I’m a big fan of the writer Robin Sloan, not only for the output of his writing, but for his process, and the way in which he offers his readers access to (and participation in) that process. If you go over to his website, there’s an invitation to enter your email address “for secrets, etc.” I dropped my email in the box some time ago, and it’s a low-traffic, high-delight kind of subscription that reminds me a lot of the experience of backing Robin’s Kickstarter project and following along with him as he made a book.
A recent missive of his opened thus:
(That’s what Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to say when they picked up the telephone. I love stuff like that; it reminds us that every medium was wacky and uncharted once.)
It’s stuck in my mind since reading it, but perhaps not exactly in the way Robin meant it. Because what it reminds me of is the way that every medium, however familiar, becomes uncharted. That’s why I’m fascinated by things like telegraph code — we think omitting vowels, substituting homophonic numbers, and using acronyms to shave character count is zomg-clever, though I guess characters are comparatively cheap these days. And what about calling cards (not the plastic pre-paid kind) — how cool were they? But would you know how to interpret the turned-down corner of a calling card now? That reminds us that all communication is predicated on convention, on a shared set of assumptions about what we want to say to each other. People who came from Twitter to Facebook sound different from those who migrated in the other direction.
But back to the telephone, because it’s wacky enough by itself. What was once uncharted became thoroughly mapped, then reinvented so many times that by now those maps have built up, layer upon layer. (Side note: palimpsests are one of my favorite things ever. Also pastries made from phyllo dough. Layers: That’s where it’s at.) Here’s my attempt to worm my fingers between some of the strata and examine them, in no particular order.
I have a complicated relationship with the telephone, which is mostly summarized by the following:
The telephone was an aberration in human development. It was a 70 year or so period where for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else’s life and they were expected to come running, like dogs. This was the equivalent of thinking it was okay to walk into someone’s living room and start shouting. It was never okay. [source]
But at one time I had a job that involved a lot of answering the phone. I was sort of a mid-level editorial peon at a Large Publishing House; I knew I was mid-level because I got to answer the phone “$MY_BOSS’s office” (when I was picking up one of their lines) or with my own name (on the rare occasion when someone called my direct line). Lower-level peons answered the phone “$NAME_OF_IMPRINT” and higher-level peons had better cubes. My primary boss had the luxury of not having to answer her phone at all without my first having picked it up and ascertained who was calling and their business, whereupon she could decide whether to take it. (On those occasions when I wasn’t able to get to the phone on her behalf, she had the privilege of answering it with “Hello.”)
I remember one time when my boss called one of our in-house publicists and, after hanging up the phone, she told me incredulously, “She has a spy phone!”
I had no idea what she meant at first, but it became clear that the publicist had caller id, since she’d been able to answer the phone, “Hi, $MY_BOSS!”
It’s funny to think now that pretty much every cell phone, no matter how dumb, comes with caller id by default. I’m sure my former boss has a phone with caller id on her desk now, obviating the need for a human screener, though I wonder if she still has her assistant answer. I wonder how often it rings at all, for that matter. My old job must look pretty different — I used to have to check the fax machine several times a day (and oh man, I typed so many cover sheets). But then again, I checked my boss’s email (via Lotus Notes) and type her replies for her as well. If the phone-answering aspect of the editorial assistant’s job is history, I won’t shed too many tears. (There’s something to be said for being so intimately aware of the rhythms of someone’s work, if that work is something that you aspire to, but there’s a lot more to be said for actually doing the work.)
I missed the age when telephone operators mediated most calls, though I remember when calling Information got you a real person. That was eventually replaced by those robotic recorded voices that gave you the number and prompted you to dial the number for an additional fee. There was something untrustworthy about the recorded voice; it felt like plugging something into Google and clicking “I’m feeling lucky,” before Google ever existed.
I haven’t actually called Information in years, of course, now that Google does exist. If Google doesn’t know the number, then neither do I, and I probably wouldn’t know if I wanted to know it. And I hardly ever want a phone number anyway, as opposed to a website or street address.
I own a phone, naturally, one that’s almost always on my person (though it’s still not a great way of getting a hold of me). Its voice communication function is one of its least-exercised; it’s become sort of a checkbox feature for small, portable devices — if you’re going to have something that you can carry around with you all the time, you might as well be able to make and receive calls on it. (The function that I rely on the most is probably the music player. It’s how I know I’ll keep my phone charged, because I’m highly motivated to have my iPod charged for my daily commute.)
It’s sort of amazing that not too long ago, caller id was revelatory and rare. The nifty thing about phones now is that a single map couldn’t describe how people use them anymore, even if many of them come out of the box with a similar set of features. I forget that I have a camera on me almost all the time, and though I find QR codes fascinating in theory, I’ve never scanned one in the wild (probably because QR codes in the wild, while increasingly plentiful, aren’t that fascinating). Even if you don’t have the latest Siri-enabled device or whatever the current cool thing is, the existence of these artifacts, along with the rest of the mostly invisible information infrastructure that connects them, exerts a subtle pressure down through all the layers of telephone conventions. What’s uncharted becomes familiar and alien again.