Hanging on the Telephone

America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940
Claude S. Fischer

My capacity for procrastination is legendary.

That’s probably not news around here, where I routinely fess up to getting around to books I acquired decades ago. By that standard the present volume, acquired sometime in the last seven to ten years, is almost contemporary.

Except for the fact that I read it that long ago and am just now getting around to writing about it.

I remain clear about why I read it in the first place, though.  The senior managers at my then place of employment had all attended an offsite team building session. And, as so often happens, they came back full of bright ideas and facilitated insights.

What they lacked was verifiable information. I was presented, instead, with a litany of how our efforts were behind the technological curve. That litany was followed by a series of  propositions so questionable that it sent me to the stacks.

Bells’ first telephone, 1876.

I might have been better off just mutely accepting their collective misreading of history. Instead, I set out looking for evidence to disprove the ever-wrongheaded belief that this time is different. Though that belief is almost always disproven, management remained adamant that the advent of social media had radically changed humankind in a way no other technology ever had.

So I went looking for an analog. And since the subject in question was what was then being called the social Web, I decided the telephone best served that purpose. After all, it ,too, was a once new communication medium that obliterated geographic distance and enabled interaction between people.

As working hypotheses go, I submit, that wasn’t terrible. As the reasoning that led me to this book, it proved invaluable. As a bonus, it serves to remind me that spadework usually pays off in unanticipated ways.

Not even forty years on (c. 1914) and you can see how technology advances. Operator still required to make a connection, though.

When this book showed up early in my digging I immediately grabbed for it. Claude S. Fischer was already known to me. A member of that UC Berkeley social sciences faculty I like to gush about, I’d stumbled across him during my graduate studies.

That first encounter came as I was dissecting Robert D. Putnam‘s Bowling Alone. Fischer had recently published a lengthy and favorable review of it which helped me sharpen my own response to the book.

But what I remembered most was a footnote in which Fischer reports having asked Putnam if “author’s analysis” actually meant running the statistics. Putnam’s affirmative response led Fischer to “…bow to a master numbers-cruncher.”

That’s an awful lot of information about personality and the workings of academia–good and bad–packed into just 31 words.

So I dug in and was not disappointed. Fischer undertook this study, he says, driven by “Concerns about modernity, technology and community…” (p. 21) This is a good place to note that the same concerns have been raised about the Internet in general and social media in particular. What do the French say? Plus ça change….

While I’m at it, I should also note the subtitle. I’ve repeatedly mentioned the work of David Hackett Fischer, the  historian, generally noting how it resembles sociology undertaken with a historical eye. Claude S. Fischer here inverts the order of the disciplines but delivers more or less the same type of result.

Give me twenty years and I’ll give you direct dial–at least locally. A 1930s phone illustrating the interlocking ownership of the Bell system.

So just what has Fischer determined? And how did he determine it? We live, after all, in a time when a personal phone sits in our pocket and we ignore it. (For one survey’s results, see here. NB, this is not typical of the data I prefer, but it was handy.)

The second question is more easily answered. The primary source material was local newspapers. And, in an interesting twist given my professional background, the advertisements carried as much weight as the editorial matter. Why?

The answer to that question lies in the adoption–and therefore the marketing–of the telephone. When first introduced, the telephone was conceived of by its inventor and early  backers as a tool that would be used primarily by business and, to a lesser extent, government.

No one seriously thought about putting phones in private homes. If they had, we’d have seen it in literature and popular culture. Read Chopin, Wharton, early E.M. Foster, Henry James, Willa Cather.  Plenty of calling cards but nary, or almost nary, a phone to be found regardless of class or locale; automobiles show up before phones do.

The newspapers, though, offer a more contemporaneous view. Just like the Internet, the phone’s value lies in the size of the installed base. (Aside: Metcalfe’s law, as a reality, pre-dates George Gilder, Robert Metcalfe and computer networks, be they local, wide-area and cloud-based. Sorry, technophiles.)

It took the better part of a century, but eventually the marketers figured it out. The Princess phone connected a generation or two of American girls.

So you wouldn’t expect phone numbers in ads until there were home phones enough to warrant them. Similarly, the editorial listings for civic meetings, ladies clubs, Rotarian lunches and Lions‘ meetings wouldn’t carry phone numbers until the folks you were contacting had a phone.  Methodologies don’t come more insightful and elegant than that and I tip my hat to a master methodologist.

You should, though, question if such a methodology yields biased data. Fischer is too good to allow such a question to linger. He diversifies his geography including not just coastal, surbanizing areas but rural Iowa. He includes the advertisements run by AT&T and its subsidiaries as an indicator of what messages consumers are responding to. He looks at the parallel rise of another distance-reducing, disruptive technology: the automobile.

Over and over again, the data yield the same result. The fears expressed are never realized, the behaviors associated with the technology are not something heretofore unknown to humankind.

And most importantly, despite  spawning a debate as to whether such technologies are empowering or alienating (a debate we are still engaged in) important human behaviors are strengthened though use of the technology as a tool. Think of connecting, communicating or co-operating, just to stick to the letter ‘c.’

Now our phones are smart–and we still fret about the same effects as a hundred years ago.

When I began this blog, which was probably about the time I read this book, I had a different vision for it. Seven years on, though, I see that those ‘c’ words are even more important than I thought.

And though I have no belief that people will suddenly develop a historical or sociological perspective, I think that people–taken as a whole–are wiser than my then management team or the techy-Elmer Gantry types preaching a digital promised land.

People won’t become prisoners of their tools. They’ll become masters of them, even if it takes a while.

One thought on “Hanging on the Telephone

  1. Pingback: Listen to the Music | An Honest Con

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