Uncharted, Recharted, Charts Lost

Iím 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, thereís an invitation to enter your email address ďfor secrets, etc.Ē I dropped my email in the box some time ago, and itís a low-traffic, high-delight kind of subscription that reminds me a lot of the experience of backing Robinís 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.)

Itís 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. Thatís why Iím fascinated by things like telegraph code ó 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) ó 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 itís 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: Thatís where itís at.) Hereís 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 elseís life and they were expected to come running, like dogs. This was the equivalent of thinking it was okay to walk into someoneís living room and start shouting. It was never okay. [source]

The fact that the use of the telephone has morphed, especially in relation to its instant-yet-asynchronous cousins the email and text message, is so commonplace that even the New York Times is on it.

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 ď$MY_BOSSís officeĒ (when I was picking up one of their lines) or with my own name (on the rare occasion when someone called my direct line). Lower-level peons answered the phone ď$NAME_OF_IMPRINTĒ 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 wasnít able to get to the phone on her behalf, she had the privilege of answering it with ďHello.Ē)

I remember one time when my boss called one of our in-house publicists and, after hanging up the phone, she told me incredulously, ďShe has a spy phone!Ē

I had no idea what she meant at first, but it became clear that the publicist had caller id, since sheíd been able to answer the phone, ďHi, $MY_BOSS!Ē

Itís funny to think now that pretty much every cell phone, no matter how dumb, comes with caller id by default. Iím 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 ó 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 bossís email (via Lotus Notes) and type her replies for her as well. If the phone-answering aspect of the editorial assistantís job is history, I wonít shed too many tears. (Thereís something to be said for being so intimately aware of the rhythms of someoneís work, if that work is something that you aspire to, but thereís 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 ďIím feeling lucky,Ē before Google ever existed.

I havenít actually called Information in years, of course, now that Google does exist. If Google doesnít know the number, then neither do I, and I probably wouldnít 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 thatís almost always on my person (though itís still not a great way of getting a hold of me). Its voice communication function is one of its least-exercised; itís become sort of a checkbox feature for small, portable devices ó if youíre 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. Itís how I know Iíll keep my phone charged, because Iím highly motivated to have my iPod charged for my daily commute.)

Itís 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 couldnít 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, Iíve never scanned one in the wild (probably because QR codes in the wild, while increasingly plentiful, arenít that fascinating). Even if you donít 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. Whatís uncharted becomes familiar and alien again.

About Helen

Helen spent ten years in the trenches of book publishing, where she wrote things longhand, wrestled with fax machines, and learned the true meaning of "cut and paste." As a writer, editor, and all-around person-who-builds-things-with-words, she now works at a small software company in Cambridge, Mass. with one foot in the future and the other stuck in a peat bog of legacy content, technology, and methodology. Which is not to say anything against peat bogs.


  1. Great post.

    I hardly ever use the telephone & use cell phone even less. I’ve sent & received about two dozen text messages in my entire texting experience.

    As a volunteer firefighter, I have a pager that’s always on. It allows me to hear what the dispatcher says, but not what people say back to the dispatcher. Still, it’s extremely useful. For example, when my truck Tisbury 651 leaves the station en route to a fire, the driver signs on, and dispatch acknowledges, “Roger 651, you’re en route to fire.” That lets me know that I should proceed directly to fire, not to the station.

    There is one communications center for the entire island of Martha’s Vineyard, so, depending on how I’ve set my pager, I can hear conversations with fire departments & ambulances services for the six towns on the island (but not police, thank heavens).

    The communications policy is to use plain English as much as possible. For example, dispatch does not use a code to say that there’s a report of a possible heart attack, they use English. Only exceptions that I’m aware of are possible suicides, for which a code is used. (For a dead person they say, ‘report of a (male or female) party not breathing and unresponsive, cold to touch.”)

    However, there is still a simple numeric lingo that you need to know. Firefigthers are addressed on channel two-five-two. Each chief, assistant chief, and firefighting apparatus on the island has a three digit ID. The first digit signifies the town. 200 numbers (except 252) are Edgartown, 300’s are Chilmark, 500’s are Oak Bluffs, 600’s are Tisbury, etc. The chief in each town is #10, assistant chiefs are #’s 11 & 12. Each of the 3 ladder trucks on the island is #51.

    The protocol is that you identify who you are, then who you’re calling. After responder acknowledges, you give your message.

    So if I hear, for example, “two five two, six ten.” I know that the communications center is hailing the Tisbury fire chief. This doesn’t concern me & I can mentally tune out whatever comes next.

    On the other hand if I hear “Roger, 510, you’re requesting 651 mutual aid”, I know that there’s a fire in Oak Bluffs for which the Oak Bluffs chief is requesting help from Tisbury’s ladder truck, which means I should put my socks on because the next thing I’m going to hear is an alert signal and the message “252 to all Tisbury 651 personnel, respond to fire at $address.”

    I’m amused that my wife still doesn’t understand 95% of pager messages, although she does recognize the only code that really matters to us, “651” (“All Tisbury fire personnel” she also understands, but that’s English.) The key thing is, pager messages to her are mostly just noise, but to me they’re information because they give a hint to the likelihood of me being paged out soon. If she were to become a firefighter she’d master the art of decoding pager traffic within a few days, at most.

  2. John, thanks for this meaty comment. I have a general love for codes (who doesn’t?), but particularly specialized codes that are commonly used within a particular industry — take HTTP response codes for example. (Remind me to write something about my copyright page-reading habit.) I’m especially fascinated by communication conventions for emergency services, air traffic control, and so on, with their joint requirements for efficiency and precision (and discretion), and I loved getting this primer on how to decode pager traffic. I always wondered why your beloved ladder truck was designated 651; now I know.

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