Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Instant communication anywhere in the world"

     Years ago, walking across the Orleans Street Bridge, I passed a homeless man slumped before a styrofoam cup. In his hand, a cell phone. 
     It seemed a significant moment, since mobile phones, when they first showed up, were accessories of the rich. It was considered arrogant just to take one out and make a call. To be seen doing it, in a public place like a restaurant, as if you were so important you couldn't wait to make your phone calls in private. As if you wanted everyone to see and admire you. 
     So this homeless person having a phone, well, it seemed a symbolic shift, an elephant step toward our then-unimaginable world where every 7-year old, every Somalian fisherman, every one almost everywhere has a cell phone. (Not quite. This year the world count of cell phones is expected to hit 5 billion, meaning some 65 percent of the earth's population has one).
     This was before I was in the habit of snapping photos of such things. Nor did I have the presence of mind to talk to the homeless man, try to find out who he was calling. Now I can't even recall the year.
     I've come to regret that lapse, and vowed to not let similar technological turning points slip by unnoticed. 
     So I have to point out what happened in the Steinberg household Saturday: We gave up our land line. That is not the newsworthy part, in fact, we are late to it.  In 2016, for the first time in the better part of a century, since the number of telephones exploded between the world wars, more U.S. households were without a land line—50.8 percent—than had one.  
     The noteworthy part, to me, is not that it happened, but that it was so unexceptional. As nostalgic as I am, or was, the decision was a no brainer. Losing the landline saved us close to $500 a year. The only calls we got were scam artists, charities, and scam charities ... and my mother, who smoothly transitioned over to calling my cell, something she had already learned to do when I wasn't at home.
     In the days since, I've adapted easily myself. A few small changes—mainly carrying my iPhone around more at home, in case somebody calls. The portable phone stations—we had three—are in a pile, ready to be dumped in the bin on electronics drop-off day at the Village hall. 
     AT&T was smooth and efficient—not only did we cut our landline, but we lost cable, which required installation of fiber optic lines for broadband. Their guy was out for hours, unfailingly polite, explaining what he was doing, trying to build a relationship.
     Yes, I still have my trusty black rotary dial phone on my desk, the handset embossed "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY: NOT FOR SALE Western Electric." Bought for $5 on eBay, years ago. I used to be able to dial out, not so long ago. The thing was probably made in Chicago, home to the giant Western Electric Hawthorne works, that at one time employed 45,000 people (the Eastland disaster, remember, was on a Western Electric company outing).
     I think I'll keep it there, for a little while longer anyway, symbol of ... what? I'm not sure anymore. Of the transitional telephone generation I represent: arriving after party lines, toward the end of alphanumeric phone exchanges—dial CAlumet 5-6969—and before princess phones and push button dialing. Long distance was a big deal, and expensive, and there were human operators you could dial, part of the mystery and romance to the phone company.
     And danger, a sense of menace from The Phone Company, or TPC, for those who remember "The President's Analyst," an unfairly forgotten 1967 James Coburn vehicle—unfairly because it was ahead of its time, in that it postulated a troubled president, and an insidious gun culture. Running from the various shady forces trying to get him, Coburn hides out with a typical America family, the Quantrills.
     "These are liberal times," the dad intones, darkly, before his son bursts in brandishing a .357 Magnum, earning this delicious paternal rebuke: "Darn it Bing, I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house, that is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now put that right back in the glove compartment...."
    Bigger than governments and intelligence agencies, the all-powerful The Phone Company, is hoping to implant micro-telephones directly into your brain.
    "Why all you have to do is think the number of the person you wish to speak with an you are instant communication anywhere in the world," marvels TPC's leader.
     They couldn't know that, with computers, the numbers themselves would no longer be necessary, once they were plugged in and attached to a name. At least we still have names. For the moment. 

The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn, center.


  1. Did you consider getting an Ooma or similar in-home VOIP? I kept my landline number and it costs about $5 a month.

  2. We gave ours up four years ago. Although the call quality was definitely better on the land line, it wasn't better enough to justify the expense. We ported the number over to my husband's cellphone.

    I prefer not to carry a phone around at home, so we got a cordless phone that connects to both our cellphones via Bluetooth, with several extensions around the house.

  3. I know the economics but am reluctant to give up my land line because I need it for medical reasons. But I also, tend to be like one of the people Mark Twain famously said live in Cincinnati:I still get my pleasingly limited television programming from an antenna on the roof.

    About long distance being a big deal and thought to be expensive, suitable for announcing births and deaths but little else, in the 1960's AT&T commissioned their ad agency N.W. Ayer (Then the oldest agency in the country but no longer extant -- swallowed up and dismembered by one of the industry giants) to create a campaign aimed at persuading people otherwise. A TV spot featured a husband telling his wife that "Joey Called," referring to their son away at college on the other coast. Observing her look of alarm, he says "He just wanted to check in."

    The Hawthorn Works is memorable also for "The Hawthorn Effect," a notion pertaining to social science research derived from analysis of experiments in working conditions conducted in the 1920's.


  4. "You're a megalomaniac! And The Phone Company is psychotic!"

    Great movie.

    I got rid of my landline about five years ago, for many of the same reasons Neil mentioned. In particular, I got tired of getting calls from the Wish Upon a Star Foundation, which consists of scammers hoping that good-hearted people will confuse it with the venerable and laudable Make a Wish Foundation.

  5. A forty-year-old landline and SEVEN phones in a five-room bungalow. I'm as old school as you can get. One used to be a desktop rotary phone but it was replaced because the menu options no longer allow them to connect. Otherwise, I'd still be using it.

    The seventh phone was a recent birthday gift...a 1995 round red-and-white 12-inch Coca-Cola sign that's actually a wall phone. My wife's a Coke collector, so it fits right into our red-white-and-green Coke-themed kitchen decor. After decades without a kitchen phone, it now takes its rightful place near the chrome-plated 66-year-old Sunbeam toaster that my father brought home when I was in kindergarten.

    Landlines come in handy when there's an emergency and a cell phone doesn't work because circuits are overloaded, as happened during 9/11. Our cell phone died during Sandy, when even Ohio got its worst-ever clocking from a tropical system, but we could still place and receive calls on the landline.

    Seven phones--but only one crappy flip-phone for two people. We don't even carry it around all that much. We should probably start. Maybe we're not just old-school, but old and foolish as well.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.