Modern Primate

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One of the things people tend to assume about established technologies is that they’re not making any assumptions. Knowing how to use a telephone is such an obvious thing, people think, if they ever bother thinking about the telephone at all, because why would they, it’s such a natural part of human life, right? WRONG, says Claude Fischer, who reminds us in America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 that the telephone was something people had to learn, which itself was something the people selling the telephone had to teach, and later something advertisers and marketers had react to when people began adopting the new technologies in unexpected ways.

First, some basic background: the telephone network grew out of and built upon the telegraph network, and was first introduced to paying American customers in the late nineteenth century. This was a crazy period of time, one that ushered in the mass adoption of all kinds of newfangled whatsits, including, and most significantly, electricity itself. Like most new technologies in that era (which should go without saying were never exactly new, as there are always technological or at the very least behavioral precedent), the telephone was met with varying degrees of excitement (or disgust, as the case may be). On one end you had the technological cheerleaders, many of whom were corporate representatives and/or marketers, who argued that the telephone was the great social equalizer. On the other end of that spectrum, technological naysayers argued that technologies like the telephone undermined morals and encouraged promiscuity, ushered in an era of incivility, destroyed neighborhood solidarity, contributed to increasing anxiety, and threatened the sanctity of “authentic,” that is to say face to face, communication (sound familiar?).

To combat these fears, companies like Bell and AT&T began printing helpful pamphlets (and later, producing PSA-commercial hybrids) extolling the virtues of the telephone system. But not just virtues – people also needed to be taught how to pick up and dial the receiver, how to end a conversation, and even how to greet the person on the other end. The most important thing was that no one, not even servants, should ever use the word “hello” upon answering. That was uncivilized! Nor should anyone use the telephone to invite someone to dinner or any other event. That was even more uncivilized than answering the phone with a vulgar “hello!”


Conspicuously missing from these early (pre-1920) instructions were discussions of telephonic sociability. That’s not what the telephone was for, at least according to the men who made, sold and advertised the technology. Rather, the telephone was to be used to conduct business and business only, whether at home or at the office. This might seem counterintuitive to us now, but at the time, telephone companies didn’t want their precious lines clogged with “trivial” information like gossip or idle chatter—which was described by the men in charge as useless feminine twaddle (no really; the history of the telephone is steeped in explicit, unapologetic sexism).

This proved to be a losing battle, and by the 1920s, an increasing number of customers—specifically women—were engaging in “delinquent activities” like “using the telephone to talk to friends.” The ad men, who had only recently discovered the female advertising demographic, decided that, useless feminine twaddle or not, there was money to be made on sociability (see above). Thus the idea that you could use the telephone to “reach out and touch someone” was born—because that’s what the public was using it for anyway, and what were the ad men going to do, try to not make money off their customers?

So, when trying to make sense of social change, particularly in response to technological innovation, Fisher argues that it isn’t enough to frame emerging technologies as an external, universalizing force that “impacts” human behavior (i.e. the telephone “caused” people to behave differently). Nor is it enough to describe behavioral change as a response to some all-encompassing cultural logic (i.e. people began behaving differently, because modernity). Rather it is critical to consider the highly contested relationship between the producers and consumers of whatever technology, as well as the ways in which “second and third order conditions,” including other people’s choices (what to buy, what not to buy, how to use whatever thing, what instructions to ignore), help make an optional device a necessary device—and in the telephone’s case, not just a necessary device but an invisible device, something seemingly without history or context. But of course all devices do have history, and do have context—it’s just that we’re used to not having to think about why we say “hello” instead of, well, whatever else a person could say, because everything else just sounds ridiculous.


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