony for courting couples.  The anonymous author acknowledges that a young lady may appreciate the conveniences of a domestic telephone connection, but this comes at a price, the price being a packet of letters from her beau, tied with a ribbon (perhaps with dried flowers), stashed at the back of her drawer.  

An ephemeral telephone call leaves no trace, moods are misinterpreted, details of the conversation may be forgotten.  A tangible letter, however, with visible signs left by its creator, can be re-read, touched, smelled.

A telephone call is easy for the boy: he can just ring up for a chat on an impulse, but sitting down to compose a letter requires time and effort.  And he'd much rather hear his beloved's voice over the "talking wire" than receive a dozen letters from her.  The same cannot be said for the girl.  She too would love to hear his voice but there are disadvantages: crossed lines, eavesdroppers, a hundred pairs of curious ears listening in on the party line.  (Admittedly, the writer's sexist bias is showing through; the same arguments are, of course, valid if the roles are reversed.)

The article was obviously penned by an agony aunt or an arbiter of public manners.  Those few etiquette manuals that devoted space to telephone use, relegated its use to informal circles.  Certainly where courtship is concerned, a visit or an outing could be chaperoned, but not so a telephone call.

I think there is a grain of truth in the writer's assertions.  A phone call from a loved one is always welcome, but a letter or card, however brief and simple, requires so much more effort on the writer's part.  Aside from the difficulty in choosing the right words, you have to find writing paper, pen, envelope, a stamp, and then go out and find a postbox (if it's the butler's day off).  It is this extra effort that makes the letter so valuable to the receiver, even though it is not consciously thought about.

It is for these reasons that I treasure all the letters I've received from friends and family and store them safe with my photographs.  I don't think we can say the same for messages of endearment sent by SMS.

Wordle: Telephones and Love Letters

June 4, 2011

“Fass dich kurz!”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the price we pay for each telephone call we make determines the quality of the call and its contents.  And by ‘quality’ I don’t mean whether the connection is successful or if the line is scratchy.

Let me elaborate by drawing a comparison.

In the old days, when domestic telephones used to be situated in hallways and before multiplexing made its appearance, telephone users were more cautious about making a call.  If they did eventually decide that, yes, the call was necessary, they made sure they got off the line as quickly as possible.  By today’s standards, the cost of making phone calls then was much more expensive.  With charges determined by call duration and geographical destination, short local calls were cheaper.  And if you had a lot to say to someone who lived on another continent, then write a letter.

In my first job I worked in an office where every telephone was plastered with stickers reminding people to ring after 1.00 p.m. when off-peak calls were cheaper.  You were only justified in making morning calls in life-or-death situations.  Mornings were always blissfully quiet, but the afternoons erupted as all the telephones went crazy and rang non-stop.  Try telling your office workers today not to make calls during morning hours.

My supervisor remembers making telephone calls as a teenager (again in her home’s hallway) and having her father shout at her to be brief.  Anecdotal evidence shows that this is by no means an unusual experience in the early twentieth century.  In those days, time really was money.

Now that I think about it, making phone calls in the earlier decades must have been very much like using Twitter: you had to be short and succinct to get your message across in as few words as possible.  No waffling on for hours on end.

Most people choose to pay a flat rate for their telephone connection, mobile or landline.  Quite often they get the whole package – telephone, internet, television. 

When you’re talking on the telephone, your mind is free of the torment of the ticking clock.  You can talk for two minutes or two hours, the price is the same. 

You no longer have to think twice about whether the call is really essential or not.  You can ring someone up to be purely sociable, to catch up on gossip, or just because you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do and want to ease the boredom of a long train journey (and have no reading material to hand).  Those bores that use their mobiles to drone on in public places about their inane existence are well known examples.

The comparison
Now I come to my point about call quality.  If the cost of the telephone call is cheap, you don’t give a second thought to lifting up the receiver.  It doesn’t seem such a waste then to use the telephone for trivial reasons.  With timed, expensive calls, on the other hand, you really question the necessity of making that call.  Anyone who has ever had to make an important call from a public phone box with just one 10p coin will understand the implications.

Perhaps there is an element of technological determinism here.  The nature of our telephone network (and its pricing structure) shapes not only our communications practices but also our attitudes towards that network.

I’ll finish off with a salutary lesson for ardent telephone users.  Last month Amtrak officials threw a woman off a night train after passengers complained that she had been speaking loudly on her phone, for 15 hours.  I’m left wondering – what on earth did this woman find to talk about for 15 hours?

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