Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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All the words went down the wires

February 8, 2013

I recently read Deirdre Madden’s novel Remembering Light and Stone (1992), which some of you may remember seeing in a bookmash here a couple of years ago.

Narrated by an troubled, introverted Irishwoman in Italy, the story weaves a strange and intimate spell, though some readers may find it quite gloomy. I hadn’t read Madden’s work before, but I’ll definitely read more of it. Take this short passage:

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand how telegraph poles worked. I thought all the words went down the wires, and if you cut a wire, language would drip out of it like water from a broken pipe.

I remember having similar thoughts myself as a child, struggling to grasp how telephony worked and assuming that with the right equipment you could listen to the jumbled flow of words as they sped along the wires from mouth to distant ear.