Just last month, I was at my sister’s house to celebrate my niece’s 12th birthday. A cousin of mine was also in attendance and his Blackberry kept buzzing all through dinner, so we got on the subject of cellular phones. In the midst of the discussion, I applauded my sister and brother-in-law for defying the current trend of giving kids cell phones and how unnecessary I felt it was for children to have cell phones. My sister remarked that their kids would be given cell phones when they (her and her husband) needed the kids to have phones. I probed her on her meaning, and she said that undoubtedly the time will come when it will benefit her and her husband for their kids to have cell phones. I challenged this point quite fervently. About 10 minutes later, 12 year old Alex was opening her presents, and low and behold – she got a Blackberry from her parents. My sister said, “I guess it’s that time!” I felt defeated. I still can’t believe that we’ve reached a point in our society where kids in their pre-teens need to be equipped with Blackberries. Apparently I’m behind the curve though.
The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the development of the telephone throughout history and its’ impact on social structures and the way in which the telephone has met the needs of the culture it produced.
I can’t imagine Alexander Graham Bell had any idea of he had begun when he uttered the words, “Come here Watson, I want to see you!” That was in March, 1876 – 134 years ago. Since that fateful day, the telephone has had a dramatic impact on the lives of most people on the planet.
“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals” (Bush 2010). This is true in the case of the telephone. From Graham Bell’s humble beginnings over a century ago – we have reached a point in most societies, where communication has become a culture. Postman (1992) asserted that it is “inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, where it does so intelligently or not.” Given today’s reality, where hundreds of millions of people have cellular phones as well as home phones – I have to wonder how much negotiation there was regarding this technology, or has the technology become the culture? I posit that the technology has become the culture.
To support this contention, we need to travel back in time, before Blackberries and iPhones, and even before the age of the computer. The advent of the telephone created a “radical break with the past” (Bolter and Grusin 1999). The phone was a precursor to the social media of today.
It is hard to imagine a world without telephone. In workplaces, people had to meet face to face to make everyday decisions. Plans were made well in advance to ensure that things got done. Socially, people sent telegraphs, wrote letters and notes to communicate. They “called in” on one another for visits – often times unannounced. Most communicative interactions required people to be face to face. What a pain!
It’s easy to understand why the telephone became so popular, even though it took about 10 years after its creation, for the telephone to take flight. Early adopters were primarily businessmen who could afford to pay for its service (this could also be argued with the early days of Blackberry technology). The early days of the phone also had a major economic impact in that it created a multitude of jobs for women as switchboard operators. The telephone also made it possible for businesses to operate in office towers, instead of smaller stores and manufacturing operations. Party lines permitted “conference calls” which allowed groups to discuss business issues, farming issues and other community related issues.
Although the telegraph and train travel made the world a smaller place, the telephone truly shrunk distances. Compared to the telephone, the train was merely a mode of transport and the telegraph was just a note – even though it could be delivered much faster. The telephone allowed two people to be at the same place at the same time.
So, how did the telephone become the culture? Postman contended that, “the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even say wildly unpredictable.” (pp. 12) The unpredictable aspect of the telephone was how this technology for which there was no clear direction on what it would be used for could revolutionalize the world. In 1969, Americans participated in over 300 million telephone calls a day. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of long-distance and overseas calls more than tripled to 150 million in the US. This increase in long-distance and overseas calls effectively joined communities as well as individuals and helped create national and international communities. Worthy of note is also the increase in unwanted contacts that the telephone facilitated, such as advertising, crank and obscene phone calls, and calls from politicians and charities. It also created a grapevine for scandal and bad news.
As an educational tool, the telephone increased the ability for people to seek out and source information. As a news reporting tool, it made national and international news more accessible and timelier. The phone allowed for important information on the spread of disease and illness to be disseminated throughout a community faster.
Marshall McLuhan (1964) asserted that, “the telephone is a participant form of communication that demands a partner with all the ‘intensity of electric polarity’.” This electric polarity has bound society to the telephone making it inconceivable to be without it. The telephone binds people together. It facilitates social contacts between friends, relatives and neighbours. It also link people to services such as medical, police and the fire department and helps reassure shut-ins and agoraphobes. It helps newcomers to a place connect with their community and people living alone.
McLuhan further stated, “When new media enter society, be it the wheel or the telephone, patterns of perception shift according to the effect of the new technology on our sensual antennae.” It’s interesting that McLuhan uses talks about sensual antennae as it support my contention that our love affair with the telephone has come to the point that we could not continue without it.
Ong (1982) talks about a concept called ‘Secondary Orality’ and asserts that “telephone technologies encourage relaxed, informal, immediate conversations and foster a sense of a close-knit community.” (pp. 133-134) Ong champions the telephone for being integral in promoting literacy as it facilitated the manufacture and sale of print material as well as providing a medium for verbal interaction. The telephone’s synchronous nature allows for students to collaborate on projects, even if they are some distance apart. Ong asserts quite convincingly that orality and literacy are intertwined and inseparable and that each fuel one another. In this way, any and all telephone conversations are actually contributing to the participant’s literacy.
The telephone is ubiquitous in all corners of the world. It is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The few societies that live without it will fall under it’s spell in time. The telephone has developed into it’s own culture – for business and socializing, for the elderly and the young, for the disabled and people in emergencies, for virtually every aspect of our lives.
The telephone doesn’t allow us to keep up with the pace of modern society – it created the pace. While I’m still behind the curve regarding Blackberry’s for pre-teens – I do have a fond appreciation for the telephone.
Bush, V, As We May Think, retrieved on October 25, 2010 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/3881/
Postman, Neil. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: New York
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin (1999). Remediation: Understanding the New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press
McLuhan, Marshall (1964), Understanding Media, New York: McGraw Hill
Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen