Telephone slides

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Gender, Class and Telephone Culture

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As the 19th century came to a close, the telephone was well on its way to revolutionizing communication on a global scale. Like the telegraph before it, the telephone addressed the tyranny of distance that plagued other forms of communication. Methods of instant wire communication like the telegraph and telephone were both, at least initially, marketed toward a male business minded consumer base. In contrast to the telegraph, the telephone managed to find success as a domestic communication device. The early success of the telephone for personal communication purposes is particularly interesting because hinged on the use and practices of non-traditional consumers.

As noted in The Telephone and America chapter of “America Calling”, most industry leaders in the 19th century approached telephony as the logical evolution of telegraphy, treating both media in a similar fashion. As such, the telephone was marketed and publicly accepted as a masculine business tool strictly to be used by professionals. Both the weaknesses and strengths of early telephony when compared to telegraphy helped to release the medium from the restraint of its male/business only label. The telephone was far more accessible than the telegraph. Telephone users could communicate directly with one another without the burden of physically going to the telegraph office. The fact that home telegraph systems never took off also indicates the knowledge barrier that separated the general population from the expert class (as discussed by Carolyn Marvin) was too much to overcome, whereas home telephone use was less intimidating.

Accessibility seemed to drive many upper class businessmen to become leery of telephone use, and the nature of the device clashed with many accepted social norms of the time. Concerns of privacy in particular made businessmen uneasy about the telephone. In its earliest iterations telephone technology required individuals to yell into the receiver and strain to hear what the person on the other line was saying. Early domestic lines were also prone to “cross-talk” which caused phone users to hear other telephone conversations in addition to their own (Martin 53). The ubiquity of cross-talk lead to a fear of nefarious line listening being practiced by other telephone subscribers and telephone operators. The press at the time went so far as to declare “an end to privacy” (Martin 53). Many wealthy telephone subscribers demanded private lines to deal with issues of indiscretion, however, private lines could not solve all of the issues surrounding the intrusive nature of the telephone. Telephone based communication was viewed by many in the bourgeois class as intrinsically invasive because the ability to call another person at home at any point violated accepted Victorian era social norms. It was if the telephone was a door to the home unable to close and accessible to all.

Issues related to class and gender fueled the controversy surrounding telephonic communication and eventually became instrumental to the domestication of the telephone. The telephone first made its way into domestic space by businessmen interested in connecting their homes to their offices. This left the telephone in the company of housewives while husbands were away at work. The simple notion of constant access to the outside world was, in the words of Martin, a situation which shocked late-Victorian women because “the barriers that there society had built to preserve privacy did not work with the telephone, and there was no time to construct new ones” (55). In order to reinforce the telephone as a male controlled medium, women were repeatedly reminded of the proper (i.e. Victorian gender role reinforcing) way to use the device. Women were to use the phone for shopping and to arrange social engagements. Both of these uses were advertised as ways to streamline common domestic duties and conveniently benefited husbands as well.  Telephone use by women which did not have some sort of benefit for men was of course frowned upon.  Despite the fact that conversation (even gossip) is an important social process (Fischer 231) social calls made by women were considered problematic. Men insisted that telephone use should be purposeful and efficient. Social telephone conversation loosened the male grip on Victorian women who they feared would come in contact with strangers or, heaven forbid, experience a tiny sliver of the world independently.

People outside of the bourgeois upper class also had a major impact on the cultural identity of the telephone. In a sharp contrast to early urban phone use, poorer rural communities relied heavily on shared party-lines to communicate via telephone. Rural communities were frequently ignored by the Bell monopoly and serviced by independent phone companies relying on the inexpensive party lines. While businessmen did everything in their power to combat those who might intentionally (or unintentionally) listen in on conversations, rural communities viewed listening in on the conversations of others as something everyone did to participate in community life (Martin 61). For people living in rural areas, especially women, the telephone was the only way to break out of an endless cycle of monotonous isolation and feel connected to the rest of the world (or at least a few neighbors).

The extensive practice of women and people in rural communities using the telephone shifted telephone culture dramatically toward more social uses. For most of the 20th century the telephone was viewed not as a male business tool, but primarily as a social feminine device.  In fact the telephone became so popular that some developed anxiety over a perceived loss of more authentic face to face conversation. Fischer notes that there is no evidence corroborating telephone use with a loss of direct human contact. Additionally, it’s fair to ask how much value face to face socialization has in the first place. If anything, the telephone provided a means of long distance socialization and efficient communication which sustained relationships and increased social behavior in a manner which was previously impossible.

New Media and the Formation of Discourses

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The 19th century witnessed the transformation of electricity from a startling scientific discovery to an essential tool for modern life. In her book When Old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin describes how electricity engendered entirely new systems of communication. However, instead of focusing on the commercialism and mass production of popular technology, Marvin bases her narrative on the origin stories of electrical usage and illustrates how complex social issues had to be negotiated before the new practices could be incorporated into the existing discourses and become part of the common lexicon.

The seeds of dystopic science fiction can be found in Marvin’s account of the adoption process of electricity.  To the engineers of the 19th century, electricity started out as “the transformative agent of social possibility” (63). In their grandiloquent rhetoric, electricity was imbued with miraculous, even divine, powers and they were the agents responsible for keeping this titanic force under control. Significantly, electricity’s biggest promise was the reorganization of social geography. Engineers conceived of a society where electric power would prove to be the ultimate equalizer, promoting feelings of universal brotherhood and harmony, nurtured by an eternal and accessible fountain of knowledge.   Codes of propriety would be rewritten to include new rules of courtship, hospitality and social decorum, in keeping with the changes implemented by science and technology.

At the same time, this was the cause of severe social anxiety, as the new medium threatened to destroy the fragile boundaries of public and private life. For instance, electric gadgets such as the telephone appeared to be in the interests of preserving domesticity by filtering communication between the hill and the hearth. However, it also threatened to dissolve class barriers by allowing the hoi polloi direct telephonic access to the most exclusive ranks of society. The same technology that could be used for state surveillance and crime prevention could lead to severe transgressions if it fell into the wrong hands. The greatest threat of all was internal fragmentation, leading to civil unrest and the dominance of the machine. Many of these anxieties are visible in the popular fiction of the time—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, explicitly states the dominant fears of Mankind’s very own brainchild, given life through electricity, turning against its creator to unleash an unstoppable force of destruction.

It is interesting to note the lengths to which the scientific community was willing to go, to preserve the two conflicting notions of electrical power. On one hand, they had to harness mass adulation to make sure that their contributions did not disappear from the public imagination. On the other hand, they crafted an exclusive vocabulary in order to distinguish themselves from lay audiences and the annals of popular science. Marvin refers to this vocabulary as the ‘electrical textuality’ (12). It allowed the textual community to validate authoritative scientific texts and promote themselves as the only reliable interpreters. Lack of technological literacy marked subjects’ positions outside the dominant discourse and confirmed their alien status, which was further enhanced by the race, class, gender and lifestyle of the designated outsider.

Thus, although the scientific community tried to project itself as a radical alternative to religious orthodoxy and the outdated feudal class system, in many ways it simply regurgitated many of the elitist, dogmatic views of its predecessors. In the new anthropomorphic worldview, scientific experts were to be accorded the highest degrees of rank and privilege, because their knowledge was supposed to confer upon them an innate sense of honesty, integrity and good fellowship. Unfortunately, this did not prevent them from using hackneyed stereotypes of rural credulity and race as markers of the incompetence and social inferiority of the lay public.

Interestingly enough, Marvin also makes it clear that these self-proclaimed technical experts did not always control the way society reorganized itself around new media. She describes how the overwhelmingly masculine scientific community tried to endorse discourses of women’s electrical incapacity as an indication of the charming worldly ignorance of the virtuous woman. The frivolous chatter of women was considered a phenomenal waste of the power of the telephone, tolerated by their husbands with a grudging good humour that was blatantly patronizing. However, attempts to control female communication were repeatedly frustrated by the existence of a brand new social phenomenon—the female telephone operator.

They were a class of financially independent young women of uncertain reputation, whose “free-floating social identities” (29) made them a threat to social order.  The dominant male discourse tried to exert their authority by pretending that women could only enter the technical world “at the sufferance of men” (27), and would remain in a state of vulnerability until they could be rescued and married. However, as Marvin’s anecdote about the girl who got her father arrested for threatening to “blow her brains out” (74) demonstrates, technical literacy did grant women room for deviance. Women began to attend matinee theatres unaccompanied by male escorts.  They were willing to use information gleaned from their interactions with their clients for their own protection. Electronic communication even allowed them to defy the patriarchal restraints of traditional courtship.

According to Czitrom and Carey, the telegraph was the precursor to the idea of instantaneous flow of ideas over vast distances. Electrical transmission extended possibilities of communication to the limits of the human imagination, bringing the entire galaxy to the fingertips of the modern scientific man. From the secure comfort of his isolated suburban home, he could observe the workings of the cosmos at his leisure. Soon enough, this developed into xenophobia and cultural imperialism.

Marvin states emphatically that new media do not alter existing discourses in any fundamental way; instead “they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings” (5). This can be seen as an alternative reading of Marshall McLuhan’s prediction of modern society returning to its tribal roots. In many ways, the spectacle of electrical display clung to its antecedents of theatrical magic and stagecraft. For instance, Marvin describes how Nikola Tesla used an induction coil to pass hundreds of volts of electricity through his body, while flames flashed from his fingertips (137). Outrage and controversy are crucial to the maintenance of any new media and 19th century electricians, much like modern day advertising strategists, were aware of the power of the public spectacle.

At the same time, there was an attempt to protect the domestic space by ensuring that the alien presence of new media did not make users feel victimized. Electrical appliances were manufactured so as to fit unobtrusively into the home.  Banal domestic tasks were mechanized by electrical appliances, allowing men to fantasize about complete isolation from the outside world. Empowered by their knowledge of new media and the dexterity with which they wielded it, the scientific community attempted to ‘civilize’ nature and bring it under the control of their superior intellect. They were convinced that their technology made them the cultural centre of the modern world and there was no attempt to integrate with other cultures or even to interact with them on an equal footing. The ‘global village’ of their collective imagination claimed to be connected to the rest of the world through their technical prowess, but in reality, it had all of the aloofness and distrust of the most hostile of tribal societies. The spirit of universal brotherhood that they propagated was unilaterally Anglo-Saxon, with middle-class values and prejudices.

Marvin defines media as the “constructed complexes of habits, beliefs and procedures embedded in cultural codes of communication” (8). Her interpretation of new media practices tries to map their influence on the changing power relations within society. At the heart of her argument lies the fact that the history of adoption practices of new media is essentially a study in the formation of discourses. In the 19th century, technical literacy became a form of epistemic violence that reinforced the positions of dominant speakers and dismissed the technically less competent as boorish and uncivilized. In the light of emerging trends in new media in the 21st century, it is interesting to revisit those claims and evaluate our own perceived notions of social and intellectual superiority.

Home Videotaping Uses

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This 1982 article, from Sunset, covers the new medium of home videotaping. I found the middle section (click and magnify image for clarity), “Some video possibilities,” especially interesting. Among the readers’ uses are recording for family correspondence, insurance inventories, and performances — sports, theatrical, and children’s. While I am sure early adopters used their recording equipment as such, I’m a bit suspicious as to how the article pitches the purpose of most of these uses — to “study your form,” critique your dramatic expressions, or to erase your children’s “flubbed” lines. In this way, the article colors the new equipment as utopian, as if simply enjoying what you recorded wasn’t enough to persuade consumers, but it needs to have overt ways of making your life and yourself better. My understanding of home movie-making (given, I mostly experienced it 5-15 years after this article), was that flubs and funny accidents were the primary novelty and persuasion for watching these tapes (as well as “big life” moments like weddings), leading to the once-popular television shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The “Machine Age”

The idea of the “machine age” and the integration of new technology into everyday life reminded me of a kind of lame, but ridiculously catchy ride at Disney World: The Carousel of Progress! It’s not so much a ride as an animatronic puppet show about one family (Possibly immortal? They don’t age…) and all the amazing new developments they experienced throughout the 1900s. And I’ve had the song stuck in my head all week.