Why No One Answers Their Phone Anymore


May 31, 2018

The telephone swept into Americans’ lives in the first decades of the 20th century. At first, no one knew exactly how to telephone. Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to start conversations by saying, “Ahoy-hoy!” AT&T tried to prevent people from saying “hello,” arguing in Telephone Engineer magazine that it was rude.

But eventually, Americans learned to say “hello.” People built a culture around the phone that worked. Etiquette magazines tried to prevent women from inviting people over for dinner via telephone, then gave in. The doctor got a phone, so the pharmacist got a phone. It didn’t happen quickly, but it happened. And once it was done, during my childhood, these social customs sat between me and this raw technical artifact—the handset, the curly cord connecting it to the base, the wires running across the nation, coming together in vast switching stations, amplified, multiplexed, and then branching back out to the other cities, other neighborhoods, other blocks, other houses...

 
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