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.

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